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Darren Murph: home is where the office is

For Gitlab’s Darren Murph, remote-work is the best way to work. But how can you be productive when you’ve unwillingly signed up for the world’s biggest remote working experience?

An interview with Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab, the leading software company. With the coronavirus outbreak and government-imposed lockdowns, Darren Murph talks about how Gitlab laid down the rules for remote-work and created a culture around trust and autonomy.


  • Maria Almeida, Head of Editorial, Unbabel
  • Rafaela Cortez, Editorial Manager, Unbabel



Darren Murph: You cannot lead a remote team with micromanagement and fear.

Maria Almeida: Darren Murph is the Head of Remote at Gitlab, one of the world’s leading software companies.

Gitlab is an interesting company at many different levels. Their products are used by more than 100,000 organizations around the world. They’re one of the biggest advocates for transparency, openly sharing their projects, metrics and strategy online. And they’re the world's largest all-remote company.

This means that Gitlab’s 1200 employees living across 67 countries can work from anywhere. They don’t have an office to go to every morning. They don’t waste time on endless commutes. They get to spend more time with family and friends. And they can live wherever they like.

But managing a highly distributed team is not easy. You need to lay down the rules, have the right tools in place, and create a culture around trust and autonomy. And that’s what Darren Murph has been doing at Gitlab ever since he joined.

With the coronavirus outbreak and government imposed lockdowns, which have forced a lot of people to work from home, Darren’s advice is now more relevant than ever.

Darren Murph: Like if my kid came in to this podcast right now and started chatting with me, it's okay. It's the stigma is gone. We have, we have catapulted beyond the petty arguments of like, how do you replicate this clean, pristine background with no distractions as if you'd have had an a boardroom like we're past that. We're now working where life happens. The expectations have to change and it just, that to me is the bottom line and it starts from a cultural understanding across the team of, look, we've got to give each other some grace. Some stuff is going to go sideways that would never go sideways in an office, but it's going to be okay.

Maria Almeida: I'm Maria Almeida and welcome to the Customer Centric Podcast, an original podcast from Unbabel where we're bringing humanity back to the customer experience, one conversation at a time.

On this episode: how to be productive at work when you’ve unwillingly signed up for the world’s biggest remote working experience.

Maria Almeida: Right now, the whole world seems to be working from home, at least those who can. And it hasn't been a particularly easy. So you have a lot of startups, multinational corporations and small businesses facing an unprecedented situation: they've unwillingly signed up for the world's biggest remote working experience. Uh, and most of them were not ready. But being Gitlab a remote only company, I guess not a lot has changed in the way you work for the past few weeks, uh, except that you'd probably get a lot of people asking for advice, which is exactly what I'm about to do. Um, so Darren, can you talk a little bit about, your experience at Gitlab and how you've, laid down the rules for remote work?

Darren Murph: Yeah. So all of what you said is accurate. Uh, I think the, the global recognition and embrace of remote has been accelerated by at least 10 years because of this. In the here and now, it's an interesting and somewhat rocky transition for some companies because they weren't giving any warning. They had no time to plan or prepare.

And so a lot of teams have been thrust into a work from home environment when maybe they weren't even available to do it. Um, but it is an amazing opportunity to take advantage of the situation that's in front of us. It's not ideal, but it does allow us the opportunity to lay the infrastructure for what I believe is the future of work.

And I've seen that at Gitlab. Um, we've been all remote since the very beginning. We're now up to over 1200 people across more than 65 countries with no offices anywhere. Even our executive team, they all work from their respective homes. Uh, and we actually don't say you have to work from home. We say you can work from anywhere.

There's just no office to commute to and we'll actually reimburse co-working and external office fees. We have about a fifth of our company that does that, so currently right now, that fifth is actually back in their homes working, which is to some degree, not an ideal situation for them because they prefer to work outside of the office. So they're getting a little bit more of a taste of what the rest of the world has. Uh, but what we've learned at Gitlab, um, we've documented it all. Documentation has been a core value at Gitlab from day one. Uh, and so for anyone that is interested in learning more on how Gitlab does remote has all of our guides, and we can dive into any element of that you'd like.

But a lot of it just comes down to having a culture around trust and autonomy. We believe in hiring managers of one people that respect and understand autonomy, uh, and you just give them the metric they need to hit and then give them the freedom to hit it in any way they see fit. That's a big difference from tracking productivity in a more standardized way in a co-located setting.

