Podcast 14 min

Remote Talks: Episode 4 with Darren Murph - Mental Health, Leadership, and Remote Experiments

January 14, 2021
Preston Wickersham


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Welcome to Remote Talks!

Remote Talks is a series of video interviews with the brightest minds in remote work and global employment, hosted by Remote CEO Job van der Voort. This week, we welcome Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab. One of the most celebrated experts on all things remote work, Darren has helped GitLab become one of the most prominent remote-first companies in the world.

To see the full interview, watch the video on this page or view the Remote Talks playlist on YouTube.

You are probably the most-interviewed person on the planet about remote work. What is a question you did not expect to get, but did?

Darren: I’ll give you a category that surprised me: the basics. We’re getting questions that are astonishing to me, the foundational things that I’m increasingly realizing I shouldn’t take for granted. And I should really appreciate some of the nuance that comes with living in this space for a really long time. You start really picking up on, what have I learned through osmosis, and who have been my mentors that I actually haven’t given proper credit for? It is amazing.

At GitLab, I think we’re the most advanced, sophisticated, organizational design in terms of remote work on the planet. And I’m increasingly realizing that we’ve got a lot of work to do to bring the rest of the world to where we are.

See also: The most common mistakes companies make when going remote

GitLab has always been remote. Is there anything GitLab started doing differently because of the pandemic?

Darren: Yeah, something that did not exist before COVID but does exist now is the family and friends day. This is a concept that was dreamed up by Syd (GitLab’s CEO) and started as a simple iteration: Let’s just take a Friday off. Let’s just shut down the whole virtual office. Let’s start a Slack channel called “family and friends day” so people can share videos and pictures, stories to prove you’re not on your laptop. Even if it’s just lounging in a hammock or catching up on a book.

Even if you don't have great plans of what to do with that time, we have all been exposed to the fragility of mental health this year. A lot of us thought we had it all together, where we're living, where we want to live. We're working at a great place. That's very efficient. Our values are set. People treat each other well, and then this crisis happens, and it makes you challenge all of the things that you thought you had lined up.

See also: Creating your home office with mental health in mind

We've had a few other Slack channels pop up. Daily gratitude is a good one, a lot more activity in the mental health awareness channel. We've actually invited some external speakers to talk about this. And we have an ongoing campaign of things that we're going to be doing differently, especially leaning into asynchronous workflows to reduce the meeting burden.

What has the response been like within GitLab to the family and friends day?

Darren: If I can make it into a sound, it would be a global collective sigh of relief every time the day happens. And even the week leading up to it, it's just this nice exhale. It feels like you've been inhaling a lot. And of course, humans can't live very long, if you only inhale. It gives us permission to exhale. And what's beautiful about it is everyone, for the most part, is exhaling.

It's not like taking a day off while a mountain of emails pile up. There's something beautiful about that. Another interesting element of this was not planned, but has become quite beautiful in practice, is that these aren't set months and years in advance. So we are allowing people across the organization to propose when the next one or two or three are. So there's this serendipitous factor where you never know who or where or why the next one is going to come from. But there's always some awesome reason that someone somewhere in the world was sitting down thinking, we should do this.

How does GitLab make asynchronous work happen so effectively?

Darren: This has always been the case, but it's been really important to key in on this year. A bias for asynchronous work. Most of the world sees this as a productivity measure. At GitLab, async is actually a sub-value in our diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Working asynchronously when you can is more respectful of someone else's time. So if you can reframe the conversation around this to a matter of respect, it's easier to get buy-in across the organization, because generally people want to be respectful of one another. So that's been something that has been true, but it's been more of a focal point since COVID.

Speaking of mental health, how can organizations better support their teams on that front?

Darren: I was talking with someone from Slack — there's this cool initiative they have called the Future Forum. And they have a lot of data on how executives are dealing with COVID, individual contributors and middle managers. And the middle managers are getting hammered. The data is very clear that they feel the most paralyzed. So the answer to this, and the reason I bring this up, is the change has to start at the executive team, any sort of meaningful focus on mental health.

Middle managers are getting hammered. The data is very clear that they feel the most paralyzed.

Any meaningful, remote transition where you're truly changing habits, you're changing culture. You're changing the way you work. It has to have absolute executive sponsorship, because if it doesn’t, it will fall apart at some point, and it will become lip service. This is why the middle managers are getting crushed. They see the stressors that their individual contributors and their direct reports are going through. But if they don't have the buy-in from the executive team, they're never going to be able to put those people in the ideal place, on an ideal track to getting through it.

So it's a series of band-aids and toughing it out. And that's where you're starting to see a lot of the burnout creep in. I think it will bleed into talent retention.

What about you? How has the pandemic affected the way you deal with your own mental health?

Darren: I recommend this to people that are transitioning. If you had a morning commute and an evening commute, try to block those times and do something that will make you feel well. Maybe that's exercise. Maybe that's rest more. I've been way more deliberate about blocking those times in my schedule and then changing my Slack statuses to say exercise time or time with family, very unambiguous, very direct that whatever I'm doing, it is not work. And I want people around the world to see that.

As a leader, what I'm realizing is it's really important to do that, because if you model it, other people will feel comfortable in doing that. Since COVID, I've been much more overt about, I'm not working now, and I'm going to light up all the signals I possibly can to show that and share that. And I'm seeing that percolate around the organization, our executive team is being very vocal and visible about when they're taking time off.

Why is it so important for leaders to model this behavior?

Darren: In some ways, working during a pandemic is a form of escapism. So a part of you actually feels great for working because it's better than facing reality, even if you don't want to realize that, but that's not the model you want to set. That's not a long-term sustainable solution. We will reach a time where we're no longer in a pandemic. And if you burn yourself out during the pandemic, you're not going to be your full self on the other side of it.

