Home COVID-19 Why the future of work should be remote

Why the future of work should be remote

Darren Murph
The Head of Remote at the world’s largest all-remote company speaks about the nuances of remote working and the growing acceptance of the idea
An interview with
Head of Remote at GitLab
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab working from his home office looks smilingly at his son as he walks towards him

One of the defining legacies of COVID-19 will be its impact on work in traditional office settings. But even before the pandemic forced a change in how we work and where we work from, companies such as GitLab were already pioneering the idea of remote working. 

Open-core software development company GitLab has 1,300 employees working remotely in more than 65 countries around the world. Unravel spoke with Darren Murph, the company’s head of remote, about how companies can master remote work, ways to build company culture in an all-remote context, the importance of breaking out of legacy mindsets to embrace change, and preparing for the new future of work.

Unravel: At the outset, can you outline the key differences between a quarantine work from home and intentional remote work?

Darren Murph: Tens of millions of people globally are experiencing a seismic shift in work. It’s important to understand different perspectives on remote work, particularly with untangling “remote work” from “crisis-induced work-from-home”.

What is happening en masse related to COVID-19 is largely a temporary work-from-home phenomenon, where organisations are not putting remote work ideals into place, as they expect to eventually require their team members to resume commuting into an office. For some firms, unwinding all of their office space and becoming an all-remote organisation is not practical. Thus, many are emerging as hybrid-remote companies. 

Remote work is not traditional work which is simply conducted in a home office instead of a company office. There is a natural inclination for those who have not personally experienced remote work to assume that the core (or only) difference between in-office work and remote work is location (in-office vs. out-of-office). This is inaccurate, and if not recognised, can be damaging to the entire practice of working remotely.

The principles of remote work are different. The approach to conducting work is different. Just as multi-level office buildings require elevators and phones to be functional as workplaces, teams working remotely should embrace tools that enable asynchronous communication and should reconsider traditional thoughts on items such as meetings and informal communication.

Unravel: Do you expect large companies to permanently transition to remote working even as things return to a degree of normalcy?

Mr Murph: The reality is that almost every company is already a remote company. If you have more than one office, operate a company across more than one floor in a building, or conduct work while traveling, you are a remote company. These companies are already well-positioned to adopt remote-first practices, even if some interactions occur in a shared physical space.

Remote work isn't something you do as a reaction to an event – it is an intentional approach to work that creates greater efficiency, more geographically and culturally diverse teams, and heightened transparency.

Remote work is becoming mainstream. GitLab’s Remote Work Report 2020 found that 86% of respondents believe remote work is the future. But it’s also the present, as evidenced by 84% of those surveyed saying that they are able to accomplish all their tasks remotely right now. Additionally, 90% respondents feel they are already set up for remote work, saying they have the right tools and processes and they are provided with autonomy from their company leadership team.

COVID-19 has created a wave of companies intentionally shifting to remote-first. However, merely transferring planned office meetings to virtual meetings misses an opportunity to answer a fundamental question: is there a better way to work than to have a meeting in the first place?

Remote work isn’t something you do as a reaction to an event – it is an intentional approach to work that creates greater efficiency, more geographically and culturally diverse teams, and heightened transparency.

COVID-19 has democratised the conversation around workplace flexibility. It is now expected for prospective job seekers to inquire about a firm’s approach to remote work and flexibility early in the interview process. As technology continues to improve how we communicate and how businesses operate across the globe, the need for brick-and-mortar offices and consistent, on-site attendance will become less of a priority. Remote work is here to stay, and we are already starting to see use cases multiply.

Unravel: How difficult is it for large companies to break out of legacy setups and/ or mindsets? Do you think certain industries are better geared towards remote working than others?

Mr Murph: Making an intentional shift to remote needs to start from the top, and they have to be more intentional about cultivating, sustaining and documenting your company culture.

If your company is considering going remote, chances are you won’t go from zero to a hundred overnight. But if you’re planning to test the water and gradually phase out your physical locations, it’s essential to get employees on board early. And one of the best ways to do this is to encourage your leaders to kickstart your remote work programme. 

If the leadership doesn’t come to the office, people will mimic that. If you have the senior leadership in the same location every day, people are going to mimic that too. Make sure your leaders and managers understand the role they play in promoting top-down change. Simply telling employees that they’re allowed to work remotely may not be enough to break old habits and overcome anxieties around not being present. But when they see their leaders working from home or from a coffee shop, this can strongly signal permission in a way that makes employees feel comfortable following suit.

Making an intentional shift to remote needs to start from the top, and they have to be more intentional about cultivating, sustaining and documenting your company culture.

There is a common myth that remote jobs are only available for certain fields or industries. While certain sectors, such as technology, have adopted remote earlier than others, we know that today, companies are publicly discussing their remote and flexible work programmes as strategic, long-term business imperatives. Employers in healthcare, education, sales and finance are increasingly represented in offering remote or flexible work as a job perk.