So the culture around that is really, really big. And then it's being deliberate and intentional about everything from informal communication and how relationships are built to when do we get together in person and what are those in person interactions look like to where does communication flow?

We do some interesting things with our tools. I can go into more detail if you'd like. We expire our Slack messages after 90 days, for example, because we don't want work to happen in Slack. We want Slack to be a tool for informal communication and in a relational or a interpersonal bonding and where relationships can be built.

So we do a lot of things differently. Uh, but the thing about it is it doesn't take a massive leap of change to implement these in other companies. We use a lot of the tools that everyone else is else uses. We just do some slight tweaks on how we implement them.

Maria Almeida: And why do you think so many companies are struggling with working from home? Because, you know, we can talk a little bit about some remote work, but in this particular case, we have to work from home. We can't work from anywhere, unfortunately. But we have a lot of companies that are struggling with that. Why do you think that is?

Darren Murph: I think it boils down to three things, primarily. One is existing culture, so if there was a leadership culture that firmly believe that in office was the only way, and now they're being told there is no other way to run your business. But the opposite way, they're just gonna resist it. Humans don't like change.

Uh, the other is the default reaction to this is to press copy on the office environment and try to paste it in a virtual environment. And that is fundamentally the wrong way to do this. So instead of trying to copy every meeting you had in a board room scheduled to a zoom meeting. You what you really should be doing is asking yourself, does this meeting even need to happen?

Is there a better way to communicate this, to move this project forward? But people are in crisis mode, so they don't have a lot of time to think about something like that. The virtual world enables you to work more asynchronously and do things with much more efficiency and less synchronous meetings. So you're seeing a lot of struggle of just trying to literally copy and paste it when it's, it's fundamentally a different place to work.

And I think that third thing is, not every business is ideally situated to be all remote. Um, there are some companies where if you have product or manufacturing or hardware or sophisticated laboratory equipment, a high touch kind of environment. Some of them genuinely are not ideally suited for remote.

And so if you're thrusting those kinds of industries into remote, it will be more difficult, not less difficult. Uh, and you're kind of seeing this least common denominator where if there's one element of the business that really struggles to work remotely, it kind of permeates the entire business instead of decoupling that. I think longer term, what you're going to see is companies that do have a manufacturing component are going to do that, that manufacturing arm of their business in a large warehouse, potentially a shared warehouse with other manufacturers, and then they're going to actually lay the remote infrastructure for things like finance, HR, marketing, all of these other functions, which essentially amount to, let's go into the office, open our laptops and phones, and then eventually we'll close them and go home.

If that is your work. If your output is purely digital, you're ideally suited for it. But for hybrid companies where there is a manufacturing component, it definitely complicates things.

Maria Almeida: Yeah. I guess one of the examples of the companies that are really struggling is customers support teams and contact centers because they rely on having, you know, hundreds of agents replying to customers from all over the world, and they're based in one central office. And you know, the other day I was talking to a friend of mine who works for a big contact center, and he was telling me that they really wanted to send all their workers and employees home, but they couldn't because they didn't have the tools. They didn't have the equipment and so on. So they actually ordered a hundreds of laptops online so that they could allow their employees to work from home. But this is like a logistical nightmare for these types of companies.

Darren Murph: It is. Um, and the crazy thing about it is those types of operations are actually more ideally suited for remote than not. The problem is the infrastructure was laid for them to work together in one building. And so now you're having to lay the infrastructure for what is actually the better way to work.

And so although this is painful right now, it will create way more efficiencies, will allow them to attract a way deeper talent pool, and it will free them from the, the geography that they're currently in and all the risks that's associated with it. But to your point, if people are used to having thousands of dollars of perfectly dialed in and wired in equipment and an office setting, and then they're suddenly forced into their home where that is not easily portable it is a massive effort on the business operation side, the IT side, to try to replicate that and get that into the home. The benefit that Gitlab has is we've been all remote since the very beginning, so we laid the infrastructure from the start. So we designed all of our access requests, all of our two factor all of our systems to be virtually administrated.

And it's super seamless. We have all of our documentation online, so anyone that's managing an issue across the globe looks at the same single source of truth, the same protocols, see how everything is done. So there's the combination of we plotted and planned to have the equipment and access everywhere.

