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June 19, 2020

5 Questions with GitLab’s Head of Remote on Business Travel

The next era of business travel will be more thoughtful, more humanized, and more integrated into our daily lives, according to Darren Murph who is teaching the world a new way to travel for work. Darren is Head of Remote at GitLab -- a completely remote company and TripActions customer with a unique approach to business travel.

GitLab’s corporate travel policy is nuanced and empowers employees to meet one another and their community with travel stipends as well as organizes an annual company-wide conference. Its innovative approach to corporate travel is made possible by TripActions corporate travel and expense management solution which can be adapted for its employees across 65 countries.

As major tech companies from Twitter to Shopify announce new remote work policies, and thousands for others consider a permanent move to WFH, executives are thinking through what this means for culture and community. We sat down with Darren Murph to hear from someone who’s mastered the relationship between business travel and remote work with the help of technology. If you’re interested in learning more, tune into the latest episode of Open for Business to hear with Darren share more of his ideas.

The following interview has been edited for clarity:

TripActions: What is GitLab’s philosophy on work?

Darren Murph: GitLab is a collaboration tool for software development teams and anyone managing projects. We fundamentally believe that work is more efficient and more inclusive, the more asynchronous it is -- it is part of our vision for being an all-remote tool. We built a tool that allows people to move projects forward without having to be online at the same time.

TripActions: It’s fascinating to learn about the value of asynchronicity.

Darren Murph: It’s a more inclusive way to work. We have 1,200 people in more than 65 countries. That’s a lot of time zones to cover. On top of that, we’re all remote.

We encourage ultimate travel freedoms and flexibility so even someone who is based in Seattle normally could be in a different country or timezone every month, every week. You never know. Whenever we pull up a meeting with someone, we never know where they’re going to be. We do all of our work in the tool, which supports fewer meetings and more asynchronous communication, because that allows people to travel more and live this type of lifestyle.

GitLab is a really unique place in that we’re all remote from the very beginning. We're very articulate about who we are as a company, what our values are, and what we stand for. People very much opt into this culture. I like to say that no one accidentally ends up at GitLab. Our interview process is all over video calls. There's no in-person interaction. If you get through all of that, and you're still cool with lots of video calls, then you're in the right place.

What's really awesome about this atmosphere is that even though we're all remote and we don't have an office to go to, a lot of our people love to travel. We just want the power to travel in our hands, not dictated by the company that we work for. Most people are beholden to a commute. They travel every day, but it's nightmarish travel. It's two hours of gridlock traffic in both directions. No one wants that kind of travel.

What we want as GitLabbers is ultimate freedom. There's no office to commute to. You can fly on a Tuesday if you want. You can fly out on Saturday if you want. It doesn't matter. We can go visit relatives. We can go care for aging parents. We have a lot of people that love to travel, but it's on their plan, their schedule -- not the employer.

A cool wrinkle to that is, since we're all remote, we have to plan in-person interactions amongst our teams. We'll often get the question: "Hey, as an all remote team, do you ever travel for business? Do you ever see each other in person?" It's vital to who we are. We get the whole company together once a year in a city, somewhere in the world, for GitLab Contribute. There's an opening keynote and a closing keynote and everything in between is optional excursions for people to get together and bond as humans and build relationships in person.

We also have user events throughout the year where we try to get as many people as possible to come together from those regions. We have lots of events that we support over the year -- sales events, marketing events, and others. We're very liberal about letting as many people as we can come to those events, because we know that without them, they might not get to see one of their colleagues for another six months or a year. We're very intentional about enabling work travel when possible.

We actually encourage travel with the form of a visiting grant incentive as well. It was one of my favorite things I saw when I joined GitLab. Any GitLabber that travels to another region to visit any other GitLabber will be reimbursed $150 of that travel to encourage people to go.

TripActions: Can you talk about any challenges you've had? Do you have any learnings or advice you might have for a company that’s thinking about going fully remote?

Darren Murph: You have to be much more intentional about everything as a remote company. You can't let serendipity and fate dictate your culture, norms, or workflows. For a lot of companies that are co-located, they don't put a lot of thought into travel because they just assume the steady drum beat of business events will inevitably bring their people together in some form or fashion, which has mostly been true. The problem with that is that it's all very chaotic -- and not very intentional. There's also not a ton of human touch to it and it’s a substandard way to operate. So it makes sense to put some intentionality behind. When do we want people to get together in person? What do we want those experiences to look like? How can we make this something that I look forward to and it's memorable?

