ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
If you’re a regular listener or have followed any form of news or business media over the past few years, you’ve heard a lot about remote work. First at the start of the pandemic, as companies took a crash course in equipping all of their knowledge workers to do those jobs from home and more recently about the pros and cons of hybrid work and which organizations are pushing employees to go back to the office and why.
Many leaders have now accepted that at least some of their workforces will be mostly or entirely remote, whether that’s to save costs on office space or salaries in pricey urban areas, or is way to keep giving employees the flexibility they want and to win the war for talent.
But today’s guest didn’t implement remote work at his company because he had to. GitLab, which builds and manages an open source software development application, started off with employees fully dispersed and has stayed that way. Now with more than 1,300 people spread across more than 60 countries, it’s said to be the world’s largest all-remote company, Sid Sijbrandij is co-founder and CEO, and he joins me now. Hi, Sid.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: Hey Alison. Thanks for having me.
ALISON BEARD: Let me ask you what was behind the original decision to make GitLab fully remote from the start, well before others were thinking that was a possibility?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: It happened organically for us. I started a company from the Netherlands. The first team member was in Serbia and Dmitriy, my cofounder, was in Ukraine. So it was natural for us to be remote. And then I hired a few people in the Netherlands. They came by my house. We spent two days working side by side and then the person stopped showing up. I just saw them online. T hey recognized they could just as well work from home.
That was 2013. 2015, we came to the U.S. and they said, “Look, working remote. We’ve seen it before. It works for engineers, but you can’t do it for finance or for sales. So you should get an office.” And we got an office, but the same thing ended up happening. They showed up for one or two days, and then they just started working from home or a different location. I thought, “Hey, is there something wrong? I made sure that I really showered those days.” And I thought, “Okay, what’s important for me? Well, it’s important that we make progress, that we get results.”
To this day, that’s one of our values. It’s not about the inputs. It’s not about the number of hours that you put in, it’s about the results you achieve. And as a manager, you shouldn’t push people to work longer hours. You should push people to achieve more results and enable them to do so.
And at a certain point, we said, “Look, we’re just going to make this official and we’re going to make this our policy, because it’s so much better to have everyone remote than to have a hybrid company where some people are always at the office and some people are always remote.”
ALISON BEARD: So why do you say that? Why is fully remote better than hybrid or all in the office?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: If you’ve ever been in a hybrid meeting, I think you can relate that it’s really hard to be remote at a meeting where some other people are sitting around a conference table, because there’s two different ways of working. It’s much easier to have a meeting with everyone around a conference table or a meeting where everyone has their own setup and is in a separate room. If you have two methods of working, you get the worst of both worlds.
ALISON BEARD: And what about the benefits of all remote versus all in person?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think both are really valid. If you are all remote, you can hire from anywhere. So it allows you access to a much broader talent pool. It also stimulates being much more thoughtful about how you document things, because you can’t tap someone on the shoulder to ask something.
I think the biggest upside for us was to be on the same level as the wider community. GitLab is an open core project. That means you can see all of our source code. And we have hundreds of contributions that come from our wider community. So they help us improve it. And because we work in the same environment as them, our customers can be in the same online hallway as us, and it makes it much easier to be on the same level.
Being in person works really well, too. So they’re both valid ways to run a business. I think the worst way to run it is to combine both models.
ALISON BEARD: And so when you decided, “Okay, we’re not going to try to go halfway here. We started out dispersed, so the natural thing for us to do is fully remote.” Did you run into any hurdles or find any real downsides that you needed to work around?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: One big problem was that people didn’t believe in it. We had one investor say, “Look, you just raised your Series B. You need a much bigger office. And I recognized that a bigger office would be five thousands of dollars a month for more so instead we went and bought big monitors for $5,000. And we projected all kinds of graphs on it, so that people who would enter the office, that was very small, would be impressed by all the fancy graphs on the wall and forget for a moment how small it was.
