Article • 9MIN READ

3 Proven Techniques for Leading Remote Engineering Teams from GitLab, GigSmart & Equinix

While remote work was an important topic before the pandemic, the abrupt change from viewing remote work as the future to it being an immediate, necessary shift caught many companies off-guard. Being forced into a foreign way of working and having to go from a more familiar office setting to being completely remote has proven challenging for many - but remote work doesn't have to be hard.

We had the opportunity to interview some of the strongest remote leaders in tech. They've had to adapt to this new world in global, distributed companies and shared some of their insights on how to do so successfully. We spoke with:

  • Darren Murph, Global Head of Remote, GitLab
  • Shweta Saraf, Senior Director of Engineering, Equinix
  • Chris Downard, VP of Engineering, GigSmart
  • Lawrence Mandel, Director of Engineering at Shopify

Meetings & Workflows that Support a Remote Culture

Darren Murph has been known to say that successful remote work comes down to the building blocks of workspace communication and mindset. So we wanted to learn from him a little more about how organizations, particularly engineering organizations, can optimize remote workflows for team members - especially within global companies with highly distributed teams.

1. Build remote-first companies instead of office-first organizations that have gone remote

One primary insight Darren shared is that you need to be very intentional about your organizational design. He demonstrates this through the example of a co-located organization and how much thought goes into what's inside a building, how the elevators work, what the office spaces look like, and even the connectivity. Darren says, “As much rigor and intentionality needs to go into your virtual organizational design.” 

For many companies, this is brand new. They've shifted to remote work as a necessity, but they maintain an “office-first” working mindset. While this is passable and can work, it's not ultimately taking advantage of the key benefits of a virtual atmosphere. 

An example of a remote-first mindset is that GitLab uses its own platform to do all of their collaboration. What this provides is a single source of truth, which can be compared to that central hallway, where all work is funneled through. This enables the GitLab team to collaborate with maximum efficiency by ensuring that everything is as visible and transparent as possible for everyone in the organization.

Of course, the platform is just an example and can change depending on the company. The primary takeaway is the importance of finding ways to get rid of silos in your organizations and encouraging virtual collaboration.

Darren tells a story where a Chief People Officer once asked, “How do we make our meetings better?” And his response was to “Make them harder to have.” 


Darren believes that you should have as few meetings as possible because work ought to be done in other media - not just live during meetings, which has become commonplace. With this mindset, a good practice would be to use a tool like GitLab to gather consensus asynchronously, then reserve synchronous time for meetings to make decisions. As your team gets more distributed across the globe and time zones become a greater issue, being able to collaborate asynchronously becomes all the more important.

We’ve all experienced meeting fatigue. Many times you can reserve meetings for things like status updates, as opposed to intense working sessions, instead allowing team members to focus and work asynchronously before coming together.

At LinearB, we’ve started our own centralized communication tools and shared them with the developer community. Tools like gitStream make it possible for every developer to be in sync with pull requests through things like smart-assignment of reviewers, providing an added layer of asynchronous coordination.

2. Build, protect & maintain live-collaboration space

Chris Downard takes a different angle on the Zoom front. He actually talks about an interesting practice at GigSmart called “Coffee Talk,” which seems to be in complete opposition to the Zoom-fatigue sentiment. 

When GigSmart went remote, the leadership team had to grapple with many questions, such as, “What's the plan for the different departments, and how are they even going to handle this?” It was an instant switch, and this wasn’t an easy transition for a company that was predominantly in-office at the time. 

While GigSmart had some remote employees around the world, that taught them as a company the need for collaboration and keeping people in sync who weren't in the main office.

This gave Chris an idea. In order to create a similar atmosphere to an office that constantly has movement and conversation, he created a virtual chat room called Coffee Talk which is essentially a Zoom meeting that is constantly running. They created a bot that posts a reminder about it every morning with a link to the Coffee Talk, inviting people to join.


The way it works is that if everyone eventually leaves, all of the breakout rooms close. However, the first person that joins again, will usually create a new list of breakout rooms, and these for the most part center around ongoing projects, with a couple of rooms dedicated to large ongoing projects. 

There are rooms for all the committees that meet regularly, such as architecture, backend, and frontend. There are also a couple of random breakout rooms that simulate small conference rooms in an office so people can quickly jump in and collaborate or pair on an immediate task. There’s even a room dedicated for the design team if they want to jump in, collaborate and pair. 

This provided the team a “named space” virtually, and as LinearB users, they tracked the metrics around their performance and found that the first week after going remote, the company numbers actually went up! This was a direct result of the collaboration that was instantly established. 

These "Coffee Talk" sessions were and continue to be leveraged by everyone since they were easy enough to jump into and roll out of as people saw fit. They're used for stand-ups, retros, planning breakdowns, production, and troubleshooting. 

Everything is done in the Coffee Talk rooms, and Chris says it's been amazing for the team because there have been people that started their new roles remotely, so they never had a chance to take part in office lunches and other communal office activities. These rooms, from day one, make it possible to meet and interact with everybody in chat and almost gives the feeling of sitting next to someone in the office. 

It’s a place where people socialize, as well. It's a place that enables people to just talk about their day, what they did for the weekend, and has proven to be a good way to keep GigSmart together and bonded as a team.

3. Invest in async collaboration tools

Equinix is essentially the largest data-center company in the world, with offices in 200+ locations. 

So for Equinix, “Better Way Wednesdays" (their name for no-meeting Wednesdays), was one way they implemented to handle the move to remote work, but also converting a lot of meetings to async meetings. 

For example, the team does a monthly business memo, which captures the state of business along with key achievements, challenges or blockers, and KPIs and metrics - which goes all the way to senior leaders. 

This practice made it possible to cut down on quite a few meetings, where eventually, the same information is passed on in different formats or through different levels of abstraction to people in the company. 

The team invested in this practice, which eventually would take hardly an hour across the board, but saved tons of time on coordinating synchronous meetings and helped with Zoom fatigue. The biggest focus in such a large company though is on async communication because of the many time zones involved, and the number of people all over the world, including engineering teams.


For companies where office culture is very strong, with most ceremonies happening in-office, it was a learning process to adapt to the new style of working completely remotely. They found themselves questioning former agile ceremonies, such as stand-ups and retros, and whether these can be done asynchronously, or if they require a meeting. 

The teams at Equinix found that for sprint-planning meetings and retros, needed to be done in a meeting setting with people joining. But standups are up to the specific team; where some teams love to get together, and others do this asynchronously. For a quick stand-up, many teams do this over Slack. So it varies from team to team. 

The key differentiator for Equinix is in being remote-first versus just remote-friendly. This means that they ensure that even if there's a developer in Indonesia, they can participate meaningfully and don't feel left out. This is fine-tuned based on the mix of the team and allows them to establish the practices - where some even use tools like LinearB and other scorecard metrics, which enables the teams to align on whether they're going in the same direction and where a course correction is needed.

These rules work best when used together...

The interesting thing to note from all of these organizations that weathered the remote work storm is that many of these practices are applied in some way or another at all of these companies. 

You can see whether it’s respecting work and focus time, intentionally creating the right communication and collaboration culture, or ensuring the right tooling is in place to support these policies and practices. If you want to engineer a great remote culture, you need to create an environment for your teams to be able to collaborate frictionlessly, get up to speed and consume important information asynchronously, but also maintain some semblance of a team atmosphere and culture.

Explore your dev team's metrics in less than 3 mins!

I'm interested

Related Content