Job: I think that's amazing advice, right? I mean, one of my proudest moments at Remote has been when I took a number of days off and I checked in on Slack and my executive team was like, no, no, nope. You're not even allowed to provide input. You're not working. You should not be on Slack. Both in public and in private messages, they were like, no, you should really not be here. And I thought it was great.

Darren: Another way to reframe this is if you see yourself doing that because you think a process will fail if you don't, that should be an indicator that you are a single point of failure. So the first thing you should do once you get back online is solve that. Not just cloning yourself and making yourself more available, but solve it. Get to the art of delegation, make sure that you hire and mentor and coach and spend some investment on training someone else how to do it or documenting what it is that you do...The goal isn't to be a hero. The goal is to be gone, a lot, and things still happen well. Or ideally, even better.

The goal isn't to be a hero. The goal is to be gone, a lot, and things still happen well. Or ideally, even better.

What kind of changes in remote work do you expect after the world has effectively moved past the pandemic?

Darren: My hope is that a lot of the isolation issues and the culture issues that are being fully attributed to an abrupt transition to remote work will, in some ways, solve themselves. People will be able to go to their favorite coffee shop or go have dinner with friends, and they won't need to lean on work as much to build up their social identity. It's really easy to conflate those two things right now.

The second thing I hope is that people get introspective about what they've taken for granted...I hope we're a bit more thoughtful in our engagements with people. I think we've realized that community is really, really important. It's been easy to rush off. You just sort of assume that life is eternal and I'll get around to calling these people or meeting these people or engaging in this community some other time. And then when it's ripped away from you, you realize, oh, that was lifegiving in many ways. And now that I don't have it, I realize how much of a void is there.

We'll just kind of resume our defaults, but you don't need a huge amount of change to stick even like, a three- to five-degree change of the global mentality around this. I think we'll have a big difference in how we treat each other and how we think about the intersection between work and life. I think with the power of those, we'll see some inversion. Life will become the primary factor that you fit work into, instead of the other way around.

See also: Mastering work-life balance when you work from home

What could that future look like, when people are fitting life into work instead of vice-versa?

Job: I've been hearing some people expand on this and suggesting, in the future, maybe it will be quite common to not just have one, but it will be more common to have multiple jobs. Of course, there are many people that are freelancing today, but if a company can support part-time as well, which is easier through asynchronous work, you can probably also support this, an individual working for multiple employers. Not necessarily as a contractor.

Darren: I agree with that. And I think it's part of the much bigger picture, which is life should ideally become more dynamic after this. So, if you have multiple employers or you have options, A, B, and C, and it gives you an ability to test what it is that you're doing and what you really love, that's more dynamic. If you're able to take some of your university courses through this one school, but then some of them somewhere else, because they default to remote. That's a more dynamic education that you're able to get.

My hope is that by decoupling geography and our vocation, it gives us the chance to be born dynamic. It's about time. Like, humankind is amazing. We are very dynamic. We invented the internet, and we're just now figuring out how to leverage it to live better lives. So hopefully the tagline for 2021 and beyond is dynamism, being more dynamic.

Have you ever tried remote work experiments at GitLab that failed?

Darren: I can’t think of anything that didn't work. Maybe the outcome was different than was expected. I'll say this, we captured so much and continue to capture so much of how we work remotely and it's documented. And one thing that I am continually surprised by is that not everyone reads it.

We have so much material it's so rich that if you were just able to pull a matrix and just plug this in and download it all at once, all of your problems would be solved, but there's some cognitive dissonance from the person that's architecting it and curating it. And then all of the other people that actually have to pause their life in some way and read it and ingest it, apply it.

I've assumed that because it's written, it is understood. That is not the case. You actually have to put some effort and intentionality into messaging campaigns, pulling this out, putting it into learning and development, putting it into upskilling and retraining. So there's a lot of effort. You can't just write it and forget it. You have to put a lot of effort into it. And with new people coming in all the time, it becomes a continual thing.

Job: This was one of the first lessons of leadership, is that you have to repeat yourself. Anything that you think is important, even if it's written down, you have to repeat yourself until the point where you feel like you're literally always saying the same thing. And that's about when it starts to stick.

What is something you would like to experiment with regarding remote work but have not tried yet?

Darren: I wish it was a lot easier to pilot new tools with small teams without massively disrupting their existing workflows. I almost want a team that fully understands how to work in this environment and has a good understanding of how most of the teams do their work. And they're just there to beta test new tools and products.

COVID has accelerated the golden era of remote-focused tools or remote-enabling tools. So many are coming out. It reminds me of when the Apple app store came out the first week. You could literally see each new app that came online, and you could try each new app. It was unbelievable. And then very quickly it hit escape velocity, and discoverability becomes this massive issue. Tools are in a similar boat right now.

Before this interview, you said you were about to take some time off. What do you plan to do?

Darren: So the first is like the most adult answer ever. I've got a new ceiling fan that I'm really looking forward to installing, but you know what, it's the simple thing that really brings you back to what really matters. You know, the day before Christmas, I'm installing something in my house with my dad. That is a miracle. We're both healthy. I have the provision to have a home. I have the ability to take time off, my limbs function so I can turn a screwdriver. There's a lot of miracles that are happening in that.

It doesn’t have to be...like, let's go to the Maldives using points and miles, and how can I hack this to get first class now. It's just like, you know what? I just want to wake up late with the fan installed and not blow up the transformer in my home, while I have the smell of cookies and things like that wafting in the background. That's it, very simple. That's the goal for time off.

Follow @darrenmurph on Twitter and learn more about GitLab’s remote work strategies with GitLab’s Guide to All-Remote.

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