But also we have a single source of truth of how all of that is implemented. So anyone implementing it is looking at the same documentation and you can guarantee that it's being implemented across the board. So I think what's happening in situations like you described is the immediate crisis is how do we get the equipment and the VPNs and the system access so that people can do their job from anywhere?

But actually the second thing behind that that should not be overlooked is how do we make sure that all they need to know to do their job is actually written down in a single source where they can, everyone can access the same thing because so much information in a co-located space is just passed down.

It's just verbalized. It's reiterated and repurposed in meetings, meeting after meeting. So no one actually bothers to write it down because you can kind of bandaid your way around it and a co-located space that is not possible in a virtual space. So I really see it as two tracks, get the systems access sorted out, but simultaneously have someone in documentarian mode.

To write all of this down, uh, and it just Gitlab has a company handbook. All of our processes are online. Not every company is going to feel comfortable with being that transparent, but that, but even if, even if you want to keep it internal, there needs to be a single source. And it can start as simple as a, an FAQ giving people a heads up on where to get information and who to turn to if they have issues, if they're suddenly remote.

Maria Almeida: Yeah. I guess documentation really solves part of the communication problem, but not all of it's because you still need to talk to people and, usually we're used to going directly to the person we need and talking to them, meeting face to face and so on. And now we're just, we can't do that anymore. So, besides documenting everything and having those FAQ how do you overcome the communication problem?

Darren Murph: So communication is an interesting one. Uh, oftentimes you'll hear people, advise companies, okay, start documenting, but that's actually really dangerous advice. What we advise is to work handbook first. Because if you just let everyone document however they see fit, some people are going to have stuff stored over in Google docs.

Some people are going to have stuff stored over an email. No one can see it. It's all in silos. The information that's fractured, that gets you nowhere. You need a remote leadership team to put together, here's the plan. This is the single source of truth. All documentation funnels into this one place so that everyone has visibility to it, and this in turn, solves some of the communication issues because you don't need to go tap someone on the shoulder if it's all documented.

This is the whole thing. Instead of trying to replicate, how can I tap someone on the shoulder in a virtual world, you want to eliminate the need to tap someone on the shoulder. So the Gitlab mentality is you should be able to answer every question you're ever asked with a link. So in a real world example, if I have a new hire joining the team and they're asking questions about how things operate at Gitlab, I should just be able to find it in our handbook, paste the links, and send the link.

And they should have everything they need to know. And if they ask me a question that is not already documented somewhere in the handbook, then the order of events is, I get the answer for them. But then I immediately document it, merge it into the handbook such that anyone henceforth, who has the same question will just be able to find it and self-serve.

This is how you both solves communication issues and include an increase efficiency in a massive way because at scale, the more that people can self serve, find their own answers to things the less they have to ask people or even wait, wait for people to wake up or search to find someone. It's, it's a daunting task when you're thrust into it.

Gitlab has the benefit of our handbook started as one page on day one and now it's over 5,000 pages if you printed it out, but don't let that scare you. Start somewhere. Start today. Each additional day that you just answer someone verbally instead of writing something down, you're losing ground. And so you, you need to do it. And I've actually advised companies, bring in a former journalist, bring in a documentary and bring in a comms expert and just have them shadow important meetings and just start writing stuff down. Like even if that's their full time job, they're essentially trying to document the culture and the process of a company in real time.

Uh, and it seems daunting right now, but in three or four months, you'll have so much written down. You'll look back and think, this is amazing. Why didn't we do this earlier?

Maria Almeida: And what kind of communication tools do you use? Do you use Slack or anything else?

Darren Murph: Yeah. So the second thing on communication in a remote team, you have to be extremely intentional about communication. Every aspect of communication. Most importantly what is communicated and through what channels. So I actually advise suddenly remote companies to minimize your tool stack and minimize your communication channels as much as you possibly can.

So the example for us is we only use Slack for informal communication. We expire our messages after 90 days. And the reason for that is we use, we do all of our work in Gitlab the product, and we want to force people to start the work where it needs to end up. You want to give them no reason to start a thought or an idea or a concept and a discussion in Slack because they know that in 90 days they're not going to hit commandF and find anything.

Like if you can't query it, it's a good forcing function to not start it there. So we force it such that it becomes an amazing and formal communication tool. So if we don't use Slack for work, what do we use it for? We have topical channels, things like hiking, music and mental health, parenting. The parenting one has been quite alive in recent weeks with so many kids home from school, and it's incredible.

