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As part of my LinkedIn Newsletter series about the Rise of Remote Work, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab.
About Darren Murph
As GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren works at the intersection of culture, operations, people, talent branding, marketing, and communication. He’s spent his career leading remote teams and charting remote transformations. He holds a Guinness World Record in publishing, and authored GitLab’s Remote Playbook and “Living the Remote Dream: A Guide To Seeing the World, Setting Records, and Advancing Your Career.”
Thank you so much for your time, Darren! Can you tell us a bit about your 'backstory' and how you got into remote work?
Remote work is deeply personal to me. I earned a Guinness World Record in publishing, in large part due to the efficiency of remote work (and the omission of a grueling commute).
My remote journey began in university, where I began writing at a fledgling technology publication called Engadget. I was at NC State in Raleigh, and my colleagues were all over the world. Our protocols were documented in a team wiki — a single source of truth — and we communicated via chat. It was a natural way of working. I remained there for nearly 8 years, eventually becoming Managing Editor, traveling 120K+ miles per year to cover launches, trade shows, and interviews.
The freedom to travel to all 50 US states and over 50 countries while retaining a home in North Carolina close to family is simply extraordinary. Once I had a taste of that freedom, I worked tirelessly to engineer remote roles as my career intersected with editorial strategy and corporate communications.
The biggest takeaway is that relationships matter. They serve as the bedrock of life, and your network is your strongest asset.
That's such a great story. Have you ever worked in a traditional 9-to-5 office job before making the switch to working remotely?
I interned in a traditional 9-to-5 office, with a brutal 1.5-hour commute each way. Given the wanderlust that’s in my DNA, this type of arrangement was not something I aspired to embrace.
I was fortunate to find a remote role that fit my passion, but it’s worth noting that it began as a freelance gig, and required a herculean amount of work. Remote roles are still difficult to come by and are highly competitive. I advise people to consider taking a colocated role, proving yourself in the role, and then formulating a proposal to management to take yourself remote — even if it’s a gradual phase-out.
Could you share the biggest lessons or 'key takeaways' that you have learned along the way?
I’ve worked across the spectrum of remote for 15 years, and I wrote a book about the experience. It’s far easier to work remotely now, with widespread access to broadband, an array of collaboration tools (Slack, Zoom, GitLab, etc.), and a societal understanding of digital workflows.
The biggest takeaway is that relationships matter. They serve as the bedrock of life, and your network is your strongest asset. Don’t underestimate the importance of having people who can vouch for your work ethic and what you bring to an organization. This is vital for scenarios where you’re vying for a remote role, which requires a lot of trust to execute well.
Here’s a bonus takeaway: travel now. If you wait for life to politely hand you two free weeks to travel, you’ll be waiting forever. Force exploration into your schedule. Take necessary meetings at a park or an airline lounge. Do whatever you must to make it work, but don’t push off exploring to next month, or next year. Life is short and the world is wide. If you can work remote, get out in the world, and see the beauty beyond a screen.
Life is short and the world is wide. If you can work remote, get out in the world and see the beauty beyond a screen.
I couldn't agree more — now, could you tell us a bit about GitLab and your role as Head of Remote?
GitLab was all-remote from inception and has scaled to over 1,200 team members in more than 65 countries. GitLab helps teams collaborate on software development and project management.
My role as Head of Remote is unique, but I believe it will become far more common in the next 5+ years as suddenly-remote companies recognize that there is a lot of nuance in thriving in this environment. It requires a great deal of intentionality in on-boarding, fostering a welcoming atmosphere, and enabling informal communication.
I work across the company to ensure that people acclimate well to our remote-first practices, that our on-boarding improves over time, and our managers receive excellent training. I also work with our executives to consult with clients who have questions about working well remotely.
Could you share a few of the biggest remote work challenges you or your team have experienced, and, what have you done to address those challenges?
GitLab’s all-remote culture and our workplace methodologies are highly unique. Many of GitLab’s most effective processes would be discouraged or forbidden in conventional corporations. For example, we empower everyone to contribute and allow anyone to be questioned about anything. We operate public by default, have a bias towards asynchronous communication, a bias against meetings, and we encourage work to be shared in draft.
The biggest challenge is persuading new team members to give themselves permission to truly operate differently. It feels like a trap, and retreating to old defaults is dangerous. Loss of the values that bind us is one of our biggest risks, and I work hard to ensure that our team is able to unlearn everything that they need to while learning new tactics.
We have a growing list of ways that we reinforce our values. We have a public #thanks Slack channel, a discretionary bonus system that rewards people for living out our values, and regular AMAs with our executive team.
That's fantastic! How do you ensure employees are happier ánd more productive while working remotely?
Remote culture requires intentionality. We have a growing list of ways that we foster informal communication, including scheduled talent shows, trivia sessions, and Juicebox Chats (which allow kids to commandeer Zoom rooms and play).
We have a “no ask, must tell” time-off policy, as well as extraordinary benefits. Plus, as an all-remote team, we allow people to live and work where they’re most fulfilled. Due to our bias towards asynchronous workflows, we don’t require that people work a rigid set of hours. Instead, we measure results rather than inputs.
As an all-remote team, we allow people to live and work where they’re most fulfilled. We don’t require that people work a rigid set of hours. Instead, we measure results rather than inputs.
What, do you think, is the most common reason companies hesitate to allow remote work for their team or organization?
It’s tough to have the courage to buck tradition. For companies that already have a physical footprint, there’s the added reality that creating a thriving hybrid-remote environment is much tougher. You’re working with a two-tier system, where those who go into an office have one experience, and those who work outside of it have a far different one.
It also requires leadership to be very intentional about documentation, sourcing, hiring, and onboarding. However, the great remote migration following COVID-19 will push more to recognize that remote is a function that they’ll need to support in order to retain a competitive advantage.
Could you share your thoughts around how the coronavirus pandemic might change the way we work?
COVID-19 has accelerated the global embrace of remote work by 10 years. There’s no placing this genie back in its bottle. It has democratized the conversation. Now, it won’t be taboo to request concrete information about a company’s stance on flexibility during the early phases of a job interview, even if the posted role does not explicitly say that remote hires will be considered.
This will not result in mass closures of offices, but it will result in millions of people having new freedom to live and work where they’re most fulfilled. They can seek smaller communities with better air quality and schools, and no commute. They can move back home to care for elderly parents. They can move to a new country each month if they so choose.
It will make businesses more resilient. By decoupling geography and results, firms will be ready to face future crises.
It will also create a vital moment of pause to consider how tightly we, as a society, are tying our identities to our work. Isolation is making us realize en masse that said relationship may be unhealthy, and we should look to friends, neighbors, community, and family — not just work — to fill our social quota.
COVID-19 has accelerated the global embrace of remote work by 10 years. […] By decoupling geography and results, firms will be ready to face future crises.
What's your #1 remote work tip for those looking to make the leap of faith into remote work post-COVID-19?
An organization should not attempt to merely replicate the in-office/colocated experience, remotely. Instead, realize that remote is a journey of iteration, not a binary switch that can be flipped.
Figure out a sustainable path to graduate the phases of remote adaptation, and ensure that your leadership team stays out of the office. Workers will follow the lead of executives, and if you verbalize support of remote but quickly walk back into the office, you’re hampering all of the progress you’ve made in generating remote fluency during the pandemic.
Thank you so much for sharing these valuable insights! How can we further follow your work?
This article is part of the Rise of Remote Work LinkedIn Newsletter covering stories and insights from remote work leaders, experts, and advocates around the world. Interested to learn more about remote work? Feel free to schedule a 30-minute strategy session or download your free remote work policy checklist.
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