GitLab's guidelines for people success

Rapid growth. Excellent customer scores. An engaged and happy workforce. The tech firm’s VP of Talent & Engagement reveals how this was all done with a 100% remote team...

Words by Daniel Cave

PwC’s latest survey of CEOs concluded that company leaders will need to change, think differently, and constantly re-evaluate their decisions in order to both survive and thrive going forward. Many are ready to do this, in one way, by aiming to upskill their workforce and delivering on an increased demand, by workers, for better alignment between overall economic, or business, growth and societal conditions at large. As well as this, many CEOs stated they’ll be looking to – in numbers double those in 2016 – ensure that technological investment and better productivity go hand-in-hand. These foci sound simple but it’s a lot to contend with.

However, this to-do list of intent is hardly conclusive for those at the top. Already many employers are also facing up to higher pressure to develop an employee experience that works to attract, retain, engage and make productive talent – an increased demand for this, and need to deliver this, is catalysed largely by recent cross-sector hiring struggles, an increase in the number of resignations and a reframing of what employers need to offer employees (especially regards wellbeing and more flexible work structures). Many are also having to throw the rulebook out for their old EVP and reburnish, or make anew, what their values and mission statements look like.

It’s enough to ramp up the executive, and HR, stress levels but find the right solutions and it might be possible to fix a few of these issues with a few broad, albeit iterated, changes. For example, if organisations can find a work structure that delivers on what employees want (and believe they need in order to perform) – FlexJobs statistics from summer 2021 found that 97% of workers want at least some form of remoteness in their work – it might also indicate what technological investment and digital innovation they need. It might also help to understand what kind of cultural, organisational and experience investments and safeguards they need to focus on iterating too.

From the outside, it can sound slightly controlled but it's not...

Looking at a roadmap

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Prior to the pandemic, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed that only five per cent of people mainly worked from home, which jumped to a staggering 46% of the total workforce in April 2020 as the UK locked down. Such a quick step change in working structures, came as many firms made up new structures on the fly, with many systems not designed for the long term – and definitely not with building a great employee experience in mind.

Amidst the anecdotes of exhausting back-to-back Zoom meetings, tales of burnout-inducing hours as worried individuals practiced remote presenteeism, and stories of laptops stacked on books or worked from in crannies of shared housing, Deloitte compared trying to manage the undeniable increased pace of transformation to digital and new work structures transformation to that of an acute intervention by a doctor trying to stabilise a seriously ill patient. Now, as the consultancy writes, in a blog titled 'Digital transformation through the lens of COVID-19', it’s about creating “pivots necessary to respond to persistent and long-lived disruptions” i.e. creating solutions that make work great for people and new dynamics of employment and business in the long term.

It’s here that modelling can be useful, which is why myGrapevine magazine reached out to GitLab. For those, like me, who are not so digitally well-versed, the California-headquartered technology firm essentially create tools and processes to help programmers programme better. They are powered by a 1000-strong team (with plans to scale) and achieved a market cap of over £11billion last year when they went to IPO, driven by huge year-on-year growth and a quickly growing number of customers spending over £75,000 on their services annually. All of this achieved with an all-remote team – more about that term later – that wasn’t just put in place because of the pandemic. It’s been remote since its start in 2014 and they believe – and some external qualifications suggest – this hasn’t come at the expense of collaboration, results or the experience of those that work at the firm.


Freedom at work

In fact, as Robert Allen, Vice President of Talent & Engagement at GitLab explains, it is this lack of expectation around adhering to traditional working structures that has enabled good work from employees, a better experience and driven good engagement from the workforce. Speaking exclusively to myGrapevine magazine, he says: “What GitLab discovered quickly is that people are more productive when they are in an environment of their choice and when they're able to blend their work, and professional obligations with whatever's going on in their personal life.”

