How to take advantage of distributed work

Don't call it 'remote'

Distributed work is becoming the norm for many tech companies as the pandemic waxes and wanes. But there are plenty of ways to mess it up, especially if you’re attempting a hybrid solution — or if you’re secretly pining for the office.

I recently sat down with two experts on the topic to learn more: Wendy Nice Barnes, chief people officer at Gitlab, and Phil Libin, founder and CEO of startup studio All Turtles and mmhmm.

Our philosophy is we’re not remote, we’re distributed intentionally in the same way that the internet is a distributed system. Phil Libin

Barnes joined the long-time distributed WebOps company during the pandemic, after a career working in physical tech offices as a human resources leader.

Libin, after a long Silicon Valley career built around office meetings, has gone through the process of learning to love distributed over the last couple of years. As part of the process, he founded mmhmm, a video conference company (that’s fully distributed).

I’ve highlighted a few points from the conversation, below, including getting the mentality right, how to handle vacations and a couple tips on fundraising.

Think “distributed”

“Of course, some of it is harder. There are obvious disadvantages,” Libin said, regarding going distributed. “How about we focus on the amazing superpower advantages, like the fact that 0% of the people in our companies waste any time commuting? Not like the fact that they can live anywhere they want, like the fact that they can be fully productive. There are like massive advantages. Focus on those, and everything becomes much better.”

Libin said that “remote” is the wrong word to use. “Our philosophy is, ‘no one’s remote.’ The feeling of ‘remote’ is like other people are gathering somewhere, but you’re not. ‘Remote’ is fundamentally disadvantaged. We’re not remote, we’re distributed. We’re distributed intentionally in the same way that the internet is a distributed system. Not because the people who made the internet didn’t know how to make a centralized network, but because making a distributed network has foundational, fundamental advantages. The internet could never exist if it wasn’t distributed.”

As another example of the advantages of distributed, Barnes described how she can hire faster via a distributed team. For prospective hires, “it’s much easier now versus getting in my car, commuting to an office, having to check in and go through security — and then go sit in a room and be there for five or six hours. Now, you have the flexibility and you’re intrigued and you’re going to learn faster through the interview process remotely.”

How to handle time off

Many people who work from home have trouble knowing when to step away. Both panelists had key ways to avoid issues there.

“I think it’s keeping friends and family top of mind with the culture,” Barnes said. “And that starts with your leadership. If leadership is demonstrating that we’re taking time off, others will follow, and showing things like [Gitlab CEO Sid Sijbrandij] would say ‘I’m taking a break. I’m going here. How about you? What are your plans?’ and sharing that in Slack channels so other people can see.”

Gitlab also makes some vacation days mandatory.

“We also instituted, earlier on in the pandemic, a friends and family day,” Barnes added. “You see other organizations doing this with ‘wellness days’ … we have these about every four to six weeks and the company goes offline. So you’re not seeing Sid or myself or the other execs online working. Everyone gets a break. And every time we have it on a Friday. So it’s a long weekend. Everyone gets that weekend to just breathe and have a moment to get outside.”

Mmhmm does not make vacation mandatory — instead, you get a bonus if you take days off.

“We pay people $1,000 and they go somewhere cool,” Libin said. “And we don’t track vacation. You know, we don’t have a vacation, but it’s so incentivized … I think everyone’s an adult. They should be able to manage their time.”

“But I think more importantly, [Sibrandij] is right, you’ve got to model the behavior,” Libin added. “I went fishing and posted pictures of me and a fish … Because yeah, you gotta model it. But I think actually ‘disconnecting’ is a little bit fetishized. It’s right for some people. It’s not right for other people. What’s right is finding that that correct work-life integration, and distributed work gives you infinitely more chances to do that. Because you can live anywhere you want, and you’re not wasting any time commuting. Like, it’s kind of amazing. I think people are conflating a really important thing — that distributed work is not working from home. Distributed work only means working from home when we were all forced to do it unprepared because of the pandemic … when I need to think through something creatively, I’ll go work out of a museum.”

Distributed fundraising, deck not included

While the full talk covers much more about how to make your company successfully distributed for the long term, I also wanted to note another key element that we discussed: fundraising.

Libin, a former VC himself, raised a large amount of funding during the pandemic without any in-person meetings. He said founders shouldn’t bother with in-person meetings even if a prospective investor demands it.

“[T]he good ones are fully comfortable doing everything remotely … Fundraising is better than ever. Your marginal cost of talking to an investor now is pretty much zero. What I did, and what I think everyone should do, is make a recording. Don’t send your deck. What I did is just me talking over my slides and pointing to things and showing pictures … I made a video.”

The real conversations, he says, happen regardless.

“The ones that are interested will jump on a synchronous call … I’ve raised now, three rounds for mmhmm without meeting anyone in person, and a bunch of other All Turtles companies have. So I think anyone who wants that old handshake in-person meeting? Just ignore them.”