Dec 30, 2019 - Shawn Winters    

Mastering the all-remote environment: My top 5 challenges and solutions

Unlocking potential and overcoming challenges in an all-remote environment.

Since joining GitLab in late 2018, I’ve experienced a whirlwind of excitement, travel, and continuous change. While GitLab provides the flexibility I always wanted in a career, functioning within an all-remote organization has its challenges. I’m highlighting these, along with solutions I’ve discovered and engineered, in hopes of helping others who are new to remote work.

In this GitLab Unfiltered video above, I sit down with Darren Murph to talk about working in an all-remote setting, providing a glimpse at what's possible by embracing this style of work.

The lack of physical human interaction

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Turns out, I crave human interaction. The buzz of being around others gives me energy. Although small talk and watercooler banter can be distracting at times, social interaction is (overall) a calming and rewarding experience for me.

I overcame this by leveraging technology like Slack and Zoom to constantly communicate with my colleagues. I’m surprised by how well these tools simulate the effect of being in the office. In fact, video calls oftentimes add an element of intimacy not found in the office, as I’m frequently able to visit a colleague’s home, coworking space, or favorite workplace. This allows a more authentic connection than what’s typically brought into a colocated office setting.

Questioning my productivity

I struggled early on without the social validation that comes with working in an office. At GitLab, team members are given autonomy to be a manager of one, which can take time to fully embrace and appreciate.

To overcome this, I was intentional about defining what a solid day’s work looked like in my role. I asked myself what things I should aim to accomplish each day, no matter what, to be productive based on goals and objectives that applied to me. This produced a sense of freedom I had not experienced before, and relieved a mental burden. It also allowed me to spend additional time with family and enjoying hobbies.

Grappling with a chaotic, overloaded calendar

Meetings are a necessary evil in some instances, but GitLab views them very differently than most organizations. It is important to stay on top of what the company is doing, while also making sure you're up-to-date on your particular business unit. I looked for ways to bridge this gap given that there are no hallway conversations in an all-remote setting.

Despite GitLab’s bias towards asynchronous communication, I still found the quantity of meetings on my calendar to be overwhelming. I felt like I had no time to get my actual job done. As I acclimated to all-remote life, I realized that every meeting was recorded. This allowed me to go back and listen to important meetings during downtime.

I also embraced the reality that many GitLab meetings are optional. Once I understood which meetings were vital to my success, and which were helpful for my knowledge of how the company was operating, I was able to use meetings to my advantage rather than being at the mercy of an overloaded schedule.

Can you really document everything?

GitLab is a huge proponent of documenting everything in our company handbook. In a typical office setting, there are people around to answer every question. Here, I’m encouraged to search for information first – to see if my question has already been answered and documented – which was a major challenge for me early on. My instinct was to ask someone instead of searching in the handbook, and I realized that part of this stemmed from my desire to take any excuse to socialize with colleagues.

I overcame this by retraining myself and flipping an old habit on its head. If I was unable to find an answer in the handbook, I was not only empowered to seek answers from others, but also to use a merge request to document the solution and help others.

Turning my video on

GitLab conducts all meetings – internal and external – using a video conferencing platform. With no offices, we lean on video calls to maintain human contact. As participants in a video conference, we voluntarily enable a face-to-face interaction with a person (or persons) on the other side, which requires some level of courage and humility. Initially, this was a challenge for me. I was very uncomfortable turning my video on, routinely concerned with my appearance, my surroundings, and my background.

I overcame this challenge by embracing GitLab’s reminder that meetings are about the work, not the background. By being vulnerable, I learned that bringing my genuine self to a video call enabled me to build stronger relationships with colleagues and prospects. Now, I make it my goal to have my video turned on as much as possible. This has helped me overcome my fear of being self-conscious, while allowing me to engage with more people in a meaningful way.

As more companies embrace all-remote, it’s important for us to collectively discuss challenges and solutions with one another. We're interested in hearing about challenges faced by others implementing remote work, so we can ideally find and document solutions.

Learn more about requesting a Pick Your Brain interview on all-remote!

Cover image by Darren Murph.

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