Many businesses were forced into working entirely remotely last year but a handful had chosen to operate this way long before the pandemic. GitLab, which provides an online collaboration platform for software developers, is one such example: the company has been “All-Remote” since its founding in 2014. As employers of all kinds consider their post-pandemic working practices, Tech Monitor spoke to GitLabs’ remote projects lead Jessica Reeder to learn how its 1,300 employees collaborate from 65 countries.
Remote working best practice: enabling asynchronous collaboration
The essence of a successful global remote organisation, says Reeder, is the ability for employees to work asynchronously. “We have to be empowered to do our work on our own schedule at our own time without having to constantly check in,” she explains.
This principle has guided GitLab’s values and working practices as the organisation has grown, she says. “Many of GitLab’s practices, values and processes all evolved because of the need to have effective remote work. The values are actually designed in such a way that they create behaviours that ladder up to our ability to work asynchronously.”
At GitLab, an important ingredient of this asynchronous collaboration is splitting work into discrete tasks and broadcasting when they are completed. “Instead of thinking of something as a project that you start, and when you finish, you share it, you break the project down into steps,” says Reeder. “Every time you take a step, you publish it right away.” This approach lends itself to software development, she adds, although it might be harder to achieve in other types of work.
Another foundation of asynchronous work is documentation. “If you think about how people need to do their work, questions pop up all the time,” Reeder explains. If a worker has to ask a question, it can take time to find the right person to ask and then contact them – especially if they are on the other side of the planet. “If we’re able to go and simply look up to the question in the documentation, that would take just one or two minutes and you’re able to work much more efficiently.”
People need to understand where to find the information they need without having to ask and go through a bunch of steps and channels.
Documentation also contributes to the third pillar of effective asynchronous work: transparency. “People need to understand where to find the information they need without having to ask and go through a bunch of steps and channels,” explains Reeder. “If things are done transparently, employees can understand more easily what everyone’s working on. So documentation is sort of the foundation of creating the transparency that helps us all to work better, more efficiently and with a higher level of understanding.”
Transparency can also help to mitigate the personal distance between teams that results from remote work. When GitLab surveyed 3,900 remote workers around the world earlier this year, it found that 38% believe greater visibility into their organisation’s work improved their sense of connection and made collaboration easier.
How to get rid of meetings
Meetings are not only a hindrance to asynchronous collaboration – they can also lead to “time-zone bias,” wherein employees who are in the same time zone get more information and face-time, says Reeder. GitLabs’ solution is “to get rid of them as much as possible”.
Information that might otherwise be shared in a meeting is instead disseminated through documentation, and decisions are processed through project management tools. Reeder concedes, however, that this can slow things down. “Where you may feel you can do something quickly in a meeting, in an asynchronous conversation you may have to wait six hours or even a couple of days for someone to respond to you,” she says. “But that creates an ability to work without meetings.”
A lack of face-to-face interaction has other drawbacks, Reeder says, such as making creative collaboration and brainstorming more difficult. “This is another area where the tech isn’t quite there,” she says, although there are online tools that can help. “One that I love is [online whiteboard tool] Miro,” she says, especially in conjunction with a video call. “It is not the same as being in the same room together, but when you have a distributed team, it’s a really good way to replicate it and to still have that in the moment, creative experience.”
Lastly, an “All-Remote” working culture is greatly aided by executive sponsorship. In 2019, GitLab appointed Darren Murph as its first ‘head of remote work’. “We are the first organisation that we know of to have a head of remote work,” Reeder says.
Having a dedicated leader to oversee remote working makes sense “when you’re in a time of transition and you know that you need to develop processes,” she says. “The right time is when you have a large enough team that you need to create processes around remote work, or when you’re transitioning your team to remote fairly quickly and you want to make sure that it’s done well.”
Why GitLab prefers ‘All-Remote’ to hybrid working
After more than a year of enforced remote working, many companies are keen to adopt a hybrid model that combines remote and in-office collaboration. According to a global survey by Microsoft, 73% of employees want flexible, remote working options to continue beyond the pandemic but 67% want more face-to-face collaboration. As a result, 66% of business leaders are rethinking workplace design to better support hybrid work.
GitLab is committed to 100% remote working, however. “[Hybrid working] is a solution that works better on paper than in reality,” Reeder says.
“Hybrid necessarily creates two separate work experiences and they are not equal,” she argues. “Those who are in the office with the leadership will probably have a better experience. They’re more likely to be promoted, they’re more likely to have a bonus, whereas people who are working remotely have more flexibility and they have the ability to organise their days the way they want to.”
Eventually, these two groups will be “having such different experiences, they’re really no longer the same team”. These differing experiences can give rise to jealousy, “which can ultimately create a pretty big cultural fracture.”