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An all-remote company since 2014, GitLab has more than 1,300 team members in 68 countries. Jessica Mitchell, Director, People Operations at GitLab, believes that being all-remote is possible when you have a culture of "everyone can contribute". In this interview, Jessica Mitchell talks to Aditi Sharma Kalra about:

  1. The evolution of performance management - and how that could define the conversations managers have with team members
  2. What to do if we throw end-of-year reviews overboard to replace the traditional PMS - How GitLab believes in “measuring results not hours.”
  3. Tips on how to deal with low-performers and how to keep high-performers happy

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Q You've always been in the high-tech IT sector across your career - what is most exciting about managing HR & people processes in such sectors?

One of the most exciting things is implementing technology that improves the team members' experience.  As HR leaders, being able to implement tools and processes that do not bog down a team member but actually make them more productive and efficient is a huge win for everyone. 

At GitLab we have a culture of everyone can contribute and this really does mean everyone! The People Group dogfoods our own product and we utilise our own technology to help communicate changes or communicate new policies or processes. 

We use issues to start a dialogue or conversation with all team members on an idea or potential changes. The issues allow us to gather input and feedback from all GitLab team members and create a repository to capture the data/comments/input for historical purposes. 

Using our technology enables all of us to work smarter, it increases efficiency and productivity and allows the best people decisions to be made for all team members at GitLab. 

Q GitLab's team handbook, if printed, would be over 8,000 pages of text! What are some of the key people & culture initiatives you've recently concluded or are currently leading that you'd love to share with us? 

This is a great question and very timely. You are right, the handbook is 8,000 pages of text.  It is awesome that everything is transparent and written in the handbook.

However, with 8,000 pages it can be time-consuming for a team member to navigate and find the answer that they need quickly and efficiently. 

On 28 June 2021, the People Group launched “People Connect”.  People Connect is GitLab’s centralised team member support model that provides a single point of contact for all people-related questions and requests. This takes the guesswork out of going through all 8,000 pages of the handbook. It hastens the pace of productivity for our team members and in the end, increases GitLab’s overall effectiveness. 

The great part of People Connect is we are utilising our own product to act as a service desk for team member case/request management. We have combined technology with a People programme to help drive an innovative solution. 

Q Moving to the evolution of performance management, how has the function changed in your experience, as a result of the pandemic era, possibly driven by more frequent informal check-ins, lack of face-to-face interactions, and a lackluster year for many sectors?

In years past, companies have had very strict performance management practices. These consisted of assigning a 'ranking or label' to a team member and then enforcing that managers always identify a certain percentage in the top and bottom ratings. Labelling team members can have an unintended negative effect by demoralising a team member and forced distribution for managers was an unpleasant and unnatural process. 

Then, we saw a large shift to getting rid of all performance ratings at all. The idea was that with no rating you are not unintentionally causing a team member to become unengaged due to a performance rating label.

The downside to this is that managers really struggled to give proper feedback to a team member. Also, it made pay-for-performance conversations and planning more challenging for the manager. It felt very subjective to the team member and could create a situation where a manager and team member were not on the same page in terms of realistic expectations when it came to the annual merit review.  

As the pandemic took hold and disrupted traditional practices of performance management, we have seen organisations land somewhere in the middle with performance and development having an equal amount of importance and focus. This could mean that the conversations managers have with team members focus on how they are performing in their role compared to their peers with a defined performance rating.

In the same conversation, the manager will incorporate a focus on development and career planning for the team member going forward. As more teams are remote and working asynchronously, peer feedback may also play a larger factor in the manager's overall performance assessment of their team members.  

Q If we throw end-of-year reviews overboard, what then replaces the 'traditional' PMS?

Organisations will need to continue to evolve on how they assess performance and productivity, especially if they have transitioned from a more conventional workforce (team members in a corporate office) to a fully remote workforce during the pandemic.

