GitLab’s Darren Murph on Building Remote Company Culture

Darren Murph on Remote Company Culture

Darren Murph knows a lot about remote work. As the Head of Remote at GitLab, he’s responsible for helping employees acclimate to the company’s all-remote culture. He also creates and continues to curate GitLab’s industry-leading guide to remote work: The Remote Playbook — which serves as a public library of tactical, implementable processes necessary for distributed teams to thrive. 

Many businesses that are new to working from home struggle to build and maintain company culture. So we thought we’d tap into Murph’s expertise to answer some of the most common questions about remote company culture. 

Maybe set the stage for us on a high level: What are the key elements of company culture?

Culture = values. This boils down to what a company’s values are and how they’re instilled in each team member, each process, and the way the organization communicates. A company’s values should be made well-known from the start – hiring managers should have open, transparent conversations with candidates about company values because they should be lived out, day-to-day. 

A few of GitLab’s core values are collaboration, transparency, and iteration, because we believe every team member, at any level, can contribute and should have insight into decisions our leadership makes. For example, due to our all-remote nature, it’s important for us to be fully transparent and document every line of communication — from meeting notes, to next steps on projects, to status updates — to make sure our global workforce all works from a single source of truth. 

And what are the main differences in building company culture for a remote team versus an in-office team? 

One of the biggest mistakes remote team leaders make is trying to create an exact replica of the in-office experience and culture, virtually. Often, in-office teams build a company culture that is molded over time by a series of random interactions and ideas — which isn’t necessarily the optimal approach. 

With remote teams, we’ve found that teams need to be much more intentional about how they communicate informally with one another to complement in-person interactions and help establish a company culture. 

In a remote team, there’s no office decor, hip coffee, or Spotify playlists that decide the culture, which is a gift. Instead, culture is written down. Culture is equal to the values you write down, and what you do as a leadership team to reinforce those values. 

A follow-up question to that, what elements of in-office company culture do not work at all or need to be rethought when shifting to remote work? 

As mentioned, working in a remote setting opens up the opportunity to rethink how to establish a company culture. Instead of relying on spontaneous interactions, an all-remote team has the opportunity to be more intentional about how team members interact and build relationships. 

Some of the ways GitLab has formalized informal communication has been through scheduled social calls that are specifically designed to help team members meet and interact virtually without an agenda, and as part of every GitLabber’s onboarding process we recommend that they set up virtual coffee chats and 1:1s with others at the company. 

We also are firm believers in not removing the “human” aspect of work. Those that are new to working remotely might be inclined to view children or pets interrupting video conference calls as a mistake. At GitLab, we believe in embracing these interactions as a way to help get to know one another. For example, we use juice box chats as a way for teams to use their Zoom accounts for kids to converse, play, and bond with each other across oceans and time zones. It helps allow us to meet and socialize intentionally and informally. 

What challenges do businesses often face when trying to build culture while working remotely?

Some of the biggest pain points include making sure that work-life harmony is still being achieved and avoiding loneliness. When companies are thrust into a remote setting, whether intentionally or not, it can be difficult for managers and employees to strike a balance between working hours and non-working hours. Company values play a strong role here. For example, we strongly believe in results over hours spent working, asynchronous communication and having the flexibility to work a non-linear workday if that’s what makes you most productive. Establishing these values that are ingrained in every team member, from top to bottom, can help address the challenges many face when starting to work remotely. 

Remote companies have a very different hiring and onboarding process. How can you ensure new remote hires are integrated into the company culture? 

The key to a successful company culture is all about intentionality. Building a culture remotely isn’t any more difficult than building culture in a co-located setting, it just requires a more strategic approach.

Our day-to-day behaviors, meetings, and communication styles reflect our values and build company culture. When onboarding new employees, we pull them right into our company culture through those practices. While co-located culture can be based on who’s the biggest charisma or the loudest voice in the room, our onboarding and all-remote philosophy allow new employees to feel comfortable and adapt to our culture by making their voices heard in a unique way. 

Additionally, to ensure new remote hires are integrated into the company culture, our onboarding tasks include getting set up on Slack and scheduling Zoom calls with new team members to ensure social connections. It is also highly important to have an onboarding buddy who can provide guidance and perspective throughout the transition.

How can company culture help combat some of the common hardships of remote work, like social isolation or overwork?

With strong company culture, social isolation and overwork shouldn’t be a problem. According to recent GitLab research in the Remote Work Report, fewer than 10% of remote work survey participants associated remote work with the terms alone, tired, and misunderstood. 

GitLab aims to maintain a connected employee base by encouraging employees to:

  • Schedule breaks to interact with friends/family in your home or nearby in your community.
  • Leverage video to connect face-to-face and serve as a nice break from the quiet of an at-home workspace. Video calls will help you feel connected to your team, friends, and family while staying at home for extended periods of time.
  • Engage with colleagues on non-work topics, via Slack or ad hoc video calls. Foster a sense of connection with others over more than just work, the same as you would in typical “water cooler” conversations. 

As for overworking, at GitLab, we value outputs rather than input. Valuing results enables a healthier atmosphere. By placing a genuine focus on rewarding inputs, all-remote teams have a shared desire to be excellent at their work, generate meaningful outcomes that move a business forward, and disengage with work as early as is practical. All-remote teams are not incentivized to stay late for the sake of being seen.

Are there specific tools that can help support companies as they build remote culture?

Success in remote work is all about collaboration. As such, it is important to implement collaborative technologies to communicate and work together. At GitLab, we use Zoom, Slack, and Google docs to communicate asynchronously and ensure all of our work is documented efficiently. 

To help build empathy amongst remote teammates, Sike Insights is building a tool called Kona. This will help bridge the empathy gap, and ensure that remote colleagues feel like they have a relational foundation when working together. 

How can businesses prepare their company culture for the future of work? 

As technology continues to improve how we communicate and how businesses operate across the globe, the need for brick-and-mortar offices and consistent, on-site attendance will continue to decrease. Remote work is here to stay, and use cases for it will only multiply. The future of work is remote, and to prepare for the next phase of work, companies must consider remote work an essential part of their offerings, not just a luxury. 

Companies will need to invest in leadership training, particularly for managers who have traditionally relied on subjective measures for performance reviews. Remote leadership requires a heightened level of transparency, increased receptivity to feedback, and swapping command and control for servant-leadership. 

A massive thank you to GitLab’s Darren Murph for taking the time to share his insights on remote work culture.

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