We have people across six continents that are chipping in and helping each other manage their new sudden work from home, plus kids at home learning experience. And that's what we use Slack for, for people helping each other for people bonding, building relationships. So Slack is a much more. Informal tool for us because we want all of our work communications to happen in Gitlab, but you have to be intentional about this.

If you just let people communicate wherever they want to communicate, you'll have half of your work conversations going on in this tool, half of your informal chats going on in this tool, and it's all splintered. No one feels like a team. There's no cohesion. So you need to, you need to have a remote leadership team or a people group culture group in place to document.Here's how we communicate. And I know that might sound crazy, like we really need to write down how we communicate, but if you don't, there's no cohesion to it. And if you Google Gitlab communication handbook, you'll see it's a hugely long page. It's open source are welcome to copy and paste it. We've done a lot of the work for you, but if you don't write it down, there's no guarantee that there will be any cohesion.

Maria Almeida: And this week I was reading a really interesting article called the real reason, remote workers are more productive. And it talks about asynchronous communication. And it basically says that giving employees control over when they communicate with their teammates increases productivity. Have you experienced that at Gitlab?

Darren Murph: 100% in agreement with that. Gitlab is fully asynchronous. We're not sync to any time zone. You don't have to be on from a certain hour to a certain hour. Instead, we say, here are the results that we expect and these are what we're going to measure. We're not gonna measure your hours. We're not going to measure when you got there, how you got there. It doesn't matter. This impacts productivity in a positive way for two main reasons. One is it allows people to work when they're most productive. If you're a night owl and your most productive hours are, let's say, 7:00 PM to midnight in a conventional job where you have to be there from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM you will always be at a disadvantage to someone who that is their peak productivity time and there's nothing you can do about it.

But in a remote setting, you're allowed to time shift and work a nonlinear work day. As long as you get it done and you have a tool set up for asynchronous, which we use Gitlab, it works great for that. It allows autonomy, empowerment, and freedom that you can't find anywhere else. And when you give adults who are good at what they do, freedom and empowerment and autonomy, they will pour it back into the business.

It is a, is a natural win-win. Now, the one caveat I've heard of that is like, well, what about client support? It's true. We do have client support services where a certain client will expect us to be on call from a hour to another hour, and that's fine for that role. It's understood that's how it's going to be, but we always have team redundancy there such that if anyone needs to duck away and go take care of life, we always have someone else on call during that window.

So yes, for our external clients, we do have to lock to time zones to some degree. Um, but we have people all around the world that can step in and help with that. Time zones are one of those things that they're a bear, but it actually gets easier at scale with a remote team because you inevitably have people filling more of the time zone gaps as the world turns. And so it's easier to hand work off to someone at scale than when you only have four or five people.

Maria Almeida: For the past couple of weeks, I've seen many different examples and how companies are dealing with this transition. And it's funny how some of them are struggling to trust their employees. I have a very good friend of mine who was complaining the other day that her manager would do random video calls just to check if everyone was really working and not dancing in their pajamas. So trust is definitely a big, a big issue when you're working remotely. So how do you build trust at a distance?

Darren Murph: Trust is one thing, but I think there's a deeper issue there. My question to a situation like that is were you really judging their work performance on how many minutes per day you could lay eyes on them in the office? Like at the end of the quarter was their performance review, like, wow, I looked at you for this many minutes. That's really great. You get a promotion. Really? Like what? What were these people being measured on to begin with? That makes no sense whatsoever.

It's not a trust issue. It's a management isn't giving people good metrics to deliver on issue, and I think you'll see, you're seeing managers say, Oh, I can't see them, I can't trust them, I don't know if they're working. That's actually for the most part an excuse to what they really mean, which is, Oh wow, I actually need to go back to the drawing board and determine what are the metrics that I need this person to deliver to move the business forward. Because now it puts the onus back on management and management does not like that, but the truth of the matter is, any company, hybrid, co-located, you need to have metrics such that you don't have to look at someone, you give them something that they can then report back on.

That's the bottom line. And if it's not that, then it's management's job to take a hard look at what are our objectives and key results. Like what, what are we actually measuring? Because if you solve that problem, the trust issue goes away. Like you don't, you don't need to see them. You can very clearly see, are they delivering on the metric that they need to deliver on, but on a deeper level, on the, on the trust side.

