Remote Work, Resilient Organizations, and Better Lives
Darren Murph is a remote work evangelist. Murph is Head of Remote at GitLab, where he shapes teams, manages operations, and advances company culture — all without an office.
GitLab is far ahead of most organizations when it comes to remote work: it has over 1200 all-remote employees. There’s no corporate headquarters. The company has extensively documented its remote work best practices, and over the course of the pandemic, Murph and his colleagues have watched other organizations start to catch up. But even after over 15 months of working from home, Murph says most companies are at the beginning of their remote work journey.
“There’s been this low level friction throughout the pandemic where everyone feels that remote work isn’t optimized,” Murph said. “And that’s because crisis-induced working from home isn’t the same as remote work. Companies are maintaining the same rigid hours. They’re maintaining the same recurring meetings. They’re just doing it in a different place.”
Remote work may not be fully optimized, but it’s proved a positive development for many employees. Slack’s Remote Employee Experience Index found that most employees reported that working remotely helped them reduce stress and improve work-life balance. PWC’s US Remote Work Survey found that over half of employees would like to work remotely at least three days a week.
Murph says investing in workplace flexibility is critical for companies that want to maintain their competitive advantage and attract top talent. “The risk is talent flight,” he explained. “If you don’t put intentionality around this, your best people will see that as a signal that you’re not investing in them.”
In order to stay competitive and fully realize the benefits of remote work, companies will need to reimagine their day-to-day operations and equip employees with new tools. Here’s what Murph recommends.
Stop focusing on where employees work. Prioritize building a resilient organization instead.
Murph says that right now, most companies are fixated on whether they’ll return to office spaces part-time, sometimes, or not at all. While it’s important for companies to define what a hybrid workplace means to them, he thinks the emphasis on location is misguided.
“The smart decision is to realize you’re never going to put this genie back in the bottle,” Murph says. “There’s never been more opportunity for flexible jobs in the history of the workplace. Everyone who comes into an interview has the right to ask about your company’s stance on workplace flexibility. If you don’t have an answer to that question, top talent will go somewhere else.”
Murph says companies should instead focus on building businesses that can withstand future disruptions — including another pandemic. “Converting to remote-first makes you the most resilient company in the world,” he said. “You were just given a big head start. If you can figure out how to work without using the office as a crutch ever again, you’ll be more prepared when the next crisis comes.”
Hire a Head of Remote who can evaluate, implement, and codify best practices.
Murph recommends that companies hire a dedicated cross-functional leader who can manage the transition to hybrid or remote work. The Head of Remote should be an effective change agent with a strong interest in organizational design. That may mean hiring somebody new, or repurposing an existing leader from your company’s HR, operations, or finance teams. Either way, Murph says, it’s critical that Head of Remote is a full-time job — it signals that your company is serious about workplace culture.
“Remote will become the common thread across all your departments,” Murph explained. “Your legal team, and your engineering team, and your marketing team may use different tools and speak different languages, but the commonality will be that they all have to work in remote-first ways. The Head of Remote is the bridge — the most cross-functional role in the company.”
Make sure your workflows are built for a hybrid or remote environment.
When we all worked in offices, Murph explains, “our workflows were office-first. In a remote setting, you have to shift those.”
Murph recommends that companies review how work gets done — how they hold meetings, set goals and conduct reviews, run events, and collaborate across teams — to determine if their workflows hold up in a hybrid or remote environment.
“Think about whether you need new tools, if the workflow requires more explicit articulation, and whether upskilling can help,” Murph said. “You have to ask a lot of questions, because there are a lot of unspoken rules about how work gets done. In a remote setting, you have to convert everything that was tacit to explicit. And there’s no great way to do that other than sitting down and truly auditing the way that you work and pressure testing it.”
As companies transition to hybrid or remote work, Murph suggests creating a company handbook that codifies best practices: “a living, breathing operating manual of how people treat each other and how work actually happens.”
Enable remote collaboration by adopting the right tools.
Some critics argue that remote work makes it hard to think creatively or collaborate with colleagues. Murph disagrees. He says effective remote collaboration is possible — you just need “the right tools, the right training, and the right buy-in across the team.”
The good news: the pandemic spurred investment in a growing market of enterprise collaboration solutions, so there’s no shortage of tools to try. Murph argues that remote work can actually expand collaboration and improve creative thinking because it allows more employees to participate asynchronously. That’s good for diversity and inclusion, he says, because it allows more voices to be heard. In hybrid work environments, Murph recommends that in-person employees adopt the same collaboration tools as remote workers so that everybody can participate equally.
Let remote work help you and your colleagues live better lives.
Work matters — but Murph reminds us that it’s important to keep it in perspective. “Work is simply something we do to make sure that our life is good,” he said. “And so if we put life at the focal point and we do work to live a better life, that makes you think about work differently.”
Asynchronous work, he says, can help us be more efficient, gain greater flexibility, and enjoy more control over our schedules. And that can lead to increased productivity and deeper employee satisfaction.
“You’ll see innovation happening because there’s more time for deep work. You’ll see culture building because people now are able to take their family to a 3 p.m. game on a Wednesday. Instead of being bookended by meetings, you will start to live your life differently.”