Remote vs In-Person: What we can learn from GitHub’s move to an all-remote workforce

GitHub is closing all its offices and going all remote. What does that mean for technology development and managing technology teams?

When GitHub speaks, the software world listens. The Microsoft subsidiary hosts more software code than any other organization. It is the preferred source code repository for most of the prominent open-source projects. GitHub was born into a world of remote — the team did work on-site together but always had a wide array of remote collaborators. The very functionality of GitHub — a product designed to facilitate asynchronous work on software projects — clearly influenced the company’s culture. 

(Note: GitHub also laid off 10% of its workforce, which is brutal, and driven in part by a wish to cut costs. But clearly, they think the company can run well fully remote.) 

Git, the underlying software platform that is the foundation of both GitHub and GitLab, its main competitor, has highlighted that massively scaled collaborative efforts can work with entirely remote and asynchronous efforts. This is not to say zero real-time personal interaction is optimal. Collaborators on projects do meet at conferences in person and may have Zoom calls. A staple of open-source software projects is the “Community Call” which is usually an open video session. That said, Git, GitHub, and GitLab have all pioneered and normalized not only remote first but asynchronous business. 

Contrast this with the noise coming out of Microsoft, the parent company of GitHub. Notably, Microsoft has put out research concluding that remote work reduces team collaboration and by implication, innovation, and productivity. Microsoft has a goal of hybrid schedules with 50% of worker time spent in offices. However, the company is struggling to hit that number

The divergence between the two organizations is not really surprising. Culturally, Microsoft and much of its leadership team come from a different era, when in-person was considered essential. This colors the company’s culture and norms in many ways. It also likely colors even the research. The widely reported findings stopped measuring early in the pandemic, well before teams had fully adjusted to the new reality. And even as managers have consistently reported that teams are more productive with people in offices, loads of surveys of workers have indicated otherwise. Most experts on remote work come down in favor of hybrid as the perfect mix, as long as everyone on a team is in the office together on the same days. 

For GitHub and the new generation of remote-first, asynchronous startups, forcing butts into chairs is near anathema. For these types of companies, the idea that someone has to come into an office to be productive is laughable because they have built great companies and great things without ever setting foot in an office. GitLab has always been remote-first and all-remote — it does not have a physical office. In fact, the rapid growth of GitLab may have even helped GitHub make its decision (the two are fierce competitors) as a necessary means to attract and retain talent.

For technology companies — which increasingly is all companies — a key decision is finding the right point on the continuum of in-person, remote, and hybrid.

A secondary decision point is asynchronous (designing processes so workers can be productive without having real-time interactions). This is a critical part of designing and fostering a culture that works for the organization. With engineers and technology workers, that decision is increasingly biased towards remote and hybrid so companies must understand the longer-term implications of their decisions in terms of recruiting, work velocity, and outcomes. 

The research on this is all over the map. So it really becomes a matter of what works for the executives and, perhaps more importantly, the employees (even in a downturn, high-end engineering hires are an extremely tight market). This may even break down into team-by-team decisions in organizations that afford more autonomy. And it closely relates to the work being done. For a company like Tesla, which involves physical products, in-person may be far more advantageous and efficient. For a company like GitLab or organizations like GitHub, in-person may actually be damaging to their business. 

Where you and your team land on this topic should be a company-wide discussion and decision — not something handed down from on high. There is no definitive right or wrong answer. There are only bad outcomes from choosing a work style that doesn’t suit your employees and your culture.