It's, it's totally cultural. Like you cannot lead a remote team with micromanagement and fear. Like checking in on them on video calls is a great way to destroy morale. It's a great way to ensure that this person is interviewing for another job right away. Like, it is a terrible way to build a team. Um. If you're working with adults who are good at their job, that's just, it's just never going to win.

It's a, it's just a bad, bad business move. Um, but it is, it is weird for, for, for people that are used to seeing people, there's this kind of calm that comes with it, that if I see it, it's happening, and now there's this great awakening up that has never been true. Even in an office, if you walk over to someone's cubicle and they're smiling ear to ear, and you look at them, that is not an indication that all is well in their world.

That is just an indication that you see them smiling, but inside anything could be happening and you have no idea. And I think it's, it's like, Whoa, this great moment of, you know, what I've seen isn't necessarily what's actually happening. And people are wrestling with that and grappling with that in different ways.

Maria Almeida: Um, yeah, but I guess that's not, you know, the only obstacle when you work remotely, like in my case, you know, having to work from home also means a lot of unavoidable distractions. So I have a huge dog who's always crying for attention. Then my downstairs neighbors who scream at each other. Then my mother keeps calling. Um, so as you can probably tell, I'm really struggling with remote work. And I guess I'm not the only one. So what do you think am I doing wrong?

Darren Murph: Uh, you're, you're comparing your current situation as if it's in a bubble. And what I mean by that is you say that as if you never had an office distraction. But I remember days in the office where nothing got done because someone's always tapping you on the shoulder. Sirens are always happening. The streets closing down the elevators don't work. Lunch is late. I mean, this is like this great epiphany as if home is the only place where there's, there's a distraction.

Here's the other reality. If you were used to a two hour round trip commute, you now can have two full hours of distraction at home and you're still breaking even because now you don't have to commute. So two full hours of home life can go completely sideways. And you're still breaking even because you weren't doing any work on the commute anyway. So to me it just comes back to framing. Like, yes, there will be distractions at home, but there were also distractions in the office. And at home if you're dealing with family, it gets a little more challenging, especially with small kids who can't understand why a parent is home, but they cannot just be out playing all the time.

There are some suggestions there. Try to carve out a dedicated space. If you don't have the luxury of a dedicated room, at least try to stand up something like a curtain, some sort of visual indicator. That work happens here and life happens here. I've also recommended to people to put their schedules on the refrigerator so kids and families can always see it.

And then they don't have to always wonder, well, how close is this person to being done? They just know what, to some degree, to what the schedule is going to be. So trying to create intentional separation there. Pets are a whole other thing. Um, they're gonna, they're going to require some things, uh, kind of spontaneously in the moment that are going to take priority.

And for that, it really comes down to just being open and honest with the, with the entire company that, Hey, we're all in this together. We're all in a strange situation. We're all dealing with distractions that we did not have to deal with in the office. So if I have to get up in the middle of a meeting and go take my dog out and be right back, that's now okay.

And that's just the bottom line. It needs. That has to be okay. Like if my kid came in to this podcast right now and started chatting with me, it's okay. It's the stigma is gone. We have, we have catapulted beyond the petty arguments of like, how do you replicate this clean, pristine background with no distractions as if you'd have had an a boardroom like we're past that.

We're now working where life happens. The expectations have to change and it just, that to me is the bottom line and it starts from a cultural understanding across the team of, look, we've got to give each other some grace. Some stuff is going to go sideways that would never go sideways in an office, but it's going to be okay.

Maria Almeida: I mean, I've seen some weird advice around, like, some people even recommend having their own work shoes to work from home as in you put them on when the work day starts and take them off when it ends. It's a kind of a trigger. Um.

Darren Murph: Yeah. Um, I, I will say one thing on the trigger. I do agree with that. If you're. Ideally you go fully asynchronous and it's a nonlinear Workday where you kind of control the ebbs and flows of your day, but in the near term where you want, want to stick a little bit closer to the routine as you acclimate, what I recommend people do is do something proactive with the time you used to spend commuting.

So if you had 30 minutes before work and 30 minutes after work. Don't just squander that. Otherwise the lines between work and bed just get blurred immediately. So if you said, all right, I used to commit 30 minutes to commuting, I'm going to henceforth commit 30 minutes to cooking or cleaning or exercising or walking my dog or doing anything so that it acts as a trigger to ramp into your day and then ramp back out of your day.

