As predicted, the shift to remote working that the coronavirus mandated for millions of people is not as short-term as initially thought.

As lockdowns begin to lift but social distancing remains in place, many companies are faced with the prospect of limiting their in-office staff to those for whom a sofa-based setup is problematic. And many more, having seen either gains or little change in productivity, are now starting to wonder if they even need the money-drain that is a bricks-and-mortar office.

For some companies, such as DevOps platform maker GitLab, this is something of a ‘well, duh’ moment. GitLab has been operating as a 100% remote company since long before the pandemic, and Roos Takken, people business partner at GitLab, believes that remote is truly on the rise.

“We see the world moving towards remote,” she says, speaking at Future.Works’s Distributed Teams Conference in June.

“And we think that will come with a couple of great outcomes. The majority of new startups intentionally form an all-remote company. Cities in developing countries, particularly in Africa, are enabled by all-remote jobs and companies founded by local leaders. And one of the things we see with most startups in the Bay Area, a significant portion of their workforce will move to remote. So you don't have to live in the city to work for a company.

“With all these changes and trends, I think we are witnessing history. And this will be the post-office world.”

GitLab's Roos Takken on remote working best practices

Roos Takken, people business partner, GitLab

Making the shift to long-term remote working

Of course, when it comes to managing a remote team, while most companies will now have the basics down, the switch to remote was for most never intended to be permanent.

This means that while the majority of companies will have ironed out kinks relating to accessing company files and conducting meetings over Zoom, there are other aspects of management that have so far been ignored, labelled as ‘things to deal with when we get back’.

Now, however, companies are waking up to the fact that this state of working remotely may be more permanent than they imagined, and those delayed tasks are starting to fester.

“Building a culture across a company where there are no offices requires intentionality.”

But it’s more than that: remote teams need as much of a culture as their office equivalents, and now is the time for companies to take a serious look at how they are cultivating that culture if they want to make the shift to long-term remote working a successful one.

“In co-located settings, culture is often implied, so built from how team members treat each other, what is rewarded and what is deemed acceptable during in-person interactions,” says Takken.

“So building a culture across a company where there are no offices requires intentionality.”

Building values into remote companies

At the heart of a successful remote company culture, argues Takken, are values that are not only written down, but actively lived.

“Establishing a remote culture is driven by values,” she says.

“To be effective, and to impact culture in a meaningful sustainable way, values must be more than words written on a page, and values can only shape an organisation if they're respected and lived by each team member.”

“With less physical interactions, you have less buffer to compensate for different assumptions around culture.”

This means creating expectations for how values translate into behaviour, which is particularly important in a remote environment.

“In a remote setting, you should write values down and also write down behaviour you expect that is aligned with your values,” she says.

“One thing we noticed with less physical interactions, you have less buffer to compensate for different assumptions around culture. So therefore, you have to be more explicit in writing these things down.

“If values are respected and lived, they will serve as a North Star so everybody will always be able to point to your values or to certain behaviours and certain situations.”

Image courtesy of Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Overcoming communications challenges

A key part of where values play out is in how team members communicate, and given how vital this is to final products, it’s an essential element to get right in remote working environments.

“Think about writing guidelines and let your values guide your written communication. At GitLab our values guide our communication in that we have no room for egos, because we want to collaborate,” says Takken.

Part of GitLab’s approach to this focuses on removing misunderstandings about the tone of written communications, which can in other situations cause problems due to the lack of non-verbal cues that accompany them.

“We always assume positive intent. We want to build relations and get to know each other for collaboration,” she says.

“At GitLab we have short toes, meaning that you don't have to worry about stepping on somebody's toes and it's okay to make edits or give feedback to everyone's work.”

“And recognition is very important to us. We want to say thanks actively and often. So we do that, for example, via Slack channel, which is called thanks, and you can thank your team member or somebody you had an interaction with.”

The company also has a policy called “short toes”, which is designed to encourage constructive feedback without fear of hurt feelings.

“This is something a bit out of the ordinary, but in a workplace you often hear: ‘I don't want to step on your toes; I don't want to offend you by making changes to your work’, right?” she says.

“Well at GitLab we have short toes, meaning that you don't have to worry about stepping on somebody's toes and it's okay to make edits or give feedback to everyone's work, because we don't have egos about it.”

The importance of structured communication

Aside from establishing a culture of beneficial interaction, GitLab also takes a number of more structural steps to help ensure communication is effective.

One of these is to keep well-managed notes of meetings that can then be accessed by anyone who couldn’t make it, as well as a continuously updated handbook that serves as “a single source of truth”, says Takken, where working practices, guidelines, policies and procedures are all outlined in one place.

However, the company also takes a structured approach to communication, where the format speaks volumes about the nature of the interaction.

“We use different channels for different types of communication. For example, Slack for us is a chat tool, which we use for more informal communication, while email is more of a formal way of communicating and GitLab is really the place where we collaborate on work. And then, of course, we have Zoom for video,” she says.

The correct use of these channels is also covered in the company’s official communications guidelines.

“We use different channels for different types of communication.”

“So, e.g., saying if you have a company-wide announcement, make sure to use these channels.”

This is particularly important for official communications, but GitLab also takes the approach that structure should be extended to informal communications. This includes ask-me-anything-style Q&A sessions, and spaces for informal check-ins.

And it even extends to online social activities that help to cement team interaction.

“For example, one thing we do is host talent shows. So within the People Group, the department I'm part of, we had a children's talent show where children of team members were performing talents over Zoom,” she says. “And we frequently use coffee chats to get to know each other.

“We also do a scavenger hunts, so hosted by team members, sometimes for weeks or days, all done online and virtually.”

remote working best practices

Image courtesy of Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Encouraging healthy working

With the lines between work and home far more blurred with remote working, there are mental health and wellbeing challenges posed by running a remote team that differ from those in office environments.

And this is something that Takken sees as essential for companies to tackle.

“As part of building a remote culture, it's important to encourage a healthy remote working lifestyle, and prioritise mental health,” she says.

“By ditching the requirements to be seen in a physical office, team members structure their work around their life, as opposed to the other way around. This is a profound shift and it may be not entirely obvious how to maximise one's new reality.”

Many of GitLab’s new hires come from traditional office environments, so the company is well-versed in helping them make the shift to healthy remote working.

“We encourage team members to schedule breaks, as well as working hours, using their calendar to indicate when they are working when they are not working.”

“We encourage team members to schedule breaks, as well as working hours, using their calendar to indicate when they are working and when they are not working,” she says.

“We leverage video to connect face-to-face with team members to facilitate social interaction and prevent loneliness. And we have a lot of opportunities to share non-work-related topics.”

The company also takes pains not to reward practices that can contribute to poor mental health, which in other companies can attract praise.

“To enhance a healthy lifestyle, we never celebrate long working hours,” she says.

“So it's never like: 'hey, well done on the weekend'. That's not something we do.”

Cover image courtesy of Avi Richards on Unsplash

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