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Remote work done right: How remote-first companies put people first

June 29, 2022 9 min

Organizations all over the world are at a COVID crossroads: Is it time to return to the office? Or is it time to embrace distributed work and become a remote-first company?

In this episode of “Grafana’s Big Tent” —our new podcast about people, community, tech, and tools around observability — host Matt Toback chats with Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab and author of Living the Remote Dream, about their visions for the future of remote work and how it can transform not just individual lives, but local and global communities over the next few decades.

Ever since Grafana Labs was founded in 2014, we have been a remote-first company, which has helped shape the cultural values within our organization. While we each have our own tips and tricks for how to navigate working on a distributed team (it’s okay to turn off Slack notifications if you need a break!), we all agree that our remote-first work environment has allowed us to put ourselves and our families first.

Listen to “How remote-first companies put people first” to learn how organizations can benefit from embracing a remote work strategy, why a hybrid work model is not the best answer, and what your team should do to maximize in-person time when they meet outside of Zoom.

Note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

How remote work leads to results-only workplaces

Matt Toback: So let’s start with this: Why does remote-first work matter? 

Darren Murph: We’ve had two years forced into a unique environment where we were given the time and space to be introspective on a level that wasn’t really possible before. And it matters because it enables people to take a closer look at the intersection of work and life and the ratio of work and life and ask themselves – is this right for me? Am I optimizing for the right things? Now that I’ve had more time in my day and more purpose and more agency, am I okay with relinquishing that? Or should I start designing my career and my work life to better support my life? At the core, that’s why this matters. 

Matt: Absolutely. It’s about being able to reclaim time in a way that makes sense for your schedule or for your job. It’s a shift to focusing on what you deliver rather than when you’re there at work. The idea is that everyone gets to work in a way that makes sense for their life. And if they’re delivering, that’s the important part. 

Darren: Even before COVID, there was a model to describe remote-first work environments. It’s called a results-only work environment. The idea is that we focus on the results. We care a lot less about how you get there, or the clothes you wear while you’re doing it, or at what time of the day or week you accomplish it. 

That said, it’s still a big shift and remote work enables results-only work environments in a spectacular way, but it requires the right tools and mindset. There shouldn’t be a focus on availability and visibility. The more you focus on the results that people drive, the more you allow them to focus on real innovation. 

Matt: So I get that remote work benefits the individual. But how does it benefit the company as well?

Darren: Remote work and a results-only work environment benefit organizations in a multitude of ways. Let’s start with this: It de-risks the business in a massive way. It makes organizations more durable and more resilient. The tighter that business results are coupled to physical geography, the more at risk a company is to things like geopolitical crises and the less ready they are to capture the next wave of great talent, which will value flexibility in a way that many would not have even asked for in the past five years. 

The other point is that it adds what I call the forcing function into the organization where innovation is not optional. When you commit to being remote first, you are committing to building a future where there is no set map to get there. If an organization commits to this at an executive level, it ensures that people will innovate when it comes to tooling and workflows. It acts as an accountability partner for the organization to make sure it’s continually leveling up.

“It’s a shift to focusing on what you deliver rather than when you’re there at work. The idea is that everyone gets to work in a way that makes sense for their life. And if they’re delivering, that’s the important part.” 
— Matt Toback

Why hybrid work models miss the mark — and how to convince your company to go remote

Matt: It’s interesting watching organizations adapt post-COVID. They’re trying to decide where people are going to work and when they’re going to work. And hybrid work comes up a lot. We were chatting about this earlier, and you viscerally felt like hybrid work really misses the point, right?

Darren: Yes. The global narrative right now is so fixated on this return to office. They’ve spent all this energy revising return to office decks since 2020. These are real costs to the organization. They would have been much better off investing that energy into remote-first tools, workflows, policies, and values. What if they had fixated on how people work together instead of where everyone was going to work: How do people build bonds together? How do they informally communicate? How do we adjust our meetings and integrate asynchronous workflows?  

If you fixate on those how-s and truly solve them, then you can just let people work wherever they want. If you fix the how, the where becomes much, much less important. That’s the narrative we should be focused on. Energy will be spent either way. Spend it in the right channel. 

Matt: For folks out there listening, they may be at an organization that doesn’t get it. How can they convince their company that a remote-first strategy is valuable?

Darren: Well first off, I would give it about one month. And if this is your future that you want to build, then don’t waste your time at an organization that doesn’t get it. If you can’t persuade the right people in one month, there’s a better organization out there for you. And they want you. They want a mind like yours. 

Matt: This is probably one of the biggest decisions you can make as an individual that would impact your life holistically. You get to choose whether or not to work with a company that aligns with your values and vision. People are opting into this way of working, and they’re getting to set a template for how to do this well. 

Darren: If you’re a builder, there’s never been a better time to be in the workplace. Because organizations need your help building. This is a fundamental rearchitecting of the operational underpinnings of every organization in the world. If that excites you at all, please don’t waste your time trying to persuade a mountain to move itself. Go find a river that’s already flowing in this direction and put your energy and effort into it.

How remote work makes in-person meetings more productive

Matt: As we get back to more in-person things, we get asked a lot – what is the role of in-person activities for remote companies and teams? 

Darren: A lot of people think moving to remote means moving away from seeing people in person. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. Remote-first forces you to have a really crisp in-person strategy in a way that you never really needed in a co-located office. In a remote setting, you have to plan your in-person interactions. So I think it’s even better. You have to be very strategic about getting the team together and building bonds and building rapport.  

I advise companies to allocate budget to getting teams together in person. Consider it for onboarding (it’s a great way to massively accelerate the cultural understanding of the company). And look to get sub-teams together every quarter or every year. Try to get the whole company together every 12-18 months. 

“The global narrative right now is so fixated on this return to office. . . . They would have been much better off investing that energy into remote-first tools, workflows, policies, and values. What if they had fixated on how people work together instead of where everyone was going to work?”
— Darren Murph

Matt: I was recently in Chicago for a Grafana team onsite, and we very deliberately decided that we wanted to spend our time doing the the things we can’t do on Zoom or through normal work channels. And it was awesome.

Darren: Yes, that’s fantastic. The highest ROI on in-person time in a remote setting is to use it for the things you can’t adequately do virtually. The boring solution here is to have dinner together. Breaking bread and building rapport is so much richer in person. That’s what you want to spend your time on. 

When you have that time together in person, please don’t spend 80 percent of it in a war room doing strategy. You can use document and video conferencing tools for that. Spend most of your in-person time getting to know each other. If you feel like doing work for 80 percent of the time, flip it. Spend 20 percent of your time doing work and the other 80 percent hanging out. 

Matt: It’s not about not being in-person. It’s not about only being virtual. That’s a misread of remote-first work. It’s a rebalancing of how and where you spend that time. 

Darren: And that’s a mind-bender for forced remote companies where the only thing they know about remote work is what they saw during COVID. I want to be really clear. COVID-induced work from home is not intentionally designed remote work. You can’t have full-team onsites during COVID. So we’re trying to build for a world where these kinds of travel restrictions don’t exist. Trust me, remote work gets better when you’re able to put more intentionality around it. 

Matt: So where do you want to leave things before you sign off?

Darren: I want people to really think about what they’ve been told in terms of how you have to live your life. And I want you to question all of it because we have the most amazing opportunity to take those preconceived notions and really challenge them. This is an opportunity to design your life, to influence communities, to have an impact on a societal level that is transformational. Distributed work is here, and it will proliferate. Let’s do something great with it.

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