So I do agree with that. It can be anything. It can change day to day, but do something with your commute time if you want that kind I clear separation line between here's when I wake up and here's when I'm actually start, or when I start working.

Maria Almeida: And, one of the challenges that a lot of people are facing right now is also finding, like you said, the balance between life and work, because when you're working from home, basically you're working and living in the same space. It's very difficult for you to create these boundaries. So how do you find the right balance?

Darren Murph: It's a continual journey. I've been working remotely through all spectrums of remote, hybrid, remote, all remote. I've worked in offices. I still don't have a doubt in 14 years in, it's still not perfect. Every day is a little bit different. Some days I realize, Hey, this day was a little bit more harmonious than other days, and I like to say work life harmony versus work life balance because what we're experiencing right now is so unbalanced, like this is not normal. So I want people that are working from home for the first time to understand your work from home experience is not the same one that people have been championing for decades. That is an intentional remote work setup where you had time to plan and prepare and get your home ready for it.

What is happening right now is not that, so don't let that color work from home and remote work. It's very different. Um, it, it's, I would say, give yourself grace. Treat it as an iterative process at the end of each day, write down three things that went great. Three things that did not, and work on it a little bit.

More the next day. It could be something as simple as like changing the angle of your monitor or the height of your chair, maybe the ergonomics of your mouse and keyboard, tiny things day after day make a big difference and you just getting comfortable where you are and when lockdowns are relieved, a lot of people just don't love to work in their home no matter what. They'd rather be at a coffee shop. They'd rather be at a co-working space. They just need some sort of buzz around them. That is not me at all. But some people thrive on that. And if that's you and you can't access that, you're going to struggle. Like you can try anything. And it's like, this just isn't who I am. And if that's you, yeah, it's going to be tougher. Um, but, but when the lockdowns, uh, alleviate I would say go try and experiment with some of those other spaces, because you may find that's kind of the perfect balance. A lot of people said, you know, I can never work outside of the office. I just love, love the, the, the personal bonds. I love the buzz. Uh, and then so they go home and they're like, I'm too isolated. And the happy medium ends up being a co-working space or a cafe.

Maria Almeida: Another thing that I also feel is a little bit different from life in the office is the brainstorming, because in the office, that usually happens organically. So, you know, someone says something silly in the office and suddenly out of nowhere, everyone is pitching in. So how do you replicate that when you lose those spontaneous moments?

Darren Murph: Yeah. I guess the deeper question there for me is, were those ever the best way to do anything anyway? Um, I'm not so sure. The answer is yes. We're actually going through a really important brainstorm right now as a team where we're mapping out the year ahead vision for our entire marketing department.

It starts at our chief marketing officer, so this is really big, but instead of this being a brainstorming thing where we try and get as many people together in the office for one hour and then like whatever comes to mind for the next hour ends up dictating the next year of marketing like that. I don't even know if that sounds like a great idea, but that's how most people brainstorm right now.

So instead of doing that, we wrote it down. Our chief marketing officer wrote down some initial thoughts on the vision, wrote it down in a Gitlab issue and shared a link to that issue in Slack. So our whole marketing team can see it. They can jump into it whenever suits them best, whenever suits them best.

So for the next week. This thing is open for discussion. So we just went from a one hour brainstorm with as many people as you could wrangle up. Like what if they're having a bad day? What if they're just not in the mood to think? That that's gonna that's going to hinder what, what answers you get.

Instead, people now have a full week to find time to read it, soak it in, think about it, and then add a ton of precision and detail to what they want to challenge to inputs that they want to add. So at the end of this week, you're going to have this incredible documented brainstorm of all these amazing ideas that are going to be so much deeper and so much richer than you would have ever had in a one hour, like, let's just huddle and get something done. So I think it's like, again, going back to don't try to copy the office and paste it in a virtual world. Ask yourself it was that even the best way to do it anyway, and now that we're in this virtual world, is there a better way to do it? Like this is the, this is the time to experiment with new ways of doing it.

Maria Almeida: Before you were talking about people having to adapt to this a new situation. Uh, and I've read , in your latest reports on remote work at Gitlab, that one of the main challenges people faced when they work remotely is dealing with isolation and loneliness. And I'm assuming that right now with the social distancing measures and government lockdowns due to the coronavirus outbreak, it doesn't get any easier. Do you have any tips on how to feel less isolated and lonely at work?

