Our 1,000-page employee handbook actually makes things easier

Believe it or not, a 1,000 pages of company policy actually makes life easier.
Believe it or not, a 1,000 pages of company policy actually makes life easier.
Image: REUTERS/Olivia Harris
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The 233 team members who work at my company all work remotely, from 38 different countries. We see each other in-person at an annual summit and have systems for staying connected, like “virtual coffee breaks”, team calls, and comped travel to visit colleagues. But when we hire new team members, they don’t have access to the usual in-person cues that help office employees understand cultural norms and work processes.

That’s why we have a 1,000+ page handbook.

The handbook, which we’ve made open to the public, covers everything from our company mission and product roadmap to company policies and processes. It has helped us build a strong culture among our distributed team, and to introduce that culture to new members.

Communication guidelines enable us to set work-life boundaries up front. Guidelines for “Do Not Disturb” hours and even instructions for participating in team calls help us communicate in an effective and respectful way. An important guideline new team members encounter is that when using chat they should use public channels whenever possible to make it easy to involve other people, if needed. And we use “@here” and “@channel” only for communications that are both urgent and important.

We’ve also found that onboarding remotely with the help of our handbook can be easier and more structured than an in-person onboarding experience. Unlike at offices, where onboarding may consist of verbal instructions, our process is a documented list of over 80 actions, tailored to each role, that lay out exactly what happens during new hire transitions. A first day “How To” and standing schedule of events facilitates structure and community. From assigning a buddy, adding their birthday to the calendar, and getting office supplies, the onboarder is guided every step of the way. New team members, meanwhile, aren’t distracted by trying to take notes or stressing about remembering it all — this barrage of information is pre-recorded and available for reference any time.

Our decision to publish every detail of the way we work — even things like security practices and stock options that most companies keep private — stems not only from the practical problem of how to keep our remote workers on the same (digital) page, but also from our commitment to radical transparency. The public documentation of how we deal with potentially ambiguous situations such as burnout, unlimited time off, and working across time zones effectively holds our feet to the fire to uphold our promise as a company which fosters the strength of our culture.

Any team member can propose a change to the handbook. In fact, one of the onboarding tasks is to make an improvement to the handbook, encouraging everyone to contribute from day one.

We’ve found that writing everything down goes a long way toward establishing an intentional company culture. With company guidelines available at the click-of-the-mouse, we’re able to create a sense of community and constant information-sharing across the globe.

Sid Sijbrandij is co-founder and CEO of GitLab.