GitLab CEO: ‘Remote work is just work’

 Spring 2022 was slated to be a big season for workplaces. After two years of false starts, it seemed as though companies across every industry had set their sights on this season as the time to return to the office. Or, as some are calling it, the return to work.

But from where I’m standing, I don’t think there ever was a time when we stopped working. Employees haven’t just been biding time and treading water since they were sent home in early 2020–they’ve been working harder than ever. A study from the Becker Friedman Institute projects that the post-pandemic economy will experience a productivity boost of 4.8% when compared to pre-pandemic working conditions, mainly due to time saved by not commuting.

The Becker Friedman Institute's study data also tells us that we’ve been working more efficiently from remote locations like our homes than we did while in the office. For any leader to suggest otherwise disrespects the hard work employees have been putting in for the last two years, amid some of the most turbulent times in recent history.

So, why now? Why throw away all of the progress we’ve made working remotely and strip all individual choice from the equation? Why choose this moment in time to effectively tell employees that they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about where they work and how they spend their time? 

The last two years have shown us that remote work is now just…work. And work is work, whether you’re doing it in an office building, in your home office, or in a coffee shop.

It makes me wonder: What is the motivation behind pushing employees back to the office? Is it the hope that returning to the office will bring some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy? The frustration of eating the cost of unused real estate in San Francisco, London, New York, and Tokyo?

Whatever the reasons are, many of the anti-remote work messages from managers run counter to what I’ve experienced as a leader.

It started with articles from executives claiming that careers would suffer from a lack of networking. Then, there were claims that workers are less productive from home. Then, there were the target dates for return, led by GoogleQualcommGoldman SachsCitigroup, and Microsoft, among others.

When it comes to remote work, you may think I’m biased: I have led GitLab Inc., one of the largest all-remote organizations in the world from inception, for over a decade.

But that’s how strongly I believe in the power of remote work. I’ve been championing the cause since the idea of an all-remote organization was just a fun quirk to some, and a huge red flag to others.

Making the permanent switch to remote work for many companies won’t be easy. For most companies, after two years of working remotely in crisis mode, it’ll be an adjustment for leadership to view it for what it is: the new way of working.

The companies that have not yet embraced permanent remote work are at a crossroads. Let’s walk through what is at stake if they choose not to take this step forward. 

A competitive disadvantage

For every company that is unwilling to provide any remote work flexibility to their employees, there’s another company, just around the corner, ready to poach their talent. Demanding that employees work on-site turns hiring into a Sisyphean task for HR teams–especially those hiring for tech jobs. A 2022 report from Terminal found that three-quarters of engineers surveyed wanted to work remotely at least three days a week.

Remote work allows employees to be more efficient by cutting out morning and evening commutes, thus giving them the flexibility to structure their day in a way that works for them. As a result, the benefits of working from home or asynchronously are impossible to replicate with rigid on-site schedules. 

Ignorance of generational differences

A recent survey of the workforce found that 60% of millennials and 62% of Gen Zers ranked flexible working arrangements–including opportunities to work remotely at least a few days a week–as their top priorities when job hunting. Ignoring the expectations of these combined groups will have long-lasting effects on an organization.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2030, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce. And this doesn’t factor in Gen Zers’ ascension through the ranks of companies. In just a few years, these combined groups will have the lion’s share of employee negotiating power. It’s crucial to consider their priorities when preparing for future iterations of the workplace.

Restricted professional opportunities

“Going back” to the office for so many means returning to the usual job centers, mainly in large cities. By making flexible, lucrative opportunities available to everyone, no matter the region, we can reverse depopulation in rural areas, and help make cities more affordable for locals who have been priced out, due to housing inequality driven in part by the tech boom.

The pandemic has shed light on the important, beneficial role that community plays in our lives. By making remote work a possibility for all, workers don’t have to give up living in their community of choice to gain professional opportunities.

The path forward

Maybe you’ve read this far, and thought, “this all sounds great, but it would never work for my organization.” If this is you, I want you to ask yourself if you’ve really given remote work a fair shot, or if you’ve just treated it as a short-term solution before you get back to the office?

I don’t just mean sending your employees home with their laptops and scheduling a remote happy hour occasionally.

I mean, truly investing in the employee experience. Are you invested in making sure your employees have access to ergonomic and productive remote workspaces, the way you would in the office, or are your employees all working from their couches? Do they have the tools needed to collaborate with their team members in a way that allows for asynchronous communication, or are you still using office-centric tools to communicate?

Transparency is also a key element of making remote work accessible for all. If information about your company is scattered across drives, documents, and emails, consider collecting this knowledge in a handbook that’s accessible to all employees

Intentionality and transparency are critical to harnessing the power of remote work. Every dollar and every minute you invest in your remote workforce should be dedicated to building trust and empowering your workforce.

A challenge to all leaders

If you were once a leader who made sure your employees were at their desks at nine a.m. and rewarded those who stayed long after five p.m., I challenge you to reconsider how you measure success.

When no one is in the office, and we strip away all optics surrounding professionalism and hard work, all that’s left is the results.

If you were once a leader who evaluated candidates against vague, biased criteria such as if you would like to get a beer with them or not, I challenge you to reassess your hiring processes, and consider how remote work can usher in a more diverse array of talent.

And if you’re a leader who is scared of the changes that remote work will bring, I challenge you to make the necessary cultural shifts, adjust your organization’s workflows, and overcome the biggest remote workplace barrier: yourself.

Sid Sijbrandij is the CEO of GitLab.

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