GitLab is 100 percent remote with 1,200 people in 65 countries — in fact, it’s the world’s largest all-remote organization. So, when social distancing due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forced people into remote work, GitLab’s team was well-positioned, but challenges still lay ahead.
“It’s easy to say not much has changed for us, but it has,” Brendan O’Leary, Sr. Developer Evangelist at GitLab says. “Kids are home from school, we’ve had to adjust schedules for our partners, and take care of family members. Some of our team might not be able to work an 8 to 5 day now.”
O’Leary says tools that enable asynchronous collaboration and communication are key. “Git enables those things,” he says. “We’re really lucky to have it.” The version control system developed for Linux as an alternative to proprietary systems provides team members with copies of the entire repository, enabling distributed source code management.
O’Leary adds that the open source system is also valuable by its nature. “A huge strength is that developers are using a tool that they can contribute to,” he explains. “If I have a new need, I can add it or suggest it, rather than wait for a proprietary system vendor to add it — you collaborate on the tools you use to collaborate.”
Remote teams also need effective ways of communicating with other team members while they work. Slack is a popular choice for messaging, but O’Leary says to make sure you also equip your team with a video conferencing tool like Zoom. “The ability to see and talk to someone virtually is crucial,” he comments.
Adapting Operations to Remote Work
Successful remote teams know the processes they use in an office aren’t effective when their teams are dispersed. Based on GitLab’s experience with a large remote team, O’Leary suggests:
- Measuring results not hours: It’s difficult to track labor hours — or how long it should take to complete a task or sprint — when team members are working remotely and on their own schedules. Hold team members accountable for outcomes instead of the time they spend on work.
- Valuing action over consensus: Without a centralized operation, people will naturally have to manage their own work. “Allow folks to be managers of one and make smart decisions. They need to be in control,” O’Leary says.
- Making everything “open source”: Just as Git gives source code maintainers access to the entire repository, organizations need to find ways to create that same level of access and collaboration with marketing, sales, and engineering. “All of those things are critical for us to reach our objectives,” he says. “Focus on push early and often so people can see what you’re working on. The more transparent the communication, the better off remote teams will be.”
- Agreeing on how performance is measured: Make sure all team members understand their responsibilities and how you will determine success.
- Letting release dates set the cadence: Keeping remote work on schedule can be a challenge, but O’Leary says GitLab’s team knows their deadlines. “There’s a release on the 22nd of each month. It’s sacrosanct,” O’Leary says. “If something isn’t done, it won’t make it into the release.” He adds that GitLab uses that same mindset for reaching business objectives. “We have a cadence that we follow for what we’ll do in one year, in three years and five years,” he comments.
- Rethinking the standup meeting: Suddenly distributed DevOps or Agile teams will need to learn new ways to organize. O’Leary advises immediately establishing the point of contact for team members and directly responsible individuals (DRIs) for various phases of work.
- Including “coffee chat”: There is a risk that remote workers will feel isolated, especially in teams that find themselves suddenly forced to work remotely. “Be intentional about social interaction as well as work-related communication,” O’Leary recommends. “Leaders need to be upfront about supporting their teams on a personal level as well as professionally. Make sure they’re comfortable and encourage them to take care of themselves, and make sure they sense your support and your leadership.”
Will You Continue Remote Work by Choice?
O’Leary reminds software development company leaders not to base the efficacy of remote work on how they’re responding to the pandemic. “Dealing with suddenly having to work remotely isn’t representative of how successful remote teams can be,” he comments.
If you are considering remote work long-term for your organization, GitLab may be able to help. With open source, documentation, and transparency baked-in to GitLab’s operations, the company has developed resources, such as The Remote Playbook, that other teams are welcome to leverage.
“We have always seen remote as the future of work,” says O’Leary. “We’re trying to help people learn how to adjust.”