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Why GitLab hired a ‘head of remote’ before the coronavirus pandemic

May 28, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

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Darren Murph lives in coastal North Carolina, a peaceful place far from Silicon Valley.

“I fought really hard for this,” says the tech executive, about being able to work where he and his wife grew up. He has been a remote employee for the past 15 years.

That makes Murph particularly well-positioned for his latest role: In July 2019, he was hired as the head of remote at GitLab, a startup that provides software for developers. If you’ve never heard of a head of remote (or of GitLab—it’s a household name only with coders), you’re not alone. Most companies don’t have one, though Murph believes that’s about to change.

Darren Murph-Head of Remote
Darren Murph works in his home office in North Carolina—with a little help from his toddler son.
Courtesy of Darren Murph

“There’s a lot of nuance in getting this right when your team isn’t working in the same place every day,” says Murph. How do you onboard employees? How do you provide them with opportunities to network and socialize? How do you create a corporate culture without a physical office? This is what Murph spends his days dealing with—from the quiet shores of North Carolina.

If any company has a need for a head of remote, it’s GitLab. The startup, founded in 2011, employs more than 1,200 people across 65 countries and has zero company-owned offices. Its CEO and cofounder, Sid Sijbrandij, is from the Netherlands and technically lives in San Francisco. But other members of GitLab’s executive team are spread out all over the world.

“A lot of remote companies still keep their execs in an office, or in the same time zone, which creates a visible center of power that we intentionally try to avoid,” says Murph.

According to Murph, a dispersed executive team is key for a viable transition to working remotely, or taking a hybrid approach—one that allows for both remote and in-office workers. A hybrid approach is likely going to be embraced by many companies in the post-pandemic world. And while it enables flexibility, it also presents many cultural and logistical challenges. Case in point: Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that, within a decade, half of the social media giant’s employees could be remote. But will he keep working from Facebook’s sprawling, plush office in Menlo Park, Calif.? If so, the result could be a two-tier system in its employee base—those who work in the office will have more opportunities for face time with the decision makers or at least give the perception that they are closer to the powers that be.

“A company’s headquarters needs to be just a place where people can go to work remotely,” says Murph.

Unlike GitLab, companies like Facebook are being forced into accepting remote work because of the COVID-19 outbreak. “What you’re seeing now isn’t remote work,” says Murph. “It’s crisis-induced work-from-home.”

Companies that want to get remote right will need to be thoughtful and intentional about how they roll out new policies and how they change their culture. They may want to start with hiring a head of remote, someone who is devoted to the task. And if they’re not ready to make that jump, they can also just crib from Murph’s “Remote Playbook”—yes, he really did write the playbook.