GitLab Extremely Transparent & Incredibly Remote

This article reflects on the organisational culture at GitLab a company who is Transparent and Remote. GitLab have been been at the cutting edge of remote work models since the company was formed in 2011. With a staff of over 1300 people, GitLab has been touted the largest all remote organisation in the world (up until now…). Team members are spread across 67 countries. The company is radically transparent, if you look at its website you can see a list of everyone who works there (with a photo), Management Group policies are explicitly shared on the company website where everyone is aware of what is expected.

Spread all over the World – Source:

GitLab are a competitor to Github (which was acquired by Microsoft in 2018 for $7.5 billion USD) but while the product is similar the company culture is radically different.

Vibrant (virtual) Watercooler Meetings

Recognising that an all remote workforce needed to have a structured way of establishing a culture and community to replicate the water cooler conversations. So the team actively schedule these casual conversations to discuss weekend activities, favourite games or anything else that might get shared in a casual office conversation. They have slack meetings – donut be strangers (where strangers are randomly paired for a chat), or International Pizza Parties, Virtual Scavenger Hunts and more.

Transparent – Employee Handbook

The level of radical transparency is so explicit that the entire employee handbook is published online. At more than 7100 pages of content it shares the company values (Collaboration; Results; Efficiency; Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging;Iteration and Transparency) but it also goes into detail to make is clear on how it should work. Everyone is welcome to suggest improvements.

Examples from the Handbook:

Negative feedback is 1-1
Give negative feedback in the smallest setting possible. One-on-one video calls are preferred. If you are unhappy with anything (your duties, your colleague, your boss, your salary, your location, your computer), please let your boss, or the CEO, know as soon as you realize it. We want to solve problems while they are small.
Negative feedback is distinct from negativity and disagreement. If there is no direct feedback involved, strive to discuss disagreement in a public channel, respectfully and transparently.

Assume Positive Intent
We naturally have a double standard when it comes to the actions of others. We blame circumstances for our own mistakes, but individuals for theirs. This double standard is called the Fundamental Attribution Error. In order to mitigate this bias, you should always assume positive intent in your interactions with others, respecting their expertise and giving them grace in the face of what you might perceive as mistakes. When disagreeing, folks sometimes argue against the weakest points of argument, or sometimes argue against a "straw man". Assume the points are presented in good faith, and instead try to argue the "steel man" (or the "strong man"):
The Remote Playbook

As companies from all over the world go remote due to to COVID19, leaders have reached out to learn how GitLab developed the Transparent and Remote culture. In response the GitLab leadership team have created a free eBook to help other organisations with their learnings on establishing a remote work culture. With tips for remote leaders and remote workers, strategies for remote communication and building your culture it is a very useful manual for leaders and employees.

Asynchronous Work

A key aspect of the onboarding for Gitlab is how the organisation has embraced asynchronous work. Working across multiple timezones and the associated employee schedules creates a logistical nightmare. The benefits are that you can time shift and do the work when you want and don’t have constant interruptions, however it is critical that what you are working on is written down so others can review and contribute when you are not working.

GitLab’s founders didn’t initially intend to build an all-remote company.  When they formed in 2011, cofounders Dmitriy Zaporozhets was based in Ukraine, Sijbrandij was in the Netherlands, and Marin Jankovski, GitLab’s first engineering hire, was in Serbia. The plan was to have at least some of GitLab’s employees work out of Sijbrandij’s house as the company grew. “They never asked; we never talked about it,” says Sijbrandij. “But one day, they just weren’t there.” 

After GitLab participated in the incubator Y Combinator, in Mountain View, California, in winter 2015 and received $1.5 million in seed funding, Sijbrandij signed a two-year lease on a loft in San Francisco. But employees stopped showing up there, too. “All their colleagues, all their information, it was all on Zoom and on Slack, and so it just wasn’t necessary. He and his wife ended up living in the loft for the duration of the lease. “Now our corporate address is a mailbox at the UPS Store in San Francisco.”

GitLab still values in-person connections they host an annual conference for employees to all come together, they also subsidise the travel costs of coworkers attending significant life events of of colleagues such as weddings.

Key Takeaways

  • Remote work requires extra work to build a robust culture
  • Communication is critical and having a way to replace social interactions usually made in the office with zoom calls and slack channels
  • Radical transparency in sharing details has helped establish clear ground rules for the organisation
  • A global workforce has timezone chaos, so support for asynchronous work means staff can be anywhere in any team.
  • GitLab are radically Transparent and extremely Remote
Synopsis of an article from FastCompany
Extremely Transparent & Incredibly Remote
By Julia Herbst
Published September 2020

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