Technologies4 min read

This Tech Company Went All In on Remote Work — Years Ago

Ashley Speagle

In 2019, Darren Murph took the job as head of remote for GitLab, a leader in DevOps lifecycle software. He helped the company’s all-remote workforce stay productive across more than 65 countries.

During 2020, Murph went on a digital tour to share his company’s story and remote work best practices with others that suddenly found themselves working remotely.


Tell us more about your job title: “head of remote.”

Murph: I think that the head of remote — or director of remote, chief remote officer or whatever the title is — will become the most popular corporate job in the next five years. Remote work is far too nuanced to be tacked onto the responsibilities of a chief operations officer or chief people officer. It requires a dedicated executive or team — much like diversity and inclusion, which used to be a single line item for the chief people officer. At some point, it was obvious that it’s much bigger than that.

It's the most cross-functional role in the entire company, because the shift to remote work impacts everything, introducing new variables that most teams have never had to deal with before. Half of remote work is all about tools and technologies. The other half is the cultural mindset shift and people operations.

But it's being invented in real time. Had this taken 20 or 30 years to happen, it would have evolved at such a slow pace that everyone would have just “got it” by osmosis. Because this happened so suddenly and so jarringly, companies look to others that were already doing it.

Will companies continue working remotely?

Murph: For the industries that can support it, it's a no-brainer from an efficiency standpoint, from a cost standpoint, from a talent acquisition standpoint, from a talent retention standpoint. Although, I didn't see it happening quite this fast.

The three main benefits are:

1. Diversity

You don't have to manufacture diversity. You naturally get an incredibly diverse team when you canvas the whole world to hire your team. You allow people to live and work where they are, and they bring that perspective to your product. So, you have eyes in all markets of the world.

2. Inclusion

You're able to tap into a labor market that's been ostracized by co-located companies: caregivers, working parents, military spouses. Leaders with 20 or 30 years of experience are in a position where they have to care for their elders. Now, they’ll work in a startup that no one's heard of just because that company is amenable to allowing them to be where they need to be to manage their life.

3. Empowerment and Efficiency

Because everything’s written down, people spend less time asking questions or catching up and more time inventing new things. So, we're just more naturally innovative without even trying. And by empowering your workforce to be more self-sufficient, you attract the type of people that make your company more efficient. Coupled with that, a remote business is much less susceptible to risk that's associated with crises, like COVID-19 or Brexit. Remote companies that can decouple geography from results can weather crises better.

What can companies learn from GitLab about building a remote-first IT infrastructure?

Murph: Because we started remotely, we built an infrastructure to support distributed systems. We invested in workflows, tools and processes that were remote from the start. We were never operating in two different worlds. It was always remote.

The good news is that all the tools and technologies exist. You might have to undo some of the things you've done, or if you're a hybrid team, run dual layers for a while.

However, that may mean there's distinctly two different playing fields. For a long time, the hybrid experience put the remote teams at a disadvantage with more cumbersome workflows.

But now, you need to work remote first. If employees happen to be on site, great. But the default now is going to have to be off site.

How can IT onboard new hires with a low-touch or zero-touch experience?

Murph: At GitLab, we believe you need three things:

  1. Documentation: It's very regimented, very documented. Week one, this is what happens. Here's what you fill out. Here's who you reach out to.
  2. Onboarding buddies: The human element is still vital. We strategically pair every new hire with a veteran of the company. It builds bonds, and it’s very efficient because the new hire can direct all of the typical questions to one person, who was chosen by this person's manager to help them out in the best possible way.
  3. Continual iteration: Everyone can contribute to the onboarding process. Last year, my onboarding buddy was a designer, with no training in people operations, who contributed a great idea to make onboarding better.

So many companies are trying to figure out how you do everything without ever seeing anyone. I don't think it's the right approach. We love getting people together as much as we can at annual summits and user events. It's difficult to even forecast how that looks in the middle of a pandemic. But eventually, I think that'll be majorly useful for remote onboarding.

How can companies quickly get leaders up to speed on managing remote workers?

Murph: This is one of the biggest gaps we see right now. We have tens of millions of co-located managers that are now remote managers. They were never instructed or taught how to lead a remote team where every individual is in a different home with a different connection with a different workspace.

I mean, this is a lot. It's a lot for people. It's a lot for leaders.

It requires a lot more empathy. It requires an appreciation for textual communication and a bias for asynchronous collaboration. It requires a progressive stance on workplace functions.

GitLab is an open source platform. How much has the open source community’s culture influenced your remote work policies?

Murph: It’s much easier to be intentionally transparent when that's what our community expects of us. We not only hold transparency as a core value, but we also practice transparency because it makes business sense. It makes it easier for our teams to communicate, keeps everyone aligned without a ton of meetings and synchronous touch points, and it connects us to the community in a substantial way.

You compare the global impact and social good of remote work to that of artificial intelligence (AI). How is remote work such a catalyst for change?

Murph: I think there's only two things that could double the world's GDP in my lifetime. One is artificial intelligence. The other is the mass proliferation of remote work.

By just giving people an internet connection, you allow people to inject innovation and ideas into companies. That is immensely powerful. You could plug people into your company that don't even have paved roads.

Think about how much of the world's knowledge cannot be adequately directed to companies because workers can't or are unwilling to relocate to one of 50 major urban centers, where most of the well-paying jobs are. If you solve that problem, it's almost incalculable the amount of innovation that could come out on the other side.