Those organisations who do not have a good performance or productivity management system currently in place will struggle to understand and determine how to gauge productivity compared to just the number of hours a team member works. There will also need to be a shift in how managers manage remote teams.

In the Results section of our handbook, we discuss GitLab’s value of “measure results not hours.”

During these times, organisations will need to shift to make sure they are accurately measuring performance and productivity rather than just the hours worked. 

This will take managers being engaged and truly understanding the team members’ roles and responsibilities and setting clear documented goals and milestones. Companies are going to have to review their performance review process that is currently in place and make sure that managers are equipped to be able to assess performance and productivity and not just hours clocked.

Q Your tips please - how to deal with low-performers and how to keep high-performers happy?

The best thing any company and manager can do when dealing with low-performers is to engage early and address the situation. It could simply be that the team member doesn’t have the right tools, needs additional training or they have not been given clear directions.

Engaging early helps the team member get back on track as soon as possible and avoid situations where their performance gets a point of no return. It also helps the manager address and manage performance issues before it impacts the project, the team or even the company. 

So how do we keep high-performers happy? It will really vary from each team member and what is driving them and their job or career satisfaction.

It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are some things you can do for all high-performers and these could include pay for performance, career development opportunities, promotions, visibility opportunities, stretch assignments etc. What is important is the dialogue with the team member, what are their goals, what are their interests, what is keeping them in their current role or with the company, and what do we need to do to keep them engaged. 

While the dialogue is important, the most important part is action by the company. If you are taking the time to have these conversations with the high-performer and take no action, they will eventually leave. You need to have plans and programmes in place to actually invest in these team members.

Q How is performance management at GitLab evolving as a result of these changes?

Prior to the disruption of the pandemic, the value of transparency at GitLab drove the cycle for continuous feedback, performance assessments, and development. This served us well but in 2020, we formalised it further by implementing a Performance/Potential Matrix. 

In the true GitLab spirit we are iterating on this process in 2021. The goal is for our team members to understand how they are performing in their role and their potential to assume increasingly broad or more complex responsibilities. Potential could include an opportunity to move up to the next level in their job family and or a potential lateral move to a new role.

We look forward to continuing to iterate on this process with our team members and providing them with performance and development feedback. 

Development sometimes is only discussed when it comes to the annual or perhaps bi-annual performance conversations. Like feedback at GitLab, we want and we encourage these conversations to happen as frequently as the team member and manager agree upon.

As a best practice, we encourage this to happen once a quarter. The goal is for team members and managers to work together to create a plan to achieve those desired development outcomes together.  We do offer our team members some best practices and resources to help them think through and map their career goals and development plans. 

Final question - if you had a magic wand, and you could do anything at all for your organisation & people, what would you do?

I would like to have an endless supply of magic wands! There are so many things that come to mind but out of all of my ideas, I immediately go to the team member experience particularly diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB).

I would love to be able to increase the pipeline of diverse candidates and diverse hires for the organisation.

However, it can’t just stop when you make the hire, we have to put retention practices in place that allow for team members to bring their full selves to work otherwise our efforts in diversity recruiting are in vain.

Allowing team members to work in the way and style that is best for them, upholding our company values, standing in allyship and courage when we observe behaviours that aren't in support of the company are all top priority in achieving work with DIB.

We have to enable and foster an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcomed, safe, and supported so they can do their best work possible.  When these things don't exist, we run the risk of being counterproductive to the environment we are trying to create.


About Jessica Mitchell:

Jessica Mitchell is a Director, People Operations at GitLab with over 20 years of Human Resources experience.  At GitLab Jessica has supported the Development, Product and Marketing teams in the People Business Partner function.  Prior to GitLab Jessica has held various HR roles within companies like Marconi, Cisco and SailPoint Technologies.  Jessica has a Bachelor's Degree from Asbury University with a Major in Secondary Education/History.  Jessica is passionate about helping drive solutions that focus on team member engagement, development and business solutions.  In Jessica’s free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and taking long walks with her dogs.