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Want to know how to WFH better? There’s a class for that

September 22, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Love it or hate it, WFH—short for work from home—is here to stay. So you may as well get better at doing it, right? 

That’s the thinking behind a free, just-launched online course from web-based learning service Coursera titled How to Manage a Remote Team. The curriculum was developed by business software maker GitLab to help the countless companies that have sent their workers home during the pandemic, many of which plan to keep some level of remote work in place even after the virus subsides.

GitLab knows a thing or two about remote work. The company employs 1,300 employees in more than 65 countries and does not have a single office. Its cofounder and CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, lives in San Francisco and hails from the Netherlands, and the company was originally founded in Ukraine, the native home of its other cofounder, Dmitriy Zaporozhets.

Having such a distributed workforce impacts everything at Gitlab, from its culture to its product. That’s why the company has a “head of remote,” Darren Murph, who dedicates his time to thinking about how to make remote work, well, work. Because Gitlab makes money by selling software that helps programmers do their jobs without a physical office, it also benefits from spreading its own, WFH brand of gospel. The company’s bible for remote work, a 7,000-page digital tome called the GitLab Team Handbook, is freely available on its website. Now its Coursera course, which is based on this guide, will also be freely available. “This is core to who we are,” Murph says of both the handbook and the new online class. “If we really are helping companies do remote better, it helps our product.”

Murph says the course was created for managers and heads of human resources, but that anyone dealing with the transition to remote work could benefit from the curriculum. Currently, this is a rather large target audience, given the millions of office workers stuck at home because of the pandemic. But Murph expects many companies to stick with some level of WFH past the crisis. What’s more, the fact that so many companies have been forced into remote work doesn’t mean that it has been implemented with much thought. It’s one thing to buy your employees an ergonomic office chair or a second monitor. It’s quite another to restructure how teams collaborate and communicate. This is the hole GitLab and Coursera, the learning platform, hope they can fill. 

“What started as a short-term response to this crisis is going to become part of digital transformation more broadly,” says Shravan Goli, chief product officer at Coursera. “We expect this hybrid model to continue post-pandemic for a lot of companies.”

If you’re not sure what “hybrid” means, the new course links to a glossary of WFH terms for you to peruse (my personal favorite: a “digital nomad” is a worker who travels constantly, sometimes without a home base). In all, the remote work curriculum consists of four modules, starting with “remote work best practices” and ending with “culture and values for distributed teams.” Coursera describes the curriculum as a “self-guided experience,” though there are opportunities to network and collaborate with other students via online forums. Completing the entire course takes about 11 hours—yes, quizzes are included. 

The series starts with some basic questions: What is remote work? And what are its benefits? According to Gitlab, there are quite a few, starting with the ability to hire talent all over the world, without needing to first invest in office space. 

To that end, the GitLab course also comes with many tips and takeaways on how to hire a global workforce that’s not tethered to a particular geographic location. In a video titled “Hiring for a Remote Role,” Jessica Reeder, a GitLab exec who focuses on the company’s remote content, suggests avoiding micromanagers or those who need to be micromanaged. “Look for people who have experience working independently,” Reeder says in one of the course’s brief videos. Another tip? Work with recruiters who have experience placing remote workers.

Many other tactical takeaways are sprinkled throughout the curriculum, along with more high-level, philosophical approaches to making remote work effective. (Hint: Transparency is tantamount.) For example, in order to truly embrace asynchronous work—crucial when teams are not in the same office or time zone—GitLab makes many meetings optional but records and documents everything. This enables employees to view content and conversations at times that are most convenient to them and to stay in the loop. Interestingly, GitLab also encourages multitasking during meetings, a no-no at many companies. “We say it’s okay to look away,” Reeder says in another of the course’s video tutorials. “We empower each person to manage their own attention.”  

Culture in general plays a huge role in making WFH work, according to GitLab’s teachings, which take the form of short articles, links, and quizzes, in addition to quite a few videos. To that end, diversity and inclusion are also a key part of the new course. “You need opportunities to see each other, to really get to know each other,” says Candace Byrdsong Williams, the company’s head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and another one of the “instructors” in the Coursera course. “You have to take a look at your communication and how you communicate around the globe.” An example: GitLab runs virtual “ask me anything” conversations with underrepresented employee groups. It also has a bot, otherwise known as an automated program, that lives within its Slack messaging software and suggests inclusive word choices—instead of “hey, guys” how about “y’all”?

But the real key to making work from home work is that management needs to buy in to the movement. For example, for companies that pursue the hybrid route—meaning some employees will be in the office and some won’t—you can’t have the entire leadership team in the office, says Murph. The last thing you want is to create a two-tier system in which those in the office are closer to management and those working remotely don’t get as much face time. Indeed, to orchestrate such a transition, especially for larger companies with decades of already established behaviors, it will likely take much more than an 11-hour course. 

Speaking of which, Murph says that even simple things like how to select a good, ergonomic chair can’t be assumed. “Some people have no clue what a good workspace looks like,” says the head of remote. GitLab’s course doesn’t have all the answers—no one does. But it’s a start.