One of the common myths of fully distributed companies – companies where 100% of the people work from home – is that people imagine employees never meet in person.
Distributed companies do meet face to face, and it’s actually one of the key elements to make fully distributed companies work. The meetings are planned and structured to allow people to come together in a way that’s productive. Face to face time isn’t a continuous activity like in an office, it’s a periodical activity.
Meeting in person has loads of benefits, but primarily it boosts all the aspects that are more difficult to channel through purely digital means (at least for now). The primarily reason to meet in person isn’t to work, but to socialize. Knowing the colleagues, their tone of voice, their mannerism, facilitates every further dialogue that will happen online later on. Sarcasm, humour, dry sentences, can be then interpreted in a lighter and more conscious way, leading to better communication overall. Work can be done too, since there are activities and discussions that are more effective in person, but it’s almost secondary in importance.
Many traditional management approaches see this as a waste of time, and I notice this bias even from individuals: “So, that’s how you work eh?”. Socialization however has been proven as a driver for efficiency too:
Social time turns out to be deeply critical to team performance, often accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns.
— Alex Pentland (2012) The New Science of Building Great Teams
As far as I know, successful distributed companies have, in different ways, the same idea of periodical retreats. The sweet spot seems to be around twice a year:
All employees meet up for twice yearly summits. “I think you have a better context of where someone’s coming from that you interact with through text or chat once you meet them in person” says Wanstrath explaining the purpose of the all-hands get togethers “Someone that you might find abrasive because of the way they text, when you meet them, you might be like, ‘Oh, he’s just very serious all the time. He’s not angry.’”
— Jessica Stillman (2012) Tale from the trenches: GitHub
We have meetups 2-3 times a year, but I don’t view them that way: they’re reunions. Our first of 2013 was last week. When you don’t get in-person face time with your coworkers every day, seeing each other makes it special, and it’s much more fun.
— Nick Quaranto (2013) It’s not a meetup
Working remotely has many benefits, but meeting colleagues face to face sure is unbeatable. WooTrip is the highlight of our calendar year and a time for us to make memories, take pictures (see the feed) and have fun together.
— Marina Pape (2014) WooTrip 2014 Roundup
And since now WooCommerce is part of Automattic, let me dive deeper outlining how we do things ourselves.
Internally we don’t categorize meetups, but for the sake of explaining it, I can identify three different levels:
- The Grand Meetup: the whole company in one place.
- The Team Meetup: a whole team in one place.
- The occasional meetup: random people in one place.
The Grand Meetup
This is a yearly event, and it’s huge in terms of organization: the whole company, all together for a few days in the same place, doing activities, chatting, having fun and spending time together.
This is intense, not just for the organizers – which are amazing, led by Rose Goldman – but also for the people. The days start around 8:00 (or even earlier, if one decides to go for a morning jog with others) and end formally around 22:00, but as you can imagine, can easily go longer to 1 or 2 in the morning.
During these times there are lots of different activities, all geared to know each other better. Just to mention a few:
- Flash talks: everyone presents anything, really. Some people make a funny video, some other tell about a recipe they know, some do a guitar solo for 4 minutes. It’s really anything, but you get a glimpse of someone, and also allows to have a ready ice-breaker asking about it and to expand beyond the four minutes limit.
- Projects: the projects are something useful for WordPress.com or Automattic, and they are usually rather self-contained. The teams working on these are pulled together for different parts of the company, as well as leads of the teams not being existing leads.
- Activities: these are brought forward by whoever wants to organize them. This year we had anything from roundtables on diversity to roleplaying sessions, from swing lessons to Magic the Gathering matches.
- Lunches / dinners: are randomized trying to mix some time together with people one already knows, and some time with wpeople one has never met.
The Team Meetup
These can vary in frequency, but they are around 3-4 times per year. For example my team, Hyperion, had three meetups this year: Hawaii (USA), Vienna (Austria) and York (UK).
The team meetup’s scope is still socialising, but the activities there can vary a lot from team to team. The way we appraoch them is to discuss more difficult things that happened since the last meetup, to align and dive deeper, plus we do workshops to plan the following months of work.
By the end of these meetups people are usually so energized that they can’t wait to go back home and work on all the stuff being discussed. A good sign indeed.
The occasional meetup
This can happen for many reasons. For example Automatticians from the UK are meeting for a dinner before Xmas, and this was self-organized. Well, in reality because one person organized it, and everyone else agreed it was a good thing to do. Taking initiative is one of our values.
Others can be during conferences. When two or more people are going to the same WordCamp or conference it’s another great occasion to have good time together and good chats. And given how much we travel… it’s not uncommon to find another Automattician at the same airport and spend some time together in that way.
Sometimes it’s hard, especially for introverts, to spend so much time, all day, in touch with so many people. The overall feeling after the Grand Meetup is a mix between “you’re all awesome, I want to stay more” and “I really need some time for myself”. Both true, a conflict of thoughts existing at the same time.
The key element of these meetups, however, is to be immersed in the things that are missing when working remotely. That’s why focusing on socializing, knowing each other better and discussing together are the things that are most beneficial. All the activities are ways to know each other better.
The effects reverberates then online through the months and the years. People suddenly are more connected across teams, and this leads to better communication and coordination, even when just a couple of messages are exchanged.