Unravel: From an employer’s perspective, what are some key challenges associated with remote working?

Mr Murph: Remote settings can cause a breakdown in communication skills if organisations don’t deliberately create ways for their people to stay connected.

Onboarding can be difficult when you’re remote, because it involves more self-learning and you’re not physically with your new co-workers and fellow new hires.

Meetings take on a new meaning, as team members in different time zones may have to compromise on meeting times. All-remote companies should consider meetings as a last resort, instead relying on asynchronous collaboration tools to facilitate meaningful dialogue without time zone concerns.

For employees, it can be hard to separate personal life from work life. It’s important to encourage boundaries and make sure they don’t continue to work during their family time. Remote work requires you to manage your own time and be self-motivated, disciplined and organised.

Unravel: As more companies look to transition to remote working, does it turn the concept of company culture on its head? Isn’t it harder to develop company culture or values if people are working remotely vis-a-vis an in-office team?

Mr Murph: As the new normal will mean more and more people working remotely, companies face a new challenge in creating or transitioning a company culture and a team-centric environment.

The key to a successful company culture is all about intentionality. Building a culture remotely isn’t any more difficult than building culture in a co-located setting, it just requires a more strategic approach.

A company’s culture boils down to values and how they’re instilled in each team member, each process, and the way the organisation communicates. When the company leadership is committed to remote-only or remote-first, the company’s values should be openly and transparently discussed right from the start of the hiring process, as candidates will need to understand and fully embrace them in order to be successful.

All-remote organisations empower team members to work in settings that allow them to balance their personal and professional lives. A completely remote environment allows organisations to retain team members as they move to be closer to parents, travel the world, or follow their significant other if they have a job transfer. People don’t have to choose between their happiness and their career.

Building a culture for a distributed team is hard, and requires intentionality. One of the biggest mistakes remote team leaders make is trying to create an exact replica of the in-office experience and culture, virtually. Often, in-office teams build a company culture that has been shaped over time by a series of random interactions and ideas – which isn’t necessarily the optimal approach. 

Remote teams need to be much more deliberate about how they communicate informally with one another to help establish a company culture.

GitLab has formalised informal communication through scheduled social calls that are specifically designed to help team members meet and interact virtually without an agenda, and as part of every GitLabber’s onboarding process they are encouraged to set up virtual coffee chats and 1:1s with others at the company. 

We are also firm believers in not removing the “human” aspect of work. Those who are new to working remotely might be inclined to view children or pets interrupting video conference calls as a mistake. At GitLab, we believe in embracing these interactions as a way to help get to know one another. For example, we use juice box chats as a way for teams to use their Zoom accounts for kids to converse, play and bond with each other across oceans and time zones. It helps allow us to meet and socialise intentionally and informally. 

Unravel: How can companies prepare their employees for this new future of work?

Mr Murph: Company values play a strong role here. For example, we strongly believe in results over hours spent working, asynchronous communication and having the flexibility to work a non-linear workday if that’s what makes you most productive. Establishing these values are ingrained in every team member, from top to bottom, and can help address the challenges many face when starting to work remotely. 

There needs to be a heightened culture of communication in which employees are encouraged to have frequent conversations and share information transparently. Because there are fewer informal communication channels you have to be more transparent as a company. You cannot assume that information will disseminate, so you communicate more than you’d normally do.

All-remote organisations empower team members to work in settings that allow them to balance their personal and professional lives. A completely remote environment allows organisations to retain team members as they move to be closer to parents, travel the world, or follow their significant other if they have a job transfer. People don’t have to choose between their happiness and their career.

Give your employees all the tools—like Slack or Microsoft Teams—they need to stay in constant communication and schedule plenty of virtual meetings with the whole team to disseminate key information that might get buried in an email chain. To encourage a mindset shift and avoid people working in silos, make sure managers know to touch base with employees regularly – and don’t be afraid to give people a little nudge if they’ve gone silent. 

We promote a “source of truth” handbook-first approach at all times, encouraging employees to look for an answer in our incredibly comprehensive handbook before turning to a co-worker for help. This could save employees countless hours, since the person who holds the answer could be in another time zone, whereas the handbook is accessible round the clock. 

This is the reverse of what some companies do, where decisions are made, communicated, and then, theoretically, documented. The trouble with that approach is that in many cases people never actually get around to the documenting part. By writing things down first and then sharing those learnings, there’s less of a chance of vital information getting lost in the shuffle.

A follow-up conversation with Mr Murph on remote working’s impact on work-life balance and business travel will be published next week.

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Darren Murph
Head of Remote at GitLab

Darren Murph is Head of Remote at GitLab. He works at the intersection of culture, process, hiring, employer branding, marketing and communication. He collaborates with all functions of the business to support GitLab clients and partners seeking guidance on mastering remote workflows and building culture. Darren works across the company to ensure that GitLab team members acclimatise well to remote, giving themselves permission to embrace GitLab’s values and operate with remote-first workflows, and share their learnings with those outside of the GitLab organisation.

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