Interview: how to work remotely with 150+ people

After posting How to work remotely with 150+ people, I’ve received many requests to elabore. Here I answers some questions sent to me by Vlad.

What are the tools you’re using to communicate inside the company?

We use GitLab, the software we build ourselves, for almost all communication. It’s our single source of truth, where we collaborate on our website and where we do all our development.

Besides GitLab, we’re using Slack (we have over 200 channels) and several video calling solutions: Appear.in, Hangouts, Zoom and Slack calls.

How do you organize your Slack channels?

Anyone can make any channel they want to. We default to public, i.e. everyone can join. Our #random channel is very popular, we have several channels for specific countries, a #cute-pictures channel and we often instantiate channels for specific feature developments. Those channels get prefixed with f_, so #f_new-button for instance. Other worthwhile mentions: #secret-santa, #working-on (where you can share what you’re working on today: no obligation), #mentions-of-gitlab (where a bot shares mentions of GitLab around the internet), #diversity, #postcrossing and #starwars.

Do you have any rituals, schedules?

We have a daily call with the everyone in the company that can attend (depends on time zone and whether you’re available). The meeting is fixed at 30 minutes.

In the first 5 minutes, we go over the agenda. Everyone can add points and we have a strict way of handling who’s next: You always announce the person after you with the title of their agenda point. This speeds things up significantly.

The rest of the meeting, we spend talking about what we did in our free time over the past week. We’ve split the company in groups and there is a set day and order for everyone to tell something about themselves. We make a point of having everyone really tell something. If you just watched some TV, we encourage people to tell what they’ve watched and what they thought of it.

Other that this, it all depends on what you’re working on and with whom. We make a requirement to have at least a weekly one-on-one with every manager-report. We have a weekly scheduling meeting, but I’m trying to end that. It’s better to avoid meetings and do things asynchronously.

How often do you meet in real life? And what are the best tips you can give on this?

Every nine months we have a summit where the entire company comes together for a week of bonding and a bit of work. As I’m writing this, I’m still recovering from the jetlag, as our last summit in Cancun ended a few days ago.

We also give people the opportunity to travel to any other colleague, with GitLab sponsoring travel and stay. We’ve had two of our engineers travel the world for six months, going from one country to the next, working together in person with colleagues at every stop.

We also meet semi-regularly if there are several people nearby, for instance because of conferences or just because.

The funny thing is, coming together in person usually involves little work. There’s no point. Working asynchronously is much more efficient. We focus on having a good time together. If we do work together in the same space, you see that communication stays asynchronous and online.

So my tips are: get together when you can, but focus on having a good time. Get work done in the same way as when you’re remote.

How easy it was to convince your investors to invest in a remote company?

We’re very lucky with the investors we have. Working remote-only at scale has not been done before in the way that we do it and any unknown is a risk for an investor. We’re glad that they see the potential in our business and people.

Would it be easier to find investors if we weren’t remote? I’m not sure. If everything was equal, it’d be easier probably, but we wouldn’t be as successful if it wasn’t for our remote culture.

How hard it is to find employees willing to work in a remote company?

It’s very easy. I’ve yet to hear from people that would not want to work for a remote company. Some people are apprehensive about full time remote before trying it, but I’ve yet to hear of someone that regrets or is disappointed by it after giving it a try.

As you think about the future of your business and this type of work, what are you the most excited about?

When I was really young, I hated school. I didn’t understand why I had to do things I didn’t want to. I loved to learn, but why did it have to be so rigid and on someone else’s terms?

Not everyone has the luxury to work on the things they love all the time, but working remotely allows you to have a sane life next to your work. I’m excited to be building tools that allow people to collaborate effectively, tools that encourage working in the tool, not in the office. It’s my hope that by speaking up about this being possible at scale, and building tools that make this easier, more organisations will follow suit.

What is your primary source of inspiration when learning about remote working?

My colleagues. Everyone is committed to make this work and I hear great ideas to improve our remote culture every day.

What are the major downsides of working remote?

Given you work asynchronously successfully, there are no major downsides. You have to buy your own snacks though.

When the internet is down or slow, you can’t work properly.

How do you track how much time each employee spend on each task?

We don’t. We only care about output, not about time spent.

Do you have procedures or only guidelines?

We have processes for various things, but we’re continuously iterating on them. Everything is documented in our handbook and everyone is able and expected to contribute (even you! It’s open source!).

What is your favourite thing you like when working remote?

Time and freedom. I can work whenever and wherever I want. Inversely, if I want to visit the beach in the middle of the day, I can do so. Any day.

Commuting to and working from an office every single day seems like a crazy idea if you’ve been working remotely for a while.