GitLab’s roughly 2,100 team members span more than 60 countries—and every single one of them works remotely. Unlike many companies that were abruptly forced to close their offices during the COVID-19 pandemic, GitLab has embraced a remote-work environment from its inception in 2011. It is now one of the largest fully remote organizations in the world.
Under cofounder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij, the company has evolved from an open-source collaboration tool for programmers to an end-to-end development, security, and operations (DevSecOps) platform with more than 30 million registered users. Its rapid growth is underpinned by a set of norms, systems, and processes that enable its global workforce to collaborate across time zones and schedules.
We spoke with Sid about how GitLab team members stay connected, sustain a healthy culture, and manage their time within a remote and asynchronous workplace.
One of the things that differentiates GitLab is that it’s fully remote. How have you maintained connectivity and built culture in this environment?
Sid Sijbrandij: Working remotely is easy. The challenge is working asynchronously. Organizations must create a system where everyone can consume information and contribute regardless of their level, function, or location. We invest in working practices that enable asynchronous communication, and we’ve committed to educating and supporting other companies through the global transition to remote work that started during COVID-19 and continues today.
Within GitLab, our handbook, which is more than 2,700 web pages and available to the public, is a big part of what enables us to work asynchronously.1 When an employee has a question, they can almost always find the answer documented in our handbook, without having to tap someone on the shoulder.
The “handbook first” system is embedded in the way we work. Every change must first be documented in the handbook, and all communications about the change include a link back to the handbook. We work together to make sure it is always up to date. For example, our CMSO [chief marketing and strategy officer] is responsible for maintaining the marketing section, though anyone can propose edits as needed.
When an employee has a question, they can almost always find the answer documented in our handbook, without having to tap someone on the shoulder.
Effective internal communication is crucial in fast-paced organizations like GitLab. How has that manifested at GitLab?
Sid Sijbrandij: We rely on informal communication to develop closeness and camaraderie. Our onboarding process2 trains people in how—and how often—we communicate with each other: Every new hire initiates five virtual coffee chats so they learn that it’s normal to schedule meetings with a colleague just to connect, whether it’s work related or not.
In-person events are also a fantastic way to build this culture, but only if you’re intentional about how you use them. A lot of companies bring people together, then lock them in a conference room to sit through PowerPoint presentations for a couple of days. That’s a waste of time and money. They could have watched those presentations asynchronously.
At GitLab, we spend most of our in-person time going on excursions, sharing meals, or holding an “un-conference,” where small groups discuss topics one after another. We use our valuable time together to build connections through the kind of face-to-face interactions that can take place only outside of our screens.
What processes are in place to help employees manage their time in a remote and asynchronous working environment?
Sid Sijbrandij: We’re very thoughtful about how we use our time. For example, meetings shouldn’t just be gatherings of people for a conversation. Unless it’s a coffee chat, every meeting must have an agenda, and people are expected to read the agenda before the meeting. Our meetings end at the 25- or 50-minute mark to give people time to prepare for their next meeting. We also try to make it acceptable for people to look away during meetings—they manage their own attention and participation—and to interrupt politely to ask questions or share context, just like you would during in-person conversations. We take notes during every meeting and, when possible, record them so people who can’t attend can still hear the conversation, and we aim to resolve discussion with clear next steps, owners, and delivery dates.
We use our valuable time together to build connections through the kind of face-to-face interactions that can take place only outside of our screens.
How does the culture at GitLab contribute to its success?
Sid Sijbrandij: Most important, we maintain a bias for action. Everyone at GitLab is empowered to be proactive, creative, and effective. We all must make decisions with imperfect information; this mindset helps us make the small ones more efficiently. We document them and maintain the ability to change them if necessary, but there’s cultural support for everyone to do what they feel is best, instead of calling meetings to debate every choice or action. We have a higher tolerance for mistakes and an appreciation for which decisions need discussion. Overall, this approach helps us to be more effective.
How do you build and strengthen the culture over time?
Sid Sijbrandij: Culture isn’t preserved. It evolves. You have to measure what you want to reinforce. At other companies, there’s still a lot of presenteeism out there—where team members are rewarded for just showing up, responding quickly, and looking like they are working day and night. If that’s what you reward, that’s what you’re going to get. It’s much better to reward the results. At GitLab, we evaluate team members using metrics that are relevant to their roles. For example, in R&D, we measure how many pieces of code land in production. What matters is not the number of hours you work—it’s the work that gets done.
This interview is part of the Lessons from leaders collection within The State of Organizations 2023 report. These conversations were conducted by members of McKinsey’s People & Organizational Performance Practice with leaders of organizations that exemplify best practices relating to the ten most significant shifts facing organizations today.
Sid Sijbrandij is the CEO and cofounder of GitLab Inc.
Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.