Ditching the office for good: How to build a successful remote workplace

More than one in 10 companies are now fully remote. GitLab's David DeSanto shares his best practice guidance for running a successful remote business.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor
A middle aged man in casual attire sat at his computer desk speaking to colleagues via a split-screen video chat application
Image: Getty

David DeSanto, VP of product at GitLab, knows a thing or two about operating a successful remote-first model.

DevOps platform GitLab has been operating as a fully remote company since 2011. Today, the company has an 1800-strong team spread all over the world that has managed to amass some 100,000 customers, without ever having required their employees to work behind a desk.

In May, GitLab published its 2022 Remote Playbook, which serves as a best practice guide for sustaining and scaling a remote workforce. 

DeSanto believes almost any company can be all-remote provided they fully commit to doing so, which includes investing in the key pillars of asynchronous working, communication, culture, and management, and focusing on inclusion above all else. "You need to be purposeful about what you're doing," he tells ZDNet.

"Inclusion sounds like such a simple word, but it's really that decision that you're going to do your work transparently, collaboratively, asynchronously, and not rely on Zoom as the only way you talk to someone."

The unmoored workplace

According to data from Owl Labs, 16% of companies globally are now fully remote. This means that, on average, more than one in 10 companies operate without any physical presence whatsoever, be that an office, headquarters or any other form of workspace.

There are many reasons why a business might want to unmoor itself from a physical location, with cost incentives being the most obvious: an organization can cut significant overheads by not having to pay rent, upkeep, energy and staffing costs that come with owning an office.

But as the pandemic taught us, effective remote working isn't just closing the office and sending everyone home with a laptop. To make a success of a fully-remote model, employers need to treat it with all the deliberation and planning of any other strategic investment designed to reap rewards over the long term.

This begins with redesigning the virtual workspace to be more collaborative, says DeSanto, who stresses the importance of moving to "asynchronous communication" so that employees working in different time zones aren't excluded from important meetings, decisions or updates.

SEE: The future of work: How everything changed and what's coming next

"If you're going to be all-remote, the assumption that someone can go into the office and read something that someone posted on the billboard in the kitchen doesn't really work," DeSanto adds. "You need to be able to make everyone feel included regardless of if they can make it on the call."

Asynchronous communications needn't be complex: it can include recording a Zoom meeting and making it available for employees afterwards, or sending out important company updates via email. The main thing is that employees are kept in the loop with everything going on at the company.

"Finding ways to communicate asynchronously where possible and limit synch meetings was something that we learned early on," says DeSanto.

"We did that because it allows employees to be better connected to the company and feel more included."

Document everything

Remote companies must be equally proactive when it comes to documentation. This doesn't just mean taking notes in meetings and providing transcripts of Zoom calls (which DeSanto encourages), but also being diligent in documenting organizational process, culture and solutions.

DeSanto encourages creating company handbooks that enable employees, regardless of location or time zone, to have access to the most critical company information when they need it. Ad hoc chats and 'watercooler' conversations should also be recorded to increase transparency within the company.

Social interactions tend to be harder to come by in a remote environment, meaning companies that are all-remote need to be more purposeful and deliberate in creating opportunities for connection.

GitLab navigates this by coordinating virtual coffee chats, whereby anyone can invite a colleague or peer for an informal, 25-minute conversation. "That's allowed us to have a much more inclusive environment, and it's allowed everyone to feel more engaged," says DeSanto.

In-person connections are also important. DeSanto – who recognizes the pitfalls of work relationships built entirely through computer screens – recommends all-remote companies organize local company events so that employees can still meet, interact and socialize in person. Where possible, some employees may wish to work together from co-working spaces a few days each week, he adds.

Time for a Head of Remote?  

But what does it take to effectively lead a fully-remote workforce? Management means different things to different leaders, and those accustomed to having direct oversight of their reports might struggle to grasp the nuances of managing a team from afar.

If this is the case, DeSanto suggests hiring a Head of Remote to act as a steward for the company's remote working strategy, operations and employee experience. "What we've found was, heaving the Head of Remote, [meant] there is someone there who is constantly looking out for those pitfalls [of remote working] as we grew," he explains.

"Having a head of remote enables the company to essentially have that [person] who's looking out for the company as a whole, and more importantly the employees of the company - making sure that they are getting what they need."

SEE: Six ways to make smart tech decisions for small business

A Head of Remote should be someone with a strong "people-first background", says DeSanto. Whether that person has a tech background is less important than having a people-first mentality and the ability to think outside the box, making them empathetic and innovative leaders.

This brings DeSanto to his final recommendation for fully-remote employers – putting employee needs first, and leading by example. "Look at the organization and ask yourself, can you be more transparent with your team members?" he says.

"What I've seen in some companies is they'll say they're going to do hybrid or remote, and then the leadership still goes into the office. This sets the expectation that they probably need to be in the office too.

"As a leader here, I'm more transparent here than I ever was in my career. Because I want everyone, regardless of where they are, to be aware of what I'm doing, that requires me to be aware of what I'm doing."

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