While employees around the country and around the globe dutifully show up at their offices to work their eight hours in lockstep with their colleagues, a growing number of companies are eschewing this standard model. GITLAB is one of these, on the vanguard of a cresting trend toward an all-remote workforce.
Here's a video of our conversation with Darren Murph.
With a dispersed office, where team members may be separated by both distance and time zones, asynchronous communication becomes a necessity. As a result, one can be forgiven for assuming that time-shifted communication is simply a process choice.
It is, certainly, but for GitLab, there’s a strong cultural element that runs through the practice as well. They’ve recognized that asynchronous communication has its own value for an organization, apart from its utility.
If you operate with a mindset of having no other colleagues online at the same time, it forces you to encapsulate your work on a project in a way that can be ingested by others at a time convenient to them.
Some may view it as an inconvenience, but GitLab has found that properly implemented, it can improve employee morale and well being, keep projects better documented and organized, and increase efficiency instead of reducing it.
If you work in a classical office environment, take a moment to think about a typical day. How often are you pulled away from what you were focusing on to help with something unconnected? By the end of the day does this constant context switching leave you feeling scattered and stressed?
Communicating asynchronously removes both the potential for these sorts of interruptions and also the need.
It requires an intentional approach, but teams that can’t rely on instant answers to questions learn to prioritize their work and to document everything they’re doing so that when input is required, colleagues have everything they need to give thorough answers when they come online.
The minor deficit that this sort of time-shifted feedback can impose is more than compensated for by a depth of focus and freedom of schedule that can’t be found in a standard office model.
The sort of thorough documentation that’s required when a team can’t rely on instant gratification responses forces employees to think deeply about what they’re doing and what they need from their coworkers.
When communication does occur, it’s briefer and more substantive. Frequent, stream-of-consciousness communications are replaced by fully-participatory, focused exchanges. Employees are careful not to miss anything, as it’s understood that later communication may be difficult.
When you can’t pick up the phone every time a question occurs to you, you get better at finding your own answers, This and the last point ensure that less time is spent communicating, and that time is spent more efficiently, freeing more time for productive work.
When everything is documented, everyone has a voice. Not everyone will participate in every decision, nor in every direct discussion, but their input will be ever-present throughout the process.
This is true collaboration. Instead of seeking consensus, which can water down outside perspectives, by necessity asynchronous communication gives equal weight to a wide variety of viewpoints and approaches. Each team member’s input is considered in the final synthesis, even if it is ultimately rejected. Collaboration becomes an intentional, measured process.
For GitLab, this extends even beyond the team. Input and feedback are sought from outside of the company as well, which effectively includes customers and community contributors as equal members of the conversation.
When communication is delayed, it can’t be taken for granted, and this breathes new life into the process. It’s challenging yes, but what worthwhile things in life aren’t?