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This startup closed its office and went remote-only with Sytse ‘Sid’ Sijbrandij (GitLab)

Many workplaces are remote-friendly, letting you work a day from home every now & then. But what if your company abandonned the concept of a physical office altogether, to become remote-only? That’s the experiment YCombinator startup GitLab started several years ago. One hundred employees later, their global corporate HQ is more empty than ever. Their CEO explains how they adapted from remote engineering to remote sales, how they keep their culture in check, and why being remote-only leads to higher company productivity.

Tim Anglade, Executive in Residence at Scale Venture Partners: End of the day, it’s been a long day.

Sytse ‘Sid’ Sijbrandij, Co-founder and CEO of GitLab: A long day.

Tim: What what’s the schedule even like, because you have people all around the world, so when do you work, I guess?

Sid: Yeah, I start my day at eight o’clock mostly. And that’s to have some overlap with Europe

Tim: Do you have some people in APAC or in Australia?

Sid: Yeah, we have them on six continents. So, sometimes, I recently did a special meeting just with the APAC people because, because I’m not in touch with them as much as with others.

Tim: I used to have to do the same thing. It’s really hard, it’s really odd hours, but it’s kind of crazy. So you start at eight and I’m guessing it must run pretty long during the evenings too, but that’s more kind of regular with startups, right, to kind of have to work after to dinner and do all these things?

Sid: Yeah, well, ends around six. Half of the time there’s a business dinner. I tend to bring my wife to them, so we do that together. And at night sometimes I work, sometimes not.

Tim: At least you have office quietness, right? Because we’re in the global HQ of GitLab and it’s pretty nice and quiet here, it’s pretty empty. And it’s pretty small too, and I was really surprised. I guess I knew you guys were a remote company in a very strict sense, and it’s kind of still very surprising to see such a small and empty office. When did you create this office?

Sid: So after we graduated from YCombinator, we thought we’re going to hire salespeople here and I knew that engineers were open to remote work, but it didn’t work for sales organizations. So we got this place, I thought it would last us about half a year, but then the sales people came and they came a few times and then they stopped coming. They started working from home, they didn’t like the two-hour commute from Alameda to San Francisco, so then I was like, okay, am I going to force them to come, or am I going to say results matter and I said, I care about the results and they made their quota, so it was fine.

Tim: I see more and more of those sort of satellite sales offices now, where people go and get some cheap office in Denver or in Arizona and then you know kind of hire salespeople there, so even if you don’t have working from home type of salespeople, the idea of having them at HQ is kind of falling out of favor a little bit, especially in the Bay Area where rent prices and commuting is so complicated. So, yeah, it’s interesting, not only these remotes, not just technical people, it’s like business and everything else tend to be more disconnected.

Sid: And it’s not like that we hire “working from home” people. Most of the salespeople we hire worked at an office before. So it’s just, if you give them the choice, most will say, “I want to be able to travel without taking vacation “and I want to be there for my kids, “I want to be there for my partner or my family.”

Tim: It’s a big transition, I think, overall. We’re in this shift where I remember just a few years ago you know, finding a remote-friendly job as a developer was “Oh, I’m pretty happy, they’re letting me do a day from home a week.” Or something like that, to now I think you find a lot of companies very willing to hire people, at least some people that are fully remote on top of having remote days to now non-technical positions, support positions even being partially or fully remote. And it’s been kind of a gradual shift over the past five, 10 years it seems like. So how did you get to that kind of conclusion for GitLab. Was it something you always figured was in the blueprint, or something you learned from a previous experience? How did you decide to make GitLab a remote company?

Sid: So it started remote because Dmitri was in the Ukraine, I was in the Netherlands, so the open-source community around GitLab was remote, so that was the default. And when we hired people, I had an extra desk at home, so people came in but they quickly stopped coming. You can add more desks to the office, but people are voting with their feet. They’d rather stay at home if you don’t make them come. So another point was when we graduated from YCombinator, just told you and the last point was when we hired our first BDR team, those are mostly people at the beginning of their career, and our sales management wasn’t sure whether that would work. Would these people be motivated? Do they need the energy of a group setting? And they do need the energy of a group, but they don’t need to be in an office. And I think we learned it and at some point we said, “This is actually better.” This allows us to scale better, it allows us to get great people, because people are looking for remote jobs, the companies aren’t offering them. So we get to hire better people and because everyone’s remote everyone’s on the same level. You’re not missing out by not being at the head office.

Tim: That’s a very important point, actually. That disconnect sometimes there is between people that are remoting and office life, and I want to get back to that, but let’s talk more about some of the reasons why remoting is actually a positive. And so you mention hiring people, better people that maybe are looking for more flexibility in their working schedule, with their working accommodation, or shorter commutes, but I’ve also heard this argument made: maybe there’s great developers or salespeople in like, Arizona or Australia or whatever and your HQ is probably not there if you’re the average startup and so you get to tap into that talent that you would never be able to hire if you force them locally. But have you seen other advantages in terms of productivity, effectiveness, happiness, what are some of the reasons you feel like remote culture can be superior?

Sid: Yeah, I think people are more effective. You have a lot more higher ability to plan your day and not get interrupted and it goes for everyone, not only engineers, but marketing people, everyone at the companies feels that they’re being more effective and that they save a lot of time because of that, it’s not so easy, like if you plan a meeting it’s not like you round up by walking by some desks, it’s not the spirit of the moment so you tend to have less meetings as a company and more stuff is written down, which makes people more effective. They don’t have to go around asking, everything’s written down. People can balance it with their lives. They can go to the gym during the day when there’s nobody there, they can do their groceries when they feel like it, like many times if you work hard for a couple of hours you sometimes need a break. And right now that feels weird to go out of the office and three o’clock and return at four, like no one does that. If you’re by yourself at home, that’s okay.

