People First

I’ve interviewed many people for GitLab, and one question I often get is about what it’s like being remote. GitLab is famous for being all remote, and possibly the largest all-remote company. But when I’m asked that question, I like to go in a different direction. GitLab isn’t just about being all-remote, or remote-first, it’s about being people-first. We’re not all remote because of the cost of office space or the ability to hire the best talent all over the world, or any of the other great things about going remote. These are benefits, but they’re not the reasons. We’re all remote because we’re people first, and people live all over the world outside of major cities. Why should we make them move? Why ask people to spend hours commuting? But when you put people first, it’s more than just being remote.

I used to work at a place that was remote-friendly, eventually with 50% of the workforce being remote. It started out that we allowed people to work remotely, but only if they agreed to work on an SF schedule. We eventually relaxed that (as it’s a pretty ridiculous requirement), but only allowed individual engineers to work remotely. Eventually we let managers be remote, but still I’d hear people comment about how leaders can’t be remote. We had one person who lived in Seattle fly in every Monday and out every Thursday to accommodate our HQ-centric perspective. Eventually that faded, and we started hiring more leaders remotely. When one particular leader was hired, who had tons of experience working remotely, he presented a few tips for people to successfully work remotely. They included things like having a set schedule for yourself and making sure your team knew your schedule, and to let them know if you were going to deviate from it. Makes sense, right? If you have to be away, it’s harder for people to notice when you’re remote, so be proactive in your communication. When you start work in the morning, say hello in your team channel, if you step away, let people know, when you’re done for the day, say goodbye.

But GitLab takes a different approach. We explicitly say not to check in and check out of your team channel. We used to ask you to mention what you were working on every day, which had innocent intentions, but cut that part out of our handbook because it felt too big-brother-esque or butts-in-seats minded. Your schedule is nobody else’s business. Your results are what matters. If you need to go to an appointment in the middle of the day, go. If you’ve got to pick up the kids from school, go. Heck, if you just need to take a nap, go for it. We have people all over the world, there should be no expectation of an immediate response anyway, so write your communication clearly and concisely and prepare for an asynchronous response.

For me, I love that when my kids come home from school (back when they actually went to school), and they’re excited to talk to me about something, they can interrupt me. It only takes 15 minutes, and then I’m back to work, but those 15 minutes mean the world to them, and to me. If I waited 2 hours until my workday was done, the excitement would be gone. It would be even worse if I had to wait an extra hour to commute home. When my kids were little, there was a period of time when I’d make it home from work just in time to put them to bed. I’d miss dinner, I’d miss bath time; I’d get maybe 15 minutes total with them during weekdays. Now I have breakfast and dinner with my family every day. I even occasionally have a lunch date with my wife! That wouldn’t be possible without being remote, but it also requires putting people (and their families) first.

Being all remote is just one consequence of a deeper commitment to putting people first. As another example, GitLab, like many companies had an all-company call. But unlike many companies, the main focus wasn’t on one-way presentations of company or department announcements to the rest of the company, the focus was on two-way communication about people, as individuals. This wasn’t a daily standup where people talk about that they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, and what blockers they have; it was a chance for people to talk about their personal life. A favorite topic was what you did the previous weekend, or what your plans were for the following weekend. As we grew, we couldn’t let people talk every single day, but we’d assign people to talk on certain days of the week, and eventually to a 2-week cycle. I’m an introvert and don’t generally like engaging in small talk, but I found myself really looking forward to these calls. In the in-between times, I’d take notes and prepare what I wanted to share with the team. And people didn’t just share warm-and-fluffy topics, some of the topics were deeply personal. People really opened up.

We also have an all-company summit (now called Contribute) every 9 to 12 months. Again, the focus wasn’t on getting work done, because we better be able to get work done remotely, but in connecting to each other in ways that take advantage of meeting in-person. We’d go ziplining in Mexico, or tour Santorini in Greece, or hike Table Mountain in South Africa. During one particular summit, I arrived and met up with the other GitLabbers, and gave one of them a hug. Then it really hit me how well we’re able to connect as people. Not only was this the first time I had met this person “in person”, but this was the first time we had even ever had a direct conversation. Our only interactions were during the company call, and yet we each felt like we knew each other really well because of how much we’d shared. And when GitLab grew too large to continue having both the department announcements and the personal calls? I feel like every other company I’ve been at would make the obvious choice, to drop the personal content and stick to the essential content. But that’s not what GitLab did. We cut the departmental content and kept the company calls about personal connection.

These are the main examples I bring up, but the reality is that there are a ton of decisions made every day where things could go one way or the other. And most companies sooner or later end up deciding to protect the bottom line, or whatever story they tell themselves to justify doing something that isn’t great for the employees. But GitLab has always chosen to make the hard, but right call to continue to put people first, and that makes all the difference.