ALISON BEARD: And that’s sort of a vestige of this idea that successful tech companies, they start in a garage and then they get a big office in Silicon Valley. And then eventually you progress to a campus. So you were fighting against that typical trajectory?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: Yeah, I think one of the risks of having a fancy campus is that people think you’ve arrived. You don’t need to go as fast anymore. Although there’s a lot of companies who had campuses that do really well. I don’t think you need a symbol to what you’ve achieved in the past. I think everyone in the company should be eager about what the potential is.
ALISON BEARD: What about employees as you were doing early hiring? Did you find that people were really excited about the idea that they wouldn’t ever have to come in?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think we were able to hire amazing people that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to hire. And those are people that were not in any of the giant metro areas. Those were people in different countries. We have team members in over 60 countries. Those were team members that frequently had to move maybe because their partner had to move frequently as well. So it was really a blessing to work with, to be able to have those people as team members. The biggest skepticism I had, and maybe that’s because I recruited these people, but was from higher management, especially executives. And they said, “Look, I’m not sure I can do this.” And the way to diffuse that was to have them talk to other executives that we recruited. And those people said, “Look, it’s been easier for me in this role to communicate with my staff and with other departments than it was in previous roles.”
ALISON BEARD: That’s an interesting piece of it, because we do hear that managing in an remote environment is just extremely different. You can’t rely on the pop in, you can’t rely on a coffee now and again. So how can you tell when someone will or won’t be good at working this way?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: What we did find was really important is what we and some others call being a manager of one. You need to be able to manage yourself. There’s a lot of freedom when you work remote and you have to be able to handle that and plan things yourself. That’s the one thing we look for, people who are self-starters, who can manage their own time. But other than that, there’s not a special remote skill. If you’re able to work effectively in an onsite organization, I think you can do it remotely.
ALISON BEARD: How did you go about creating a strong company culture to making sure that people felt that they had really productive, collaborative, collegial working relationships when everyone was spread against different geographies and timezones and cultures?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: There’s two elements to it. One interpretation of culture is how you work, all your processes. And we organized that to a huge degree. How we communicate, how we structure everything from emails to Slack messages, so that everyone is working in the same way and in a highly effective and a efficient way. The other part of culture are your values. And at a certain point, we started writing those up and giving examples. And for example, our two most distinctive values, I think, are transparency and iteration. And over time we found more and more ways to reinforce them. We now have over 20 ways in which we reinforce those values.
ALISON BEARD: What are some specific, very important tools or practices that you’ve implemented?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: They go from the very important, basically your values are who you promote. So every time we promote someone, there’s a document. That document is structured according to our values and it’s shared with the entire company to communicate, “Hey, this behavior is rewarded.” And that goes all the way to the most trivial ones. We have a songbook and many of the songs are about our values. And coincidentally, I was singing last night, we were having a karaoke party, and me and another team member were sang two songs out of our songbook, just for kicks.
ALISON BEARD: Will you sing just a line for me?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: One song we sang yesterday is based on the melody 500 Miles by the Proclaimers. And the line goes, “You could code 500 lines,” but I’m not going to sing. I’m taking singing lessons, so maybe in the future.
ALISON BEARD: So when you have a karaoke night for the company, is it just a big Zoom where anyone can jump on and you might have 500 people there?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: We haven’t done an online karaoke. This was just at my house, to be frank. But some things are better in person.
ALISON BEARD: Got it.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think it’s there’s two misconceptions about remote work. One of it is that it means working from home. If our people want a place to work from, well, we’ll gladly pay for an office or space for them to work from. The second thing is that it means you never have to meet up in person. I think there’s a lot of value to that and we do that and there’s frequently karaoke involved with that.
We try to have a company meet up once a year where the entire company gets together. Although we’ve had to cancel those, because of COVID recently.
