How Toptal and GitLab build community and work-life balance in Slack

Two all-remote software companies share their best practices for connecting with colleagues while respecting work-life balance.

Author: Lauren JohnsonApril 9th, 2020

When you work in a physical office, it’s easy to set boundaries between your personal and professional lives. But when you’re new to working from home, creating that kind of space takes some practice—especially for those whose bedrooms now double as a home office.

Working remotely also has its challenges when it comes to forging meaningful relationships with teammates, which is why three all-remote organizations using Slack recently shared how they maintain team culture while working from home. We wanted to keep the conversation going, so we reached out to Toptal and GitLab, two global platforms that have been all-remote since day one, for insights on building community among remote workers while maintaining work-life balance in Slack.

“When you’re remote and not seeing people every day, you have to overcommunicate and you have to rely on the right tools. That’s why I’ve been telling everyone we live on Slack and Zoom.”

Michelle LabbeVice president of people, Toptal


Building a remote-worker community spanning 75 countries

Toptal is a platform that connects businesses with freelance talent specializing in software engineering, design, financial consulting as well as project and product management. Distributed across 75 countries, the Toptal team has more than 600 full-time employees and more than 2,000 contractors.

Michelle Labbe, Toptal’s vice president of people, says Slack is the company’s digital headquarters. That means Slack, the channel-based messaging platform, supports more than daily work: It provides an infrastructure to support organizational culture and community.

“In an office, you run into someone in the hallway or you’re talking to the person in the cube next to you,” Labbe says. “When you’re remote and you’re not seeing people every day, you have to overcommunicate and you have to rely on the right tools. That’s why I’ve been telling everybody that we live on Slack and Zoom.”

Using Slack channels to foster team camaraderie

Toptal team members primarily communicate in Slack channels, a single place for co-workers to share messages, files and tools. Each Toptal team has its own core channel that it relies on for internal communication rather than email.

Toptal’s culture also thrives in Slack channels. For example, Toptal has:

  • Country-specific channels such #greece and #russia to build camaraderie among local workers
  • Skills-based channels for developer languages, such as #javascript and #python, that teammates can use to share news and ideas, or to troubleshoot problems
  • Social channels such as #pet-lovers, #dad-jokes and #book-club
  • Channels for working parents who have kids at home such as #workingmoms and #dads-in-the-trenches
  • Channels to discuss every open role with the team of interviewers

“We virtually work closely together but we don’t get many opportunities to meet in person,” Labbe says. “It’s nice to have a platform where people can bond with one another. It reminds us that we’re all in the same boat and on the same team.”

Streamlining communication with custom apps in Slack

Labbe shared how Toptal uses a few Slack custom apps and integrations to connect its global teams, including:

  • PTO Ninja, for all vacation and time off approvals
  • Polly, to conduct internal surveys
  • Donut, which randomly selects Toptal team members in Slack to grab “coffee and donuts” to get to know each other
  • Chronos, which allows each employee to rate any meeting with more than three people after it’s ended. This tool provides meeting organizers with invaluable feedback about agendas and outcomes.
  • Toptal Slackbot, which DMs freelance talent when a company has expressed interest in the person for a job. This app lets the freelancer accept or reject the prospective offer right in Slack.

For organizations and employers making the transition to working remotely for the first time, Labbe advises patience.

“I have 20 people that report to me, almost half of them have small children or babies, and their spouses are also home. So you just have to be flexible during these trying times,” says Labbe. “You trusted these people in the office to do their job, you have to trust that they’re doing it to the best that they can at home. As long as they are meeting their deadlines and being productive, there is no need to treat them any differently than you did in the office.”


Using Slack’s status features to maintain work-life balance

The GitLab platform supports developer operations teams throughout the software development life cycle. With nearly 1,300 teammates plugging away in 67 countries, GitLab has written the book on remote work, which is why it recently published a playbook filled with best practices.

Bryan Wise, Gitlab’s vice president and head of IT, says GitLab employees are encouraged to block out “do not disturb” time on their calendars when they’re off the clock. That sends a clear signal to teammates in other time zones that they’re unavailable. This practice also creates a moment to pause so teammates can evaluate whether or not a meeting is necessary—or if the topic can be addressed in a Slack channel.

“Because we’re careful about protecting our schedules, the time we do spend in remote meetings is super valuable.”

Bryan WiseVice president and head of IT, Gitlab

Wise also encourages remote workers to block off some time to unwind after the workday to make the transition to personal and family time a little smoother.

“Because we’re careful about protecting our schedules, the time we do spend in remote meetings is super valuable,” Wise says. “When you’re having a purposeful meeting online to discuss something, meetings have to start on time and end on time to make them worth the effort.”

Check out our guide on remote meetings to learn more about setting up effective digital meetings with distributed team members.

Reduce context switching by sticking with Slack

Wise encourages remote organizations to help workers reduce context switching by sticking with one primary communication tool. That’s why GitLab shares crucial company updates in its #whats-happening-at-gitlab and #CEO Slack channels rather than other means of communication such as email or an internal Wiki.

According to Toptal and GitLab, working from home rather than an office doesn’t have to kill your company culture. And it certainly doesn’t mean your work life has to blend into your personal life. Clear communication goes a long way toward building strong connections with teammates and protecting your off-the-clock time, and Slack is here to help you accomplish exactly that.

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