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The Future of Work Isn’t Remote Anymore … it’s Now the Work of the Present

The novel coronavirus outbreak has blurred the lines between work and home lives for many people fortunate enough to work in roles that can be done remotely, hurtling us into a new era of business operations and workplace norms. What first felt like a temporary situation that would resolve in a couple of weeks has stretched well into the month of May, with a future that still remains uncertain. One thing I believe is certain is that remote-first will be the default for most companies going forward. 

Late last year, we surveyed more than 3,000 workers across various industries, roles and geographic locations about their experience with remote work. Of the respondents, 86 percent said they believe remote work is the future (I imagine that number would be much higher were we to survey them today; we plan to re-poll annually), and nearly 90 percent of respondents said they believe they could perform their job remotely using their current technology. 

 

There’s No Putting The Genie Back In The Bottle

The global embrace of remote workers has been accelerated by at least 10 years due to COVID-19. With the lack of a clear timeline for when we can expect the virus to be mitigated or, at the very least, prevented from spreading through second and third waves of outbreak, some digital companies have told their employees to expect to work from home through the end of the year. Others, however, seem to accept that working remotely is an inevitable and necessary future for the health and safety of employees and communities, and are opting to go all-in on transitioning to a fully remote structure. Once the public gathering restrictions and shelter-in-place orders are loosened, most employers should expect much of their workforce to perform their jobs from home at least a couple of days a week. 

According to a survey by IBM, 54 percent of the 25,000 working adults it surveyed said they’d prefer to primarily work from home, while 75 percent said they would like the option to do so occasionally. Forty percent responded that they felt strongly that they should have an opt-in option from their employer to work from home. 

For a long time, many people tied their identity to where they worked. This sudden separation from the office will serve as a pivotal moment of pause for millions of people to consider precisely that. How interweaved is our identity to the building we march into, day after day? What if it didn’t have to be? 

Even employers reluctant to stray from traditional working norms prior to the pandemic find it hard to deny that the benefits outweigh the risks. In fact, remote work could actually help businesses avoid risk. For example, businesses tied to specific geolocations risk compromising their business were a location-bound emergency to occur.

We’ve been fully remote at GitLab since our inception in 2014, and while we haven’t escaped the impact of this pandemic, the effect on how we operate is significantly less than the many businesses going remote for the first time. Getting to this point has required a lot of well-thought-out strategy, multiple iterations of practices, a lot of collaboration, and is always evolving as we grow and learn from organizational and individual experiences.

However, there are some things that have proven to be absolutely essential for running an all-remote company.

 

1. Establish A Remote Infrastructure

Now that working from home has been a reality for a couple of months, every digital company in the world is forced to lay a remote infrastructure as a matter of business continuity. Additionally, setting up a remote infrastructure allows organizations to more easily hire, equip and onboard remote workers in the future. To build a strong infrastructure for the future, it’s important that organizations opting to go remote take inventory of what has worked and what hasn’t:

  • What voids have become apparent?
  • What areas of communication need improvement?
  • What confusion has emerged?
  • What tools have helped with the transition?
  • What tools are other fully remote teams using that empower those who might work for your organization?

Lean into what’s worked, and consider tools and tactics that other fully remote organizations swear by. Additionally, encourage employees to resist the urge to default to meetings and instead rely on asynchronous communication wherever possible.

 

2. Create A Single Source Of Truth And Live And Work By It

One of the most sizable challenges when going remote is keeping everyone informed in an efficient way. In order to communicate company-wide, a single location to document common questions around tools, access, company values and culture, job role expectations, and so on, is incredibly important. 

At GitLab, our robust and comprehensive handbook is our single source of truth for all 1,250-plus global employees. Any time something new is implemented, it’s put in the handbook. This way, employees don’t have to wait for a response from a coworker in a different time zone, and information doesn’t have to be repeated multiple times. If an employee has a question, they’re encouraged to look for the answer in the handbook before asking a coworker. 

Putting emphasis around systematically documenting important process changes and company updates in a central place helps us avoid confusion, interruptions and dysfunction. To start a rudimentary handbook quickly, consider the Suddenly Remote Handbook.

 

3. Put Major Emphasis On Transparency And Communication Across The Organization

One of the biggest challenges many workers find about working remotely is communicating and collaborating with colleagues and clients. To help combat this, it’s important to find ways to effectively and efficiently communicate, as well as to default to transparency as a guiding principle when sharing information, even if hiding the facts would be easier. 

Asynchronous communication is increasingly necessary for remote workforces, especially those that are widely distributed across time zones, but it only works best when there is companywide alignment on how and where to input communication. Leaders should carefully select the tools their organization uses to communicate, and aim to direct communication to as few channels as possible. 

Establishing transparency as a value for your organization also helps to foster trust in a remote setting and can help ease the transition for managers accustomed to keeping tabs on their employees. Conversely, when transparency is properly practiced by managers, it helps employees understand what is expected of them from a deliverable aspect rather than actionable. Having a single source of truth will also help promote transparency across an organization. Any changes made to the company should have the reasons for the change clearly laid out and documented. A change with no public explanation can lead to a lot of extra questioning. As we say at GitLab, “Say why, not just what.”

 

4. Drive Cultural Change

Establishing a strong work culture is probably more important for remote teams than those that work in-office. According to a 2018 study from Walden University, remote workers are more engaged with their employer, for longer periods of time, when they have “a personal connection to the organization’s mission and vision, and where they feel the work culture is familial.”

When transitioning to remote, don’t try to create an exact replica of the in-office experience and culture. Consider each aspect of your company culture that is unwritten or implied, and document each one. If you need inspiration, look to other fully remote companies and how they engage their employees on a daily basis. It will also help to document any company values. There is great power and efficiency in teams who share company values. Values give guidelines on how to behave within the organization, but they must also be actionable. They provide a framework for distributed decision-making and allow individuals to determine what to do without needing input from their manager. 

 

Keep It Human

Although tragic, this pandemic has revealed the humanity of us all. While it’s important to maintain a semblance of boundary between work and home life, the reality is that working remotely has put us all in vulnerable situations. We’ve opened part of our home to all of our colleagues via video conferences, with children, partners and pets inevitably popping in and out of frame during meetings. It’s important to accept this as par for the course in this new era of remote work. Embrace these interactions as a way to get to know one another better.

For years, many have been told that their job “cannot be done from home,” and suddenly, it can. As millions of people recognize this at once, they’ll begin to realize how significant autonomy is. They’ll spend more time with their family. They’ll have a choice when it comes to spending the time previously assigned to a commute: resting, cooking, cleaning, exercising, community service. The list is long.

I believe that we’ll emerge from this with a healthier outlook on who we are. We are neighbors, sons, daughters and community members first—colleagues second. We are experiencing a revelation that work and geography can be decoupled. If work can be done from anywhere with a stable internet connection, the door suddenly opens for a much more fulfilling life.


Darren Murph Gitlab headshot

Darren Murph is Head of Remote at GitLab. In this role, he leads all remote initiatives and is an expert on best practices for implementing or transitioning to remote-work. He is also a Guinness World Record holder in publishing and has over 12 years of experience recruiting and leading globally distributed teams in media, communications, and marketing. He’s an explorer at heart, having traversed nearly 50 countries and all 50 US states, becoming a Delta Million Miler along the way. He’s passionate about enabling remote work for all and credits his remote-work lifestyle to being able to become an adoptive parent.

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