Successfully managing remote companies: GitLab CTO Eric Johnson Shares 10 Tips to Make the Most of the New Normal

2021-06-03 - Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted work all through 2020. As a result, millions lost their jobs and were furloughed, while others were forced to adjust to a work-from-home setup as their offices closed abruptly. Since, the world has largely adapted to the new normal even as uncertainty persists regarding the future of work. Questions linger on the long term impact of the pandemic. Has the COVID-19 pandemic permanently appended the way we work? For companies that choose to embrace remote work, how do they do it right even after the stressors of the pandemic have disappeared? In a conversation with Tobias, GitLab CTO Eric Johnson offers 10 tips to help your business thrive while embracing WFH arrangements.

Embrace a documentation culture

A culture of documentation is critical when dealing with big teams and even more needful with remote teams. With the complexity of today's tasks at the enterprise, a culture of documentation can become the differentiator between remote teams doing well and those still struggling. Documenting keeps everyone on the team accountable and efficient. It also reduces chaos and allows employees working in different time zones to collaborate better.

A documentation culture is especially helpful for teams that need to share knowledge and make decisions together. GitLab has established a documentation culture that allows anyone waking up from any time zone to understand the current state of things, pick it up, make progress on it, document where they've left off, and go to bed. Someone else— even from a different time zone— can take over the task and move it forward. This synchronous work and collaboration make remote working easy.

Improve your ability to detect when your setup stops working

Eric says that GitLab has found its balance around synchronous work and collaboration over the years and has also improved its capabilities in detecting when the system stops working. When this happens, the company falls back to what he calls "more expensive forms of communication" like zoom calls or in-person meetings. These arrangements are the perfect way to regroup and reconnect in ways that email and other remorse working tools cannot.

"Everybody knows sarcasm doesn't work over email," Eric quips.

Don't shy away from once-in-a-while in-person meetings

Eric says that the company plans for employees or specific teams to meet in person once in a while. Sometimes they fly to the same place and meet in an all employees conference. Other times they organise smaller events and meetups for teams, say sales, marketing, etc.

Be time-zone conscious when hiring new team members

While it might be good to hire support team staff from different time zones to work on customer issues around the clock, some teams could face overbearing inconveniences when their team members are distributed across different time zones. In such cases, Eric says it is good practice to hire people in the same time zone. This is especially helpful for teams that require regular synchronous stand-up meetings.

Incorporate virtual coffee breaks

GitLab has set up several mechanisms designed to supplement in-person social interactions. One such mechanism is virtual coffee breaks. These breaks are intentional allocations of time for low-fidelity activities such as brainstorming and chatting. They're designed to help improve engagement and restore energy amongst employees.

At GitLab, when new employees join the company, they're encouraged to schedule coffee breaks with random people in the company to learn the different roles and responsibilities people fulfil to realise company objectives. Through these virtual coffee breaks, the new employees can learn about what employees in the marketing, sales, or engineering departments do.

Encourage employees to self-organise and do innovative things

Eric says that at GitLab, employees self-organise all the time and do creative things that help them connect better. When those ideas work, the company rolls them out to more teams across the company.

Encourage employees to take vacations and times off

Eric explains to Tobi that instead of falling into the trap of trying to monitor everything your employees are doing out of the worry that they'll not work as hard without supervision when working remotely, GitLab takes a starkly different approach. The company emphasises the need for employees to take vacations and times off now and then.

Why? Because when people are working from home, they tend to work harder, and over time you might start to see attrition. When this happens, it makes sense to encourage them to take time off. Instead of micro-managing and constantly monitoring everyone to know how well the company is doing, GitLab is comfortable just keeping tabs on performance.

"You'll see if your organisation is productive or not based on the results. You don't have to see the works-in-progress to get that," Eric explains.

Don't leave the junior employees behind

In many companies, the more senior, older employees work harder than the younger, junior ones, especially in WFH setups. It is not uncommon for the junior employees to be a pace behind the seniors. GitLab did away with its junior engineer hiring process and instead introduced engineering internships to solve this problem.

The interns connect with senior engineers for mentorship to turn that intern into a full-time employee. In the summer of 2020, GitLab ran its first internship program. Its success exceeded the company's expectations, converting 75% of the interns into full-time employees.

Ask people how they're doing

Managers in remote work environments have to be proactive in finding out how employees are doing to identify signs of burnout. Unlike in-person settings where the manager can read body language and see an employee dragging themselves around the office, recognising signs of burnout is harder in remote setups. Eric encourages managers to ask. During one-on-ones, ask the employees how they're doing, how they're feeling, and whether they're getting burned out.

Encourage personal responsibility

Be your own manager. Eric says that GitLab has made lots of effort to avail resources and materials to help employees. That said, employees are encouraged to take personal responsibility and learn to manage themselves better. They're encouraged to ask for help when they find themselves struggling.

In this podcast, Tobi and Eric discuss several other things, including:

  • Eric's nerd path— how he ended up at GitLab
  • Why he still has a ReadMe page
  • How his philosophy background informs his leadership approach
  • His belief in the servant leadership model
  • How he learnt to stay cool under pressure
  • GitLab differentiators/secret sauce
  • GitLab salaries for people in different countries and cities

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