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GitLab's head of remote work talks successes and strategy

GitLab Inc.'s workforce is entirely remote. It's Darren Murph's job, as the firm's head of remote, to make sure the firm and employees succeed under its remote model.

As head of remote at GitLab Inc., Darren Murph manages the remote workforce at the DevOps platform development firm.

GitLab's 1,350 employees are fully remote in over 65 countries. The firm has a P.O. box in San Francisco. Murph works across the organization, including with HR and operations. The firm has detailed guides for employers on how to succeed as a remote worker. For example, GitLab Issue takes a page out of software development and applies the tracker and collaboration concept to worker productivity.

In this Q&A, Murph discusses his role in helping create an intentional, remote-first culture, values that were a priority even before COVID-19. 

Why is your head of remote position needed? 

Darren Murph: When I joined the company [July 2019], it was around 700 people and scaling. It was an opportunity to put documentation around what GitLab was doing operationally. It enabled new hires [for instance] to know the guardrails and thrive as remote employees. 

What are the guardrails? 

Murph: One is a documented if-then chart to decide if a meeting is necessary. What is the outcome? Is it possible to achieve this by starting a GitLab Issue, similar to an issue board used in software development, and tagging people you would have invited to the meeting? You are documenting it instead of just hoping that people will make the right decision. That intentionality is very indicative of a great remote-first culture. You leave as little as possible to chance, and you're very intentional about guiding people and ways of working.

Darren MurphDarren Murph

What else is documented?

Murph: We have three copy-and-pastable sentences on how to decline a meeting. This sounds small, but if someone sends you a meeting request, you may think that, 'I could probably answer this by writing it down in a more public place like a GitLab Issue.' As a GitLab Issue, more people could contribute feedback to it, it would be more transparent, it would further our goals as an organization, but it may be a bit awkward if it's coming from someone more senior than you. And so we document this. Here's something that you can copy and paste back to the person who may not have seen this part of the handbook, or they may have skipped over this during onboarding. We give people as many reinforcement elements like that as we can.

What is another reinforcement element?

Murph: Another thing that we do is explicitly say that it's OK to look away in meetings. Everyone is entitled to be the manager of their own time and attention. So if you are in a 50-minute meeting and only 10% of it pertains to you, it's OK to look away or work on something else. And then if somebody verbally brings you back into the meeting, it's totally fine to say, 'Hey, I was doing something else, could you repeat that?' At other organizations, this may be taboo. So we specifically write these things down so that people know what they're empowered to do. If you look at [the reinforcement elements] individually, they may seem like a minor thing, but when they're stacked together, what you find is that it builds culture.

Do you think you have figured out how to do remote work successfully? 

Murph: We are always learning; that's the beauty of GitLab. Our mission is everyone can contribute. That applies to the GitLab product, where a lot of the product features that we've shipped started as contributions from the wider community. That also includes how we do work. The example I just gave you on copy-and-paste bubble phrases to decline a meeting was developed by Dropbox. They've attended a few of our events and spoken in our panels. And when they developed their virtual-first toolkit, I read every word of it because it was essentially their version of the GitLab playbook. And they had a section in there on how to decline meetings with these copy-and-paste phrases. I thought that was genius.

Do you ever miss being in the office? 

If you want it done well, hire someone to focus on it.
Darren MurphHead of remote, GitLab

Murph: There's a lot of value to in-person touchpoints. Great remote companies are very intentional about their in-person strategy. Every year, we have this summit called GitLab Contribute, where we try to get everyone in the company together. We have other smaller events. It enables the time spent to be wholly devoted to building rapport, to building culture, to breaking bread instead of forcing people into a lifelong pursuit of commuting to the office on the off chance that you'll bump into the right person in the right mood, in the right space.

What's your argument for creating a specific head of remote position? 

Murph: If you want it done well, hire someone to focus on it. This has been the case for everything in business. You want growth, hire a head of growth. If you want diversity, inclusion and belonging to be more than just something you talk about, you hire a chief diversity officer. What's happening is a wholesale, fundamental rearchitecting of how people work. Companies will need to audit all of their processes and workflows and culture and pressure test them with the question: Will this work if no one's in the office? Are our values explicitly documented? Is the culture transferable through geography and the written word? For most companies, the answer is 'no.'

What characteristics and background make an ideal head of remote work? 

Murph: I think the two nonnegotiable things are somebody that's extremely cross-functional and OK with operational ambiguity. That's No. 1. And two is someone who is an emphatic and compassionate, empathetic storyteller.

What's your approach to remote work technology? 

Murph: GitLab is very intentional about outfitting your workspace in a way that makes you set up for success. We have a saying: Spend company money like it's your own. When I joined the company, I was able to buy this microphone [visible during the interview], buy this camera that you see here, and a couple of lights, a couple of monitors and a desk that goes up and down. Companies historically haven't thought twice about investing tens of thousands of dollars per person to outfit a cubicle in a high-rise. It pays dividends to make sure that your remote workforce can have a healthy and productive workspace.

What about technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)? Do you see a role for this tech in remote work? 

Murph: I don't think you'll be using an AR or VR headset for all of your work. But it's a tool in the toolbox. Another tool is language processing in a way that hasn't been used in the past. For example, if you have a tool that listens in on calls and is intelligent enough to discern my voice from your voice, it could create the takeaways in a written document that could potentially plug into a platform. And it would help a lot more people give visibility to what's going on in the organization. 

What else do you expect from remote tech?

Murph: We're just in the earliest of innings in seeing what technology can do in a remote-first workforce. Two years ago, if you wanted to create a tool to empower remote-first teams, the total addressable market was minuscule. It was very difficult to get funding and traction, and at best you would serve a niche market. COVID-19 changed all of that essentially overnight. I'm hopeful that we'll see a lot more startups creating technology that will empower digital-first and remote-first teams. That's going to be a significant change.               

Editor's note: This interview was edited for clarity and length. 

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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