Over the course of last month, my co-founder Allison and I spent a good deal of our time evaluating whether it would be possible to bring on a remote employee based in Canada to join our team at Proof Trading. For context, the two of us are based in New York and our company is a Delaware C-Corp.
We’re still in the early days of our operation, but GitLab’s distributed team model has been an inspiration to us. GitLab has team members in over 50 countries around the world, so if anyone could provide advice, we figured it would be them. One of the first places we looked in tackling this challenge was their Employee Handbook, which is densely packed with helpful information.
Of note, we found these pages extremely useful as they detail GitLab’s approach to bringing on remote team members:
It turns out GitLab hires remote employees through a variety of different mechanisms around the world. Sometimes they set up a local subsidiary, sometimes they use a local staffing agency, and other times they hire the individual as an independent contractor. In Canada specifically, they use a staffing agency called CXC Global. We were curious to learn how they made this decision, so we reached out through a mutual contact to see if someone at GitLab could provide more insight. To our surprise and delight, their CEO Sid Sijbrandij offered to have a video call with me to go through my questions! As such, I decided to also take the opportunity to ask some additional questions about distributed teams in general. Here’s the recording of our call:
Here were my questions and the takeaways from Sid’s responses:
Logistics of hiring remote team members around the world
Our old company did not particularly embrace remote work, but we want Proof to be extremely amenable to it. In particular, right now we’re exploring bringing on an employee based in Canada, and we’re bumping up again logistical questions like how to approach the employment arrangement. As such, we’d love to hear more from your perspective.
- What issues did you face bringing on team members all around the world, particularly in the early days?
GitLab still faces logistical issues bringing on team members around the world, but as its got bigger, it now has the opportunity to incorporate in more countries and have a traditional employer relationship in those. In countries where that’s still hard, they sometimes hire a professional employment organization (PEO) to be the employer of record (EOR). In other cases, the team members are contractors. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and they continually monitor where there are high numbers of team members and which places are a nexus of business to determine when to incorporate in a new country.
- When hiring an employee in a new country, how did you choose between the various options for onboarding them? (e.g. creating a local subsidiary vs. using a staffing firm vs. independent contractor). In particular, why did you choose to use CXC Global in Canada?
“We have a firm that advises us on which option to use. They take into account how many people we have there, how much business we do there, and the legal requirements in that country, and then they run a risk assessment.”
In the early days, they didn’t use an advisory firm for making these choices, but since they had so few people, incorporating locally was rarely the best option, so they would mainly hire individuals as contractors or through an EOR.
In Canada specifically, because GitLab does not have a large number of employees there and because CXC Global is a good PEO option, they chose to go down that route.
- Have you faced any complications related to issuing equity or options to team members in different countries?
GitLab has run into remarkably few issues with issuing equity. They recently did an audit on the 40+ countries in which they’ve issued options, and there were basically no issues. The one country that does pose more challenges is China.
- Is there any other advice you would offer to a new company trying to bring on remote international team members?
Sid is extremely proud of the fact that they issue options to all their team members around the world. Most companies take the approach of only issuing options to employees in the U.S., but this runs the risk of unfairness in the case that the options become valuable. They are very glad they took the harder path of issuing options everywhere.
We’ve just gone from a 100-person open floor plan, loud, constant interruption work environment to now starting a two-person, remote-friendly company, so all of this is very new to us.
- Could you describe your remote collaboration tools and which tools are preferred in different scenarios? (e.g. Issues, Email, Chat, Video Chat, Docs, etc.)
“We use a lot of GitLab (issues, merge requests). We use Slack extensively, but it’s never the system of record, so if there’s a meaty issue we make an issue. We still have meetings but they’re much more focused. Every meeting has a Google Doc with an agenda and people put their questions in there during the meeting and they’re answered there as well.
“The solution to most issues is either an update to the code base or an update to the Employee Handbook which are the company processes. To figure out high-level things with a lot of back and forth, employees are encouraged to hop on a video call. Meetings, either regular meetings or one-offs, have this Google Doc attached.
“Every single meeting at GitLab is optional. People can judge their use of time, and if you don’t feel the meeting is useful to you, you can skip it. Or even once you join, if you find it’s not relevant, you’re encouraged to jump off.”
- Do you have a process for encouraging team members to try out new productivity tools and/or for introducing new tools company-wide?
“We don’t have a process, but we do have a Tools and Tips section in the handbook where people can see what others use and add their own. People at GitLab tend to be curious and try new things on their own. There are lots of additions to the Handbook every single day.”
- One of my biggest worries going from an intensely social and in-person work environment to a distributed team was loneliness — how does GitLab combat employee loneliness?
“We do chit-chat — we call them Coffee Chats. There doesn’t need to be an agenda, and you don’t need to talk about work, and they’re encouraged. When a new person joins, we ask them to do 10 Coffee Chats to get them used to the idea.
“We also encourage people to meet up in real life. There’s a travel budget, and we pay for employees to travel to meet up with each other or to organize local meetups. I have a house back in the Netherlands and team members are welcome to stay there too. Every 9 months, we fly everyone together into one location for a company-wide retreat, most recently in Cape Town. It’s very important to interact with other people — I’m perfectly comfortable doing that remotely, but some team members choose to work from a co-working space to be around others (not necessarily co-workers), and we pay for that as well.”
The call with Sid gave us a great deal of confidence that we could hire the employee and that using a staffing firm was an excellent approach. Afterwards, I reached out to CXC Global, the EOR that GitLab uses, but for our particular use case CXC actually recommended we use a different firm: Globalization Partners. CXC is primarily a contractor staffing firm, whereas Globalization Partners is a more full-service PEO firm. Since we were hoping to bring on the individual as an employee with benefits, Globalization Partners seemed to be a perfect option for what we wanted to do.
We’re thrilled to report that we were able to onboard the employee on March 1st, and everything has gone off without a hitch. A huge thank you to Sid and GitLab for being such a wonderful resource!