Darren Murph: Yeah. It doesn't get any easier to feel less isolated compared to how you normally got that fix. Uh, I think a lot of the answers you see on those surveys were coming from the place of you're asking remote workers that are in a hybrid remote setting, so they know that some of their coworkers are going into an office, and even if they don't want to go into the office, they still know that they're missing out on some hallway chatter, some happy hours, something you're missing out on something. And in all remote setting where everyone is remote, everyone is on the same level playing field, so you don't have as much FOMO, there's not an office to miss out on, and that's one of the huge benefits of being all remote. I get that that's not practical for every company, but it is a major benefit. It's in a remote setting to replace that, you're going to need to be really intentional about structuring time and creating an atmosphere for people to connect and bond.

And this is what I mean by that. Right before this podcast, I actually got off of a marketing wide, team-wide over 130 people talent show all on zoom. And so how this worked is our people operations group meets with our marketing leaders and we brainstorm, how can we get people engaged? What opportunities can we create for them?

So they threw this on everyone's calendar. Two weeks in advance. We're going to do a talent show, a virtual talent show across six continents, 130 people. There's an agenda doc attached to that. Anybody that wants to participate their families, their dogs, whatever. You just write down what your talent is. And then on the day of the show, everyone just goes end to end showing off their talents on zoom. And then there's, uh, there's a judging process that happens and then people get prizes. This is an amazing way to bond as a team. And I dare say it would be impossible to do this in a co-located space. Like how are you going to get 130 people across six continents together?

Like you, it's impossible. One of the talents today was involved cooking. So the person needed their kitchen, which is only possible in a virtual environment. So I actually think it's more possible to get more genuine and intimate interactions with teams and become even less isolated in a virtual setting.

The thing is, it takes intentionality. People are so fixated right now and like, Oh, I'm used to seeing someone walking out the door. Yeah, you're not going to replace that, but look at the amazing opportunity you have when everyone can be in their own home and they have the full access to the space that is there.

It just requires intentionality. And for companies that have people groups, that should be their number one priority right now is setting up moments like that, setting up that atmosphere so that people can connect in a real way.

Maria Almeida: Yeah. At Unbabel, we've been trying to get those moments. We started having these 9:30 AM calls there are completely non-work-related where people can just share what they're up to. Uh, recently someone said that they were baking bread. And also at 5:00 PM, we have the Margaritaville Hangouts, obviously margaritas are optional. But these moments are just for the team to unwind and relax for bit. So can you give a few more examples on how you kind of creates that culture virtually?

Darren Murph: Yeah, so using the people group to set up things like talent shows, our show and tell is a great one. You just invite people on a call for an hour and they just show something they made or something that they're proud of, or like an award that they earned. You just learn a ton about someone if you just open up the floor to show and tell. That's a great way to do it. And get lab. We have something called a coffee chat where there's just a room that anybody who just wants to blow off steam for 20 minutes can say like, Hey, anyone else available? And they just throw a zoom link and then anybody that wants to join can just spontaneously join. We've kind of treat it like, a workplace lobby or a hotel lobby where it's like, you know, just kind of meander in when you want, talk however long you want, and then leave wherever, whenever you want. And if you kind of set the stage of, you know, this is the, the hotel lobby, like no work talk happens here. Come in, hang out, talk about whatever you would normally talk about, whether that's sports or music or the weekend, whatever you want to talk about. You just need to provide that place for people to do it and give them some instruction on, on how to use it, and it'll feel a little awkward at first. I think that's one of the things, it's like people don't want it to feel awkward. It will feel awkward until it doesn't. And then it's going to be the best thing ever. You're like, wow, this is unlocking opportunity to connect with people on a genuine level that I did not get in the office, but it takes some time to get there.

One of the things that I've been really heartened by is we now have an iteration on the idea of a coffee chat. Uh, which is called the juice box chat. So what we've discovered is that for any parents with kids, if the meeting ends and anyone doesn't have a back to back meeting, they'll just leave their zoom chat on and they'll invite their kids into the room. And so you have kids that are speaking different languages to each other that are listening to different music together. They're sharing like, here's what I'm learning today. Here's a picture that I drew today. And you just have this amazing spontaneous moment with these children that are getting to connect with each other because they're all home. Like, what a cool and crazy opportunity. So we have those spontaneous juice box chats, and then also we have an entire Slack channel dedicated to structuring those.