Tim: Yeah, the effectiveness is interesting, because I think a lot of people assume, and it is true you can be terribly ineffective whether at home or at work, it is a bit of a personal thing too. Some people will do great, some people will do the same, and some people will do horribly without kind of the framework and the control, I’ve noticed, of an office and regular hours and that just kind of comes down to personalities, psychology, maybe. But, it is amazing how much more effective some people, at least, can be, or some companies can be, because you think about people wasting time at home and errands, and maybe there’s kids around or something like that, but you waste so much time at an office too, just kind of like hanging out at the cafeteria or running into people and getting dragged into an impromptu meeting and just commuting and everything else that people tend to only see kind of the way you can lose time at home but they don’t really necessarily know they lose time at the office.

Sid: If you waste time at the office it’s kind of legitimate. And it’s still a waste of time, so the only thing we try to do is make sure that people have time for chitchat without feeling bad about it, so we have a concept of virtual coffee breaks. So you schedule a coffee break with someone, one on one, a person you like or want to get to know better and it’s half an hour, it’s okay not to talk about work. You don’t have to feel bad about it. We make everyone who joins the company do at least 10 so they get a taste of that because people are super effective at home and you want to also facilitate feeling part of a group.

Tim: And it seems like that would kind of link back to that thing you were saying before about not having the stigma of office life versus remote and also about bringing some of that natural culture, for lack of a better word, that you create in having and office and having people getting to know each other through non-work interactions. So those may be some of the two biggest challenges I’ve seen in companies that are partially remote or mostly remote and they’re definitely worth stealing. So maybe we can go into a bit more detail about them. Obviously one of the first things you lose with a remote culture is a sense of knowing people, because you only know them through Slack or email and that tends to be a very different personality, right, than the personality you have in real life. I think we all do this to some extent, where we express ourselves via text, or via written text in a different way than we behave. You don’t have all the clues of behaving as in person.

Sid: So, we put a lot of thought and effort in that. So apart from the virtual coffee break, we have a team meeting everyday, it’s half an hour, and more than half of that time is spent with people talking about what they did in the weekend. So it’s personal. So you get to see every one of our 100 people, you get to see what they did, or you hear what they did and they share their stories. Of course a lot of discourse is happening in chat channels as well, which is great, and two times a year we bring everyone together, fly them to one location and spend a week together mostly focused on fun and non-work activities.

Tim: And that can be very expensive, because, you know, you have to factor that into the cost of running the company in a remote kind of way. Yeah, the culture bit is interesting. Like those personal interactions, because I’ve seen that really catch up with you so quickly, where people just kind of drift. And they take, let’s say micro-aggressions or like emails that didn’t read the same way you intended them, or vice-versa and that kind of tension really builds up, and if you don’t have a sense of the other person and who they are as a human being, I find that’s one of the hardest things to negotiate. So building in that personal time seemed like a really efficient way to deal with that.

Sid: So far it’s been going great, and everyone after their first week says, “Your people are so nice, that’s amazing.” And they kind of adjust and become nice themselves. Kindness is one of our values. We totally encourage people, if you have a couple of interactions on email or chat, go hop on a video call, turn on your video camera, get that non-verbal language going as well. Like, what tone do you set at the company as management and what do you encourage and I think that’s going really also fine.

Tim: And kind of a bit overblown, but I want to stress for people how important it is in the context of remote culture, because you think of most workplace communication, they’re about being effective. They’re about like, you condense information. You say like, “I need this meeting,” or, “I need this thing done.” And you think about efficiency a lot of times. And that efficiency is what can be very very grating when you don’t know the person, and so if you spend a bit of extra time to kind of add flourish, add personality, add humor and kindness to your emails to your Slack messages to whatever communication you have, I kind of feel like that’s one of the key things, it’s focusing less on the efficiency and more on the kindness, and that’s really critical.

Sid: It’s hard, because you’re in a – it’s not just North American people, so it’s hard to do it verbally, and like directness and being succinct is also part of our company culture, but we do encourage using emojis liberally. We have a thank you channel where day in, day out you see people being thanked. We have a bonus and people get it for doing something they weren’t asked and I think it’s just focusing all that from the top, like it’s very good to be direct, but it’s kind and that combination, getting that right, so people able to give feedback and people able to take feedback about their work but being very kind for the person and very understanding and I think that’s a tone that you set, also, as senior management.

Tim: Right. And there’s definitely, I think, a lot of linked issues. So you briefly mentioned multiculturalism. The fact that you’re going to naturally deal with people coming from very different backgrounds even within North America, to be honest, and that’s not really a remote problem per se, but it tends to be exacerbated by a remote company where you hire a a lot of people in a lot of different places, and so I completely agree it’s something people need to have on their radar even more so than the average company. But the other thing we mentioned was the difference between remote people and non-remote people and I think that’s such a strong thing to keep an eye on if you’re doing a partially remote culture because very quickly you’ll have this kind of clique feeling that develops within an office.

Sid: Doing it hybrid, on premise remote is super hard, so that’s why we avoided that.

Tim: Absolutely, and so I think that’s a good word of wisdom. And there’s tons of really great stuff you put on the manifesto, the remote manifesto you published last year and was kind of different things you found in different roles, so I think it’s a really great place to get started. And it’s really definitely amazing to see a company grow as well as GitLab, doing the remote thing.

Sid: It’s been great, because we were March last year we were nine people and now we’re over 100 and we didn’t have to move offices so otherwise we would have had to move three times. So it’s been a good time saver.

Tim: Cool, thank you so much, and congrats on everything!

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