This ‘employee choice’ model is what it appears GitLab are pushing for. GitLab emphasise results first – it’s the apex value in their hierarchy of values – and whilst they do hold other values as foundational (Collaboration, Efficiency, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, Iteration & Transparency make up the largest ones, though there are a revolving set of constantly evolving sub values) and adhere to an asynchronous work model wherever possible – ergo, there is a large manner of freedom in how employees to choose how they get to the result the company needs – good business outcomes top the chart.

Yet, this doesn’t mean they’re work first. They also state on their reems and reems of values and ‘how we work’ web documents – if printed, GitLab claim they would number more than 8,000 pages, including values, aims, videos from executives, links to learning documents, processes, and how to contact the CEO directly if you think you would like to ask them to tweak part of the culture (even if you’re not an employee!) – that family and friends come first, the implication being they are very much open to flexible work.


...but clear structures used

However, this isn’t unlimited freedom-come-flexibility or, rather, a freedom where employees aren’t given any guidance on which to work to. Again, on their publicly accessible company pages – “GitLab openly shares more information than most companies and is public by default, meaning our projects, strategy, direction and metrics are discussed openly and can be found within our website,” they state on this area of the site – they have countless information on how employees can best work (and how GitLab think they should work, build collaborative networks, go about seeking feedback, and how to prioritise their worktime).

They even pay attention to the smallest details. For example, as GitLab have de-prioritised meeting attendance and advocate for employees saying no to meeting-heavy schdeules, they have fairly rigid expectations on what a meeting convener has to do in order to ensure both non-attendees and attendees are as informed about what the inputs and outcomes will be.

This isn’t just a top-down approach to work though. This formula for meetings – and many other guidances around different aspects of work at the term – have been iterated by multiple voices at the firm. This is something Robert speaks to. “From the outside, it can sound slightly controlled but it's not,” he explains. “What it's trying to drive is efficiency of time between all of the teams and so that the agenda piece and the nonlinear agenda piece and the kind of the objectives pieces are a good tiny snippet into kind of what we expect from our team members. I think that whilst the employee’s world becomes more flexible, the world in which they work needs to become slightly smaller, because they need to have great focus when you are at work.”

Guidance from GitLab

Focus on guidance and key expectations are therefore a key part of, what appears to be, a fairly radical flexible model. For Robert’s team, it’s not just about ensuring that they can offer flexibility to both incumbent talent – according to Microsoft’s 2021 study 'The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?' over seven in ten employees want some form of flexible work going forward – but ensuring that it works as the company scales too and that the cultural, social, and traditional administrative elements of work, such as onboarding and simply making mates, don’t suffer. “This concept of joining a remote company, it sounds absolutely fantastic. In practice, there are lots of elements of a work day in an office that you miss and of course lots of benefits you miss out on, too,” he says.

Therefore, to ensure an employee feels like they are aligned to the values of GitLab and are able to complete their work and have a seamless work life – GitLab focus on values fit when hiring rather than culture hiring, as they believe it holds people to account during performance reviews, enables diversity rather than monocultural talent acquisition, and ensures they’re hiring the right people – Robert’s team focus on clear communication as well as cultural and performance structures, something that requires intent when employees are together in one location.

“I think what organisations need to get right is that communications muscle. If [workers] have a question with a corporate credit card, or they have an HR complaint, you have got to think through how a team member or an employee is supported from home. We [HR] need to ask: how do we provide an amazing employee experience to these people at home, when their homes are across 62 different countries and 62 different cultures.”


Creating amazing employee experiences

Robert answers the questions himself, agreeing with myGrapevine magazine when we put it to him that part of ensuring this “amazing employee experience” could be about HR starting to become a more active organisational design thinking unit. He also thinks it’s about companies rethinking key performance indicators. “Remote working didn’t take off in the UK or EMEA [prior to the pandemic]. We had such an office-based culture and office attendance was seen as a success measure or performance or productivity measure. [For GitLab] we had to think not just about providing tools that allowed individuals to be their most productive selves, we needed to ensure that [we] were thinking through how we do performance management remotely, too,” he adds.