ALISON BEARD: And did you consult with anyone on best practices for doing this when you were developing your all-remote strategy? Or did you just go by instinct?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think there’s some baggage I might have carried from previous employment, but we also just talk about it. And for example, Eliran is one of our team members. He works from Israel and he invented the concept of coffee chats. So we were missing those informal lunch moments with people. So now at GitLab, when you onboard, we tell you, “Hey, plan some coffee chats, because at GitLab it’s normal just to plan 25 minutes on someone’s calendar without an agenda.” You can talk about work or talk about life or whatever you want. But because people have flexible work days, we’re not just going to barge in on them. We’re going to schedule it in the calendar, even though it’s a very informal conversation.
ALISON BEARD: I’d love to talk a little bit more about onboarding, because for most people, this will be a new experience, this all-remote organization. So how exactly do you approach it? How do you indoctrinate people into the way GitLab works?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: So if you Google GitLab onboarding, you can find exactly what we do. But basically there’s a big issue that we give you and it has over 200 things that need to happen for you to onboard effectively. Most of those aren’t you, but you can also see what your manager and the rest of the company has to do to onboard you successfully. And most people say the list is a pretty bit longer, but it’s very comprehensive and that they especially appreciate being able to see what the company has to do and when that is happening and they can also see when something isn’t happening.
ALISON BEARD: And this radical transparency, having everything available online from your songbook to your onboarding process, you also have a page where people can learn about your strengths and your weaknesses, how to communicate with you, your meeting schedules. Why is that so important?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: If you’re co-located and you don’t know something, it tends to be much quicker to get your question answered, because you can just walk over to someone. If you’re remote, it can take a little bit longer, because we work, for example, across timezones. So we try to document what we do. And I think as the company has grown, that’s become very beneficial. It’s harder to document something for the person that wants to affect that change, but it does mean that the other people can build upon that change. So it’s a one-time cost, but a long benefit.
ALISON BEARD: It also seems that you place a great emphasis on accessibility. In the page that explains who you are and what you’re about, you also talk about how to schedule time with you. And I assume that applies to anyone at the company, not just your executive team or your skip level employees. So why is that so important and how do you encourage more of it in the company across all your very busy, I’m sure, managers?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: One of the ways is not making it a point of pride that you are busy. That’s about input. We try to be very efficient and I have time for coffee chats and people. Anybody in the company can plan one. So don’t make it about being busy, be very careful with each other’s time, but do make time for informal communication. And it’s super important.
ALISON BEARD: What are some other things that you think are really important for people who are managing an all-remote team that’s geographically dispersed?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think a lot of the best practices are similar for co-located companies, but I think it’s extra important if you are remote to do them. Maybe it’s a basic thing, but we want to make sure that everyone in the company has a career plan and a growth plan. And we just had a career planning day in sales, where we, I think, made over 500 career plans for people. And so it’s many best practices are known. It’s just about implementing them and doing them consistently.
ALISON BEARD: And it does seem that to make all of this work technology is key. So from 2013, almost a decade later, surely many things, like video conferencing in particular, have improved. Are there still limitations?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think you’re totally right. Fast internet, video conferencing, tools like Slack have been a great blessing. For our handbook, we use version control and we’ve seen other companies that try to use a Wiki fill frequently, because then it’s really hard to split the job of making the proposal from approving the proposal. And that’s really important to have a high velocity of updating your handbook or your processes. Other than that, I think the technology problems have been solved. It’s now work-style and work-wise problems more than the technology itself.
ALISON BEARD: So what are some of the problems that you’re encountering now? What’s your biggest hurdle in making the all-remote plan work?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think it’s not about all remote so much. But, for example, one of our values is iteration and that continues to be a very hard value to live up to. Iteration means reducing the scope of what you’re going to do, but making the change faster. And it’s very natural to have a more ambitious, more encompassing plan that is delivered later. So for example, I do iteration office hours where people come with, “Hey, this is what I’m working on. Let’s discuss as a group, whether there are ways to reduce scope and ship it sooner.”