So for parents, like at the end of their day, they want to give their kids away to pull off some steam and meet someone new. We actually can set up these massive zoom calls with kids all over the world to get to connect with each other, and it gives the parents a chance to take a breather as well. And I fundamentally believe that wouldn't have happened if not for the situation that we're in.

So it's also kind of cool to see the ray of sunshine. Uh, some, some really positive things that are happening from this, uh, that I don't think we would have given ourselves permission to pause and think about, if not for the situation that we're in.

Maria Almeida: And do you ever like gather the whole team, uh, in real life?

Darren Murph: For sure. In person interactions are vital in a remote setting. Again, you need to be very intentional about this as well. we value this a lot. We get the whole company together at least once a year for a company wide summit in different cities around the world, essentially no work happens there. There's an opening keynote, a closing keynote, and then everyday in between it's just excursions that people can opt into and just bond with people on their teams, other teams, what have you. We also have user conferences in cities around the world, and we are really intentional about trying to get as many teams as we can that makes sense to join those in person. Uh, and we're, we're pretty lenient with that. We want to give people the opportunity to bond in person. It's a big deal. Like there's no actual replacement for in-person, but what we love to do is try to set the stage with an in person interaction and then let that carry through in a virtual world until we meet again.

But you have to be intentional about that as well. People in the remote team really look forward to the moments when they're able to be together. Um, our annual summit, people mark it on their calendar, like it's almost treated like a week of vacation. Like they guard it because it's a big deal. It's a lot of fun to hang out.

Maria Almeida: And do you think that this forced remote experience is going to have a longterm effect on how companies organize their workforce? For instance, it's pretty clear that a lot of things you were told you couldn't do remotely you actually can. But there's a chance that doing this with no preparation, with no guidelines can actually have the opposite effect. So people think, uh, it can't be done just because they weren't ready to implement it properly.

Darren Murph: I think this is the ultimate test for how innovative a company is. I think you're going to look back six months from now and you're going to clearly see the companies that just kind of stumbled through this. They didn't put any effort into building infrastructure or process around enabling people to thrive remotely. They just assume we'll be over it soon. We'll just usher people into the office and it'll be like, it never happened.

And then you're going to have the other end of that spectrum, which is companies that are going to see this and think, well, honestly, we've needed this digital transformation for a really long time. This is the perfect opportunity to put some of these pieces in place because our entire workforce is remote. So it's not like some of them are going to get one experience and then some of them are going to get another one. This is the opportunity to do it. So we're going to act swiftly and deliberately and intentionally and build the right team around this to give people the tools they need, the process they need, the documentation they need to do their work anywhere they want. I think it's going to have more positives than negatives.

And then from a business standpoint, there are leaders that are talking right now and saying, we, we need to go remote because we need to de-risked our business. You're seeing now that geography, if you tie it too tightly to your business, can have really negative impacts when black Swan events happen. I mean, London is a great example. You had businesses based in London. No one saw Brexit coming that will permanently and forever impact their business because their geography was tied there and no one could have predicted that.

But in a remote setting, you're less amenable to having things like that impact your work. I think you will see a sea of people that in three or four months are asked to come back to the office and they're going to kind of collectively look at each other and they're going to say, you know, I just did my job for three months and I got to see my family more. I exercised more, I got to cook. I don't have a commute. I'm spending less money. I'm saving more money. How about no, I'm not going to go back to the office. And also I'm going to keep doing my job really well and also I'm going to consider moving to a more rural place, a quieter place, a place with a higher quality of living, better schools for my children, better air quality.

And this is going to happen in mass because you've had a small subset of people that have understood the benefits of this for a really long time. But now that you're having millions of people experiencing it at the same time, there's, you cannot put this genie back in the bottle.

People will understand the benefits of it. They're going to have enough time to get it and their imagination is going to unlock on like, oh, this is what's possible when I decouple work from geography, there will be some people that cannot wait to go back into the office and that's fine. It's not like offices are going to disappear overnight, but there will be a massive amount of people who were only going into the office because it was their vocation and their, they're going to change it. We're going to see a big, big shift globally.

Maria Almeida: This was another episode of Customer Centric, an original podcast from Unbabel where we're bringing humanity back to the customer experience, one conversation at a time.

I'm your host Maria Almeida, and this episode was produced by Rafaela Cortez and myself, and it was scored and mixed by Bernardo Afonso.

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