A lot of this is clearly inscribed in the company handbooks – again, with clear examples, that employees can access in a self-service manner, detailing how feedback should work, how targets are used, and how employees are expected to engage, communicate and go about structuring their own work and focus on results, as well as what role managers are supposed to play in this work. It’s purposeful and clear and, at least from outside appearances, seems to give employees a fairly clear understanding of what good performance might look like.

(Robert also believes that by being remote and clearly describing what GitLab are about to potential hires, it helps ensure that for those who stick around they are definitely there for the right reasons, which has obvious implications for cohesion and culture. “I think that by not going into work, and not having that constant drumbeat of, drinking the Kool Aid trying to impress this person or be on time for that person, leaves you a lot of time with your thoughts. And if you're not happy, you find out about it very quickly,” he explains.)


Self-service experience

This focus on guidance, it appears, doesn’t create a parent-infant dynamic. It’s clear that a lot of the supporting documentation for this is self-service – the onus being on the employee to access guiding material or supporting learning material (there are multiple videos on what the CEO thinks about certain aspects of business life to what books and research aspects of their culture) – and employees are encouraged to help iterate many aspects of company life together, even by reaching out directly to the CEO. He does believe HR should have a central role in enabling this fairly novel dynamic, though. “We have a responsibility as an HR community to innovate at this point. This is a point at which we need to decide what the next ten to 15 years look like. And a lot of that will depend on how we improve and how we're developing the workforces of the future,” he adds.

And whilst Robert is careful not to state that a radical remote model is not a causation of GitLab’s recent IPO success, he is clear that by focusing on the details of what outputs they expect employees to deliver, and the environment they’re creating for employees to deliver in, that he believes they’re creating structures that don’t harm business results. Some of this driven by how they conceive remote. It’s not a treat for staff, or not something enforced by the pandemic, but the way they work that also happens to give some staff more psychological safety, gives neurodiverse talent structures in which they can thrive, and allows people more choice than living near, often expensive, industry hubs such as Silicon Valley or London. “In fact, [this approach means] we can get a more broad range of views in a room, which seems right,” he adds.

I think that [what] organisations need to get right is that communications muscle...

Good work experiences

These good business results don't appear to have come at the expense of how staff are engaging with work, either. On Glassdoor, their CEO and Co-Founder, Sid Sijbrandij, enjoys a 98% approval rating with 90% of staff saying they would recommend it as a place to others. They’ve been qualified by Fortune as one of the Top 100 medium workplaces of 2021 and 95% of employees say it is a great place to work (59% is the current US average). A lot of this appears to be because of their structures and values. In fact, a recent Trust Index survey of employees at the firm showcases that they believe this positive experience of work is indeed driven by remote structures, by the values, by the inclusivity of everyone, and by transparency, too.

And as many companies search for help in what to do next, and some fairly big name companies stumble in doing so – oscillating between return-to-office plans, or something packaged as ‘flexible work’ but in reality it’s a hybrid model with specific days mandated as on site or at home – they might not do as badly as to look at GitLab’s iterative, values-led approach that provides clear guidance, and clear examples, of expectations on performance and collaboration, from the CEO to the newest hire but is able to deliver the flexibility a modern employee wants as a result. In fact, being opensource, there’s a lot to ‘magpie’ from GitLab – they actively encourage it! – and have even published a handy remote work playbook that explains the journey to a more comprehensive remote structure, allowing organisations to create their own roadmap to flexibility.


Yet, as Robert reminds myGrapevine magazine, there is no forever answer and no one-size-fits-all approach to making work both a great experience and something that drives outstanding business results. It’s something that requires constant iteration and checking in on staff. To go forward successfully, Robert believes collaboration and participation will be key – and, simply, checking in on what your employee base wants. “There's more appetite to participate and collaborate on decisions that are being made and therefore I think listening we will continue to be integral. Listening to our team members and testing different things [will be what we do],” he says.

“[HR has to think] about how we are communicating, how we are making decisions and how we are obtaining input from team members to make them feel like they have been part of deciding what their experience should be.”

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