ALISON BEARD: what about burnout and people deciding to coast or quiet quit, which I think many people see as easier to do when you’re remote and don’t have to show up at an office nine to five. So how do you manage that? Do you think that the trend of keystroke trackers to make sure people are active on their computers or people asking people to log work hours is a good solution. Is it more about trust? How do you measure productivity or commitment?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: You will get what you measure. So if you measure key strokes, you’ll get key strokes. If you measure hours, you’ll get hours. So it’s a big mistake to measure both of these, because they don’t push your business forward. It’s so much more important to measure results. And it’s one of the things that we see people getting confused about. It’s not about trust. Of course, we assume that people have good intentions, but managers are here to make sure that the results get delivered and that the results get measured. If you work in sales, we measure how much you sell and how happy the customers are. If you work in support, it’s how fast do we respond to customers? If you work in engineering, how fast were you’re able to ship things?
I think one thing that’s been interesting is in engineering, we started measuring how many individual work items you were able to ship every month. People said, “Look, we can game that very easily by just splitting work up into smaller parts.” And we told them, “Please game it and see where it breaks.” And it turns out the smaller they made it, the easier it was to ship and the less risk we were taking on. So it actually improved the work. So normally when you start measuring something and it becomes a target, it loses its usefulness. In this case, it helped.
ALISON BEARD: I’m just going to keep throwing problems at you. So what about screen fatigue? How do you time and manage meetings to make sure that doesn’t happen to your employees?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I don’t think most people have screen fatigue. I do think you have meeting fatigue. So at GitLab, we have a couple of ways to prevent that. First of all, you cannot present in meetings. If you want to present, great. Send a recording to everyone upfront. But don’t use this very costly time when we were all in the same meeting at the same time, don’t use that to present something. You could have done that asynchronously, beforehand.
ALISON BEARD: Amen to that. I’m just going to give you an amen there.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: The second thing is, and you’ll find that most meetings at GitLab are 25 minutes, so much faster meetings than other companies. So during a meeting, we already start taking the notes collaboratively in a real-time doc, in a Google doc. It makes for a much better overview for the people who couldn’t attend a meeting. And it makes for a much better idea of the action points that come out of it. And third, but certainly not last, you don’t have to pay attention in meetings. We want you to be a manager of one. We want you to manage yourself and it will be a big surprise if a 100% of every meeting was important to you. So it’s totally fine to zone out. It’s okay to do email on the side. You don’t have to turn your webcam off. You can just do your email. And if you have to say, “Hey, can you repeat the question? I wasn’t paying attention,” that’s a badge of honor, not a shameful thing.
ALISON BEARD: That’s so interesting, because I feel like so much advice is about how to get people to pay attention. So it’s just acknowledging human behavior and working through it.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: You can force people to pay attention to something that doesn’t matter to them or they can do their email, so they’re done earlier in the day.
ALISON BEARD: And as you’ve watched a lot of organizations transition to hybrid and some of them even consider a switch to all-remote work over the past few years, what do you see them getting right and really wrong?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think the tooling is easy. So what they get is the high-speed internet, the Zooms, the Slacks. I think what they don’t always get is working remote isn’t working from home. Many people want some place outside of their home to work from and you should accommodate that. But the most important thing is all these practices that we’ve now incorporated into team ops. Although that’s something that companies that are not remote also get wrong.
ALISON BEARD: And have you been talking to entrepreneurs who want to follow your lead and launch their companies to be globally dispersed, all remote from the start? What advice do you give to them?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think if you look at new startups, a significant portion of them is already all remote. It comes very natural to people, especially if you build a company like that. I have been a bit surprised by existing companies that were very effective working remote, now all going back to the office and we call it the Zoom to Zoom phenomena, where we suspect that the higher ups, they miss being in person the most, because they have to change the most. And they seem to optimize for the ability to look at people sitting in their seats when that is not really what a company is about.
