Most of us are working remotely these days. Many of us will continue to do so permanently. Companies like Spotify, VMware, and Fujitsu have made “remote first” their workplace policy for the post-pandemic time. Salesforce announced that it’ll give employees the option of coming into the office only a few days a week. Our parents’ typical 9-to-5 is gone for good.
But here’s the thing: remote work demands radical transparency. We humans instinctively trust others when we get to meet up in person. You can best communicate your intentions face to face. You build trust by looking into someone’s eyes. With remote work, you are asked to trust your peers to deliver without meeting them in person. That’s a huge ask. Any minor deviation can become a wild game of second-guessing someone’s intention. So, what to do? You trust but verify. You build a system that makes verification easy, automatic, self-evidenced, and instantaneous.
The good news is there are companies that were not just born “remote friendly.” They were “remote complete” from day one. For them, future work already arrived yesterday.
Future Work Today
Every day, CEO Sid Sijbrandij kickstarts his morning routine by checking for time-sensitive or pressing notifications. There are few emails, however. “We do not send internal email here,” GitLab employees say. At GitLab, managers post all their questions and share information on Slack channels. Team leaders then decide what information to make permanently visible to others. Such transparency is no accident.
GitLab Co-Founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij
GitLab began by providing web-based repository services for software programmers. It offers programmers collaboration tools to write, troubleshoot, deploy, revise, and store software code. Think of it as Microsoft Excel Online, but for geeks.
With more than 1,200 employees, GitLab possesses one the world’s largest all-remote workforces. Its remote workers span sales, engineering, marketing, personnel management, and executive roles in more than 60 countries. GitLab has no physical headquarters.
“From very early on, we started writing things down,” CEO Sid explained. “Coming to the office wasn’t needed. They weren’t getting any extra information. [People] were on Slack, on Zoom, in Google Docs, in GitLab pages, in GitLab Issues, in GitLab merge requests.”
The company prefers Slack to email for a simple reason: it allows people to document their communication and make it searchable by everyone else. In fact, GitLab prioritizes documentation over dissemination. The most elegant approach is to write down your suggestions and make them searchable in real time, before even sharing them. Why? Because a large company always needs a single source of truth.
It’s time-consuming to search for updates on a given project over the instant message history. You also don’t want communication to splinter into different versions. That only creates knowledge gaps among people. Which in turn hurts organizational alignment and creates misunderstandings. What’s needed is documentation first. And GitLab nips the silo mentality in the bud.
A radical tool at GitLab is the “team handbook.” It’s the central repository of how the company does things. If printed, it would consist of over 10,400 pages of text. It covers everything from the code of conduct to stock option performance to current marketing activities to product development in process.
Obviously, this is not some static text. It’s the central nervous system of GitLab. When an employee encounters an issue in their daily work, they immediately make a proposal for a change in the handbook. And if you don’t know who to ask for the approval, you look it up in the repository. Once you’ve submitted your requests, the approver will merge the change into the global handbook in real time. Everyone at GitLab uses the handbook every day so they are in sync with each other.
Notice that such communication is mostly asynchronous. GitLab likes it that way because people then don’t need to be on calls outside of their time zone’s office hours. It would be unfair otherwise. But to work asynchronously as a large organization, employees need to know how to get things done and get updates fast. Eliminating the need for phone calls or video conferences is key.
Workplace Transparency Is a Consequence, Not a Cause
A lot of executives I have come across believe that transparency is a cultural thing. And I would agree. It’s about how people agree to conduct themselves. But traditional companies often commission training programs in hopes of directly tackling the “cultural barriers” to transparency. They run team-building exercises. They equip people with better self-awareness. They try to build trust directly so people are more open to sharing.
But these methods don’t work. Culture is a consequence of organizational design. People won’t change after a workshop if the day-to-day environment stays the same, with the old regimes. What’s needed is to look at organizations that were born “remote first.” Because their structure and incentives are so different, they instilled radical transparency from day one.
Most people prefer a transparent workplace until we need to reveal our own secrets. But transparency isn’t a one-way mirror. Information must flow both ways to make it work. While decisions made around office water coolers may be familiar in traditional workplaces, input is limited to those present. Those who are not present are left out. You thus miss out on their diverse perspectives.
What GitLab has done is use documentation as a way to become more inclusive. By documenting everything, no one is left out of the conversation.
P.S., What’s your favorite practice while working remotely? Have you encountered online activities that help with team bonding and reduce loneliness? Let us know what you think!