I've spent a significant portion of my career working in companies that are at least partially remote/distributed. One of them was globally distributed, with no central headquarters at all. Everyone worked from their homes. When I founded VividCortex, I wanted to blend the best of both worlds, and to my credit, some of what I did has been an improvement. There are still downsides, though, and in this post, I want to explore how distributed teams can address a basic human need: seeing each other in-person.
I have a lot more thoughts about many aspects of remote/distributed work and the culture that develops with them, which I hope I can share in other blog posts someday when I get time. If you're curious about whether I think remote/distributed teams have advantages, and whether being in an office has advantages, and whether the first or the second one is better, and whether people with clear and universal answers are wrong, the answers are "Yes, yes, yes, and yes." Beyond that, I will not go in this post, because I want to focus on the topic.
Most of my working relationships have begun online. Someone I saw on blogs or Twitter, gradually turned into email, and then one day they applied for a job, and we hired them. In many cases, I hired people without meeting them in person. In most cases, most of that person's working interactions with their colleagues were over chat, video calls, phone, and email.
What I have seen in these relationships is that they don't feel quite as real until you meet in person. I'm not saying they feel fake. In fact, my experience has been that I've bonded very closely, and developed a high level of trust and rapport, with people I've never met. I've seen most other people do the same with others too. But no matter how good that relationship gets, you are always conscious that you've never met the person. You wonder: are they actually like this in real life?
And then you meet them, and they are exactly the person you know. Maybe even better. And you think, "I've experienced this many times now, at some point I'm going to accept that it's real, and not wonder if it is." But you never do, because when you meet in person you always strengthen the relationship more, and realize that it couldn't have happened remotely. After a while, instead of continuing to expect yourself to eventually grow to believe in remote relationships fully, you realize that what you should accept instead is that it'll never happen.
Seeing people is a basic human need to achieve a particular kind of trust and rapport. Not a particular level, but a particular kind. Remote relationships asymptotically approach, but never touch, the kind of connection an in-person relationship can achieve.
So yes, you need to ensure that your team can see each other at least sometimes. Even if it takes a long time and isn't frequent.
Now that I've said that people need to meet, the question is how. It's pretty easy to enumerate some of the things that I have seen not work, sometimes spectacularly.
The simplest place to start is to say that getting the entire company together at one time is probably riddled with hazards for most companies. I can only speak about my own experiences, but I've seen many and serious negative effects. In the globally distributed team, a lot (but not all) of the problems came from time zones, travel and visas, and trying to make it a treat.
In this company, people were scattered everywhere, across practically every time zone, with very few people even in the same city. The founders wanted to bring people somewhere that would not only facilitate personal interactions, but would create lasting happy memories associated with their teams and with the company.
It was a noble sentiment, but it wasn't working, in part because of the problems I mentioned:
Those are a few of the obvious, predictable problems that were perhaps manageable by making different choices. For example, we could have picked a single location and gone there every time, and I advocated for that (unsuccessfully). That would have alleviated some of the issues. We also could have decided not to invite spouses and children; that would have hurt badly and made things very difficult for the employees' spouses and them, but it would have helped, too.
But there are other problems that we'd still have had. One of the biggest was the availability impact. Any company that needs to maintain some level of 24x7 availability, which we did, would struggle with the travel and logistics. Scheduling people on rotating on-call shifts is hard enough; trying to schedule them around flight schedules is harder. And anytime you get a bunch of people traveling, some are going to miss flights and have other disruptions. I've seen situations where not only was everyone scheduled for coverage unavailable, but even the people who would have been able to address that problem were unavailable. It is pretty much guaranteed to turn into a crisis of some sort.
There's an even bigger problem, though, one that's not obvious until you've seen the business side of things. Taking the company offline for a week is bad for business, really bad. The revenue impact was enormous.
But it's worse than you think: flying everyone to one place for a week doesn't take the company offline for a week. (Oh, it'll only be a couple of days, you think; they'll fly over the weekend and catch up during the week!) Nope. Factor in missed flights, tiredness, sickness, early arrivals, late departures, vacations, jet lag recovery...a one-week meeting turned into a three-week standstill.
Even if you look only at a single team, like the sales team, you'll see how serious this can be. If salespeople miss their top-of-funnel activity, they'll pay for it with empty pipelines. Even traveling to staff the booth at a conference, with just a couple of days of impact, is noticeable. The type of impact I've seen with week-long all-team get-togethers is much worse. It creates imbalances that encourage them to overfill the top of the pipeline, setting themselves up for further problems later. And deals that get delayed a few days will slip weeks, and then quarters, and miss the budget window and slip a whole year, and everything cascades and oscillates for months and months. And perhaps that person misses their accelerator target or even their entire quota, and gets demoralized, and quits. This is serious, survival-threatening business impact.
In addition to lost revenue and opportunity cost, there was the simple expense factor. As the company approached about 75 people, each year's meeting took increasing amounts of effort to organize. My memory is that the last one required about the equivalent of 1.5 full-time people working on it most of the year. There was one person practically dedicated to it, and endless meetings involving a handful of others. The six months leading up to the meeting was more intense, but the planning and work were continuous. We were preparing for the next meeting before the current year's meeting was even over. A lot of it was about selecting the site and traveling to ensure it was workable, negotiating contracts, and so on. But much of the cost and effort wasn't caused by particular choices such as the decision to move around each year. An annual get-together is just a huge effort.
What I've been doing since that company is much more "easy does it, a little here, a little there." And I think it works a lot better. In fact, I did some of it at that company, too: regional team meetings, part of the company at a time, close to where most of them lived. We brought together a lot of the European team in London once, scheduled it adjacent to a conference, and got a lot of value out of it.
At VividCortex, up to this point, we've been trickling people in-and-out of headquarters. (We have a blended team geography, with concentrations; mostly within 3 timezones.) Once a month, some of the U.S. team comes to the U.S. headquarters, and at other intervals, some of the non-U.S. team comes, too. Over periods of time, most people get to meet in person. Sometimes it takes a few months, sometimes a year or more, but eventually most people meet. I think at this point everyone has met everyone, except for those who have joined recently, but it did take a couple of years for some people who'd gotten passed over by time and circumstances to meet in person.
And I travel to them, too. Not as much as I'd like to: I have a lot of pressure on my travel schedule. But I've taken some trips to South America, and we've rented a hotel facility and gotten most of the team there together for a week or ten days. Most of them live nearby, and have families, so we don't get a lot of going-out-in-evenings in the entire group, or that kind of thing. Some live far away and for them it's a big trip. But it's way better for most of them than traveling to the U.S.
This isn't perfect; there are some travel horror stories that some of the team will never forget. That risk is ever-present. But it's much reduced when it's only a small number of people exposed to the risk in the first place.
Some of what works better about this is smart choices: minimizing timezone spread, focusing on the in-person meeting and not making it a resort getaway, not bringing people from countries that have a lot of travel restrictions, etc. Some of it is also that the company is of a different nature, and there are other factors that are luck or circumstance, rather than intelligence.
But I do believe that the single biggest factor is doing it more gradually and continually, rather than in a big disruptive all-or-nothing push. Not creating shock-and-pressure waves on peoples' (and the whole company's) schedule all at once is just better. As a bonus, smaller groups can actually interact more; it's not realistic to bring 75 people together for a week and believe that they'll all spend time together and keep the wheels rolling.
I know there are other companies, significantly larger and even more dramatically distributed, that do all-team in-person meetings regularly. I'm not sure how they do it. I haven't heard a lot of details, nor have I heard whether it works well or not. It's entirely possible that you can do this well, and without a lot of cost and impact, and I just haven't seen it done. So take everything here as just one set of experiences, but also know that it didn't fail for lack of skill, or effort, or expense. If it's possible to do it better, I simply don't know how and frankly I don't have any ideas I think would be likely to work.
If you have experiences to share, let me know! Tweet me a link and I'll add a section at the bottom here with further reading and resources.