For GitLab Contribute, we get everyone in the whole company together once a year. It's for an entire week and a lot of sacrifice has to happen for this. When people have kids at home, it's a big deal for that many people to come together. In an all remote setting, people mark this on their calendar, they look forward to it. It's almost anticipated as if it's a week of vacation instead of a work trip. Compare that to most people going to an office every day. If you got a notification that you need to go on a business trip for a week, you would think, "Oh, what can I do to get out of this?" whereas we see it as the inverse. We think, "All right, I will cancel anything to be there with my work colleagues." It is possible because we are very intentional about orchestrating what that travel will be, where it's at, what the excursions are. It's very high touch, very polished, very thoughtful.

The next era of business travel is going to be a more thoughtful approach. I think more than ever people will start looking at how they can intertwine personal travel with business travel. I've done this forever. When I was traveling as a reporter for Engadget, if I had to go to Tokyo to cover a trade show, my first thought was, "Can my wife come?" The second thought was, "What's near Tokyo that I want to go see and do anyway?" I would either leave early or come back late and do a multi-city trip to hit places that are in a similar region.

The next iteration of business travel will have people asking, "What could I do to spice that trip up a little bit?" Even travel departments within companies are going to start looking into that -- especially for hybrid remote settings for some people might not get a ton of opportunity to travel. A good example of this is the Cowork Experience, which works with companies to find pockets of people that are spread out all over the world and bring them together for highly curated experiences for one or two weeks. It’s part team bonding, part learning, and it allows people to vote on where they want to go.

I'm a long-term optimist for what business travel is going to look like -- it will be much more thoughtful and much more humanized and less about just getting the job done, which is largely how it’s been for a long time.

TripActions: What role do GitLab employees have in influencing the travel program? I’m guessing it’s an ongoing conversation.

Darren Murph: For sure. As we've scaled, we’ve created location channels within Slack. So once we get about 10 people in our region, you'll generally see a location channel in Slack pop up. Location channels include the Pacific Northwest, London, Singapore, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, and many others. Even if employees work in different parts of the country, they now have a sub-community based on physical geography. We encourage people to organize proximity-based gatherings each year and we give everyone a stipend. In Raleigh-Durham, we went out for a nice meal and then left the remainder of the stipend to the restaurant, which it gave back to the community.

At GitLab, we have a collaborative process when it comes to choosing where meetups are. We're big about the community. Our mission is that everyone can contribute and the people outside of the GitLab organization routinely contribute code to make the GitLab product better. We watch where that activity is coming from and have a community relations team that tries to establish meetups in areas where we know there's a community of people that love GitLab and open source.

TripActions: Can you talk about the importance of remote work in your own life?

Darren Murph: I live in a rural pocket of North Carolina and remote has always been very personal for me, because my wife and I are both from this region. We have family here. Family is really, really important for us. It takes a village and we have a 16 month old. We're really thankful that we have our village, but there's not a lot of industry around here and essentially it's a remote work or farming and for a lot of the world, and you've seen this rural deep populations kind of this cultural fleeing from these amazingly rich communities where people just flee a major urban centers for work because they don't... They feel like they don't have any other choice. Part of GitLab's mission is that we want to provide education and best practices on how to do remote work, because we want to see the proliferation of remote companies explode. Because we think that that will enable underserved communities and underrepresented people in these communities to contribute in a more meaningful way.

A lot of people can't or won't relocate. Maybe they have mobility challenges, maybe they're a military spouse where their spouse takes them to different places every two to four years, or maybe they need to be a caregiver to aging parents. Maybe they need to be in a certain place because they need a certain school for their children to be in. If you're a remote company, you enable people to live their lives, being where they need to be for whatever that is, and then integrate work into it instead of letting work dictate everything. It's very, very important for us to try to show how being remote can work, because it's a tragedy that we are the exception and not the norm and we want to help turn that corner in a major way.

Remote is very personal for me. My family's here. I've been to all 50 states and over 50 countries, but North Carolina is still home for me and I'm very, very thankful that I'm able to be here. Although I live in a pretty rural pocket of the world, I routinely travel over a hundred thousand miles a year to visit clients, to see new places, to work from new cities, or go visit friends and far flung corners of the world.

There's this notion that if you're remote, you just want to be isolated, and we've seen that's not at all the case. People at GitLab love to travel, they love to explore new cultures and we feed off of that. Although we're spread across 65 countries, we have a Slack channel dedicated to travel and we see where people are going on a day to day basis and it's this continuous thread of inspiration of where we want to go next and, of course, if we can meet up at the right time, everybody can reimburse in part of that.

To learn more about how remote companies think about business travel, tune into Episode 8 of Open for Business: A Corporate T&E Podcast by TripActions.

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