ALISON BEARD: And I think some would argue, “Oh, well this is very easy for a company that’s focused on open source software. Of course coders can do this.” Obviously, it can’t work for people in factories producing goods. It can’t work for retail, healthcare. There are many scenarios in which it can’t, but can it really work for all types of knowledge work?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: We do see that almost every other kind of work is amendable to it. And we have finance teams, marketing teams, sales teams, they love it. It works well. And I think there’s, after COVID, it’s been shown. At many companies, productivity metrics were up and that wasn’t just working from home or working remotely that was working from home during a pandemic with the schools closed. It’s beyond every expectation that that productivity could be up for some companies in that scenario. I think there’s tons of companies that went through COVID and they said, “Look, this works. We’re just going to keep this. And from now on the office is optional. We’re not going to encourage anybody to sit at the office five days a week. Everyone’s going to work partially remote.”
ALISON BEARD: And as more organizations do that, in essence offering the same flexibility that you’ve always offered, has it been harder to recruit? Has it been easier to recruit, because people are more comfortable with it? How has it affected your pitch to employees?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: We used to be the most appealing company to work for remotely and now you can choose amongst hundreds of them. So that part of our talent brand has become less important, which is a great thing, because it means people have more options. Luckily, we still have a lot of other things going for us as a company. And we found that as we’ve grown and got to talk about our work practices, we have a great ability to hire people, but I’m glad for everyone that they got more options and we’re no longer the only game in town there.
ALISON BEARD: As your company grows, do you think that the way you operate your all-remote ethos will be easier or harder to maintain?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: Growth is hard. For example, we have a practice that’s handbook first. If you’re going to communicate a change, you communicate, “Hey, this is how the handbook changed.” Instead of making a PowerPoint about it or something like that. You can do that in addition, if you want, but it is important that the change is already in the handbook. And that’s been hard to enforce when we were small. It’s hard to enforce now that we’re large. I do believe that as we keep growing, it’s so important to, for example, reinforce your values. Many companies, as they grow bigger, their values dilute, because their values are communicated informally. And if you grow from seven to thousands of people, it’s a telephone game, where every time they dilute a little bit. I think at GitLab, we’ve been able to make our value stronger over time because we have these reinforcement mechanisms. If I talk to other companies, I haven’t met a company that has more than three reinforcement mechanisms for their values, even though they say they’re really important to them.
ALISON BEARD: And is there a concern that you’re giving away a competitive advantage by making all of this public?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: We found that being transparent was a big benefit. And the first thing that it helped with is building this relationship with the wider community, with contributors to the project. The second thing it helped with is building our talent brand. People were looking up our practices, started reading and they said, “Look, if I’m ever going to switch careers, I’m going to go to GitLab. I’m going to apply there.” And now we see that it’s even helping us to go to market. Customers say, “Look, I choose you, because through the transparency, I have a higher trust that it will be the right decision.”
ALISON BEARD: And finally, how common do you think all-remote, all-virtual work will be in the future.?
SID SIJBRANDIJ: I think that all remote is going to be an increasing share of the new companies that are formed. And as those companies mature, it’s going to get a much more standard way of working. And I think it’s going to be a much more inclusive way of working, where you don’t have to live in a very expensive metro area, but you can be anywhere you want and not just across regions, but even across countries. It will allow people to be more effective and generate more income. I think all remote becomes better if you become bigger, because if you’re seven people, it’s great to be in the same room. I don’t know how to be in the same room with thousands of people. If you look at big companies that have all these offices, people come to the office and then they join a Zoom call with their colleagues in other offices, because no way that everyone is in the same location, if you’re a company with tens of thousands of people.
ALISON BEARD: Right. Yeah. Terrific. Well, thank you so much. I’ve learned a lot and I certainly enjoy my new mostly remote life. So I imagine that lots of other people around the world do too.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: Thanks so much for having me.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Sid Sijbrandij, the co-founder and CEO of GitLab.
If you like today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team and your organization. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant and Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.