I might be a remote work convert, but I still want to get together with my team in realspace.
You know, every now and then.
But in a Team Anywhere world, with a team spread out across the eastern coast of Australia and New Zealand, getting everyone together in the one place is hard.
At Atlassian, there has been a growing drive towards intentional togetherness, which is great for me, because it means someone was willing to give me a small pile of cash to physically co-locate the team for a few days.
It's Really Hard To Find Quotes From This Show
Speaking of money, the first step in planning for anything like this is to understand the cost in doing so.
We've got some internal travel estimation tools which help with this, but it's worth knowing that for a team of ~13 people, of which 8 need to travel, the approximate cost of a three day get together is about $USD 15K.
A pretty considerable amount of money to an individual, but a drop in the bucket for an entire organisation, especially one the size of Atlassian. Really, the main value in knowing the cost of pulling a team together for a few days is that it allows us to figure out just how many teams will get to travel in a given period.
Even at Atlassian it's not all of them. Not every single quarter anyway.
That's okay, travel is exhausting, and I'm grateful for the support that we do have. I intend to make the most of it.
Which brings me to the next step in planning a get together, which is figuring out what to actually do.
I knew what I didn't want the team to do: work.
If we're only able to get together for a few days every now and then, I don't want it to be intensely focused on specific types of work. You know, like traditional off-sites tend to be (brainstorming, strategy, etc).
I don't want to wait to do that sort of work. In a remote-first world, we need to be able to effectively do those things in a virtual environment, and the more we continue to do them while co-located, the harder it will be to do them remotely when we have to. Like Martin Fowler says, Frequency Reduces Difficulty.
If we're not working though, what does that leave us with?
For that, I used democracy.
I created a Trello board where people could submit ideas for what we should do and then organised a quick voting session in order to select the most popular options.
Of course, I had ideas and preferences of my own, but I really did want to empower the team in regard to how they spent this valuable time.
After running that process, and getting at least some engagement, I made some decisions about what we would do. I didn't want to pack our schedules, so over three days, we elected to do:
- A quick Q&A with our friendly neighbourhood Head of Engineering
- A Team Health Monitors session, facilitated by someone who wasn't me
- A hike, to get away from computers and enjoy nature
- An actual dinner together, at night, like adults
- A lunch with a few closely related teams, to get to know some of our peers
There were gaps around those things for people to collaborate together on whatever was important to them, but I set the expectation that I didn't really expect any meaningful progress on our projects over the week.
The goal was to get to know one another better and anything we accomplished from a work point of view was a bonus.
Doesn't Help That I Barely Remember It
Everything was going well until the fire nation attacked. I mean, until someone tested positive to covid.
But before that happened, we managed to get a lot accomplished.
We got to know each other without the filter of a Zoom window and had a nice breakfast together in the Atlassian cafeteria.
We had our Q&A with the Head of Engineering and learned a lot about the direction of our particular organisation (Production Engineering) and how we can help contribute to its success.
We had an actual, honest to god, walk to a sandwich place to get lunch and then proceeded to sit in a park and eat it. Truly these are amazing times!
We did the Team Health Monitors. Well, the team did it. I went to the gym instead, just in case my absence would help people open up more to a neutral facilitator.
We had our fancy dinner. It's been a while since I've been out to a Brazilian BBQ, but it still involves way too much meat, so it's good to know that nothing has changed there.
We still managed to do the hike, and it was pretty good, though understandably tiring. Lots of ad-hoc conversations about a variety of different things, with a nice lunch right in the middle.
But that's where it all ended unfortunately. One of the team had recused themselves from the hike because of flu-like symptoms in the morning and on the way back from the hike they confirmed an unexpected case of the covids.
We were all fully vaccinated, but the last thing I wanted was to strand sick people away from home, so I cancelled everything else that we had planned and gave people the option to bug out early if they wanted.
Understandably, a few did just that.
As for the poor person with covid, they had to isolate themselves in the hotel for a while before they could fly back home to Melbourne.
It Almost Seems Like A Fever Dream
Would I do anything different next time?
You might think that we should have taken more precautions against sickness. For example, we could have been wearing masks consistently, but that gets hard when you're sharing a meal, which we did repeatedly.
Honestly, I think we just got unlucky.
With regards to the actual event itself, I think it went pretty well.
In particular, the team really enjoyed doing the Team Health Monitors, so I'll make that a constant fixture whenever we get together. I wasn't there, but just being in the same room as everyone really improved the amount of engagement and discussion. Apparently.
Other than that, the only other improvement I'll make is to just vary the activities.
It won't always be a hike and a fancy dinner. Over time we'll aim to do as many things so that everyone can show their strengths and interests.
But The Internet Remembers
Getting everyone together was well worth the effort.
Sure, we had a bit of a chaotic and premature end, but I'm already starting to see some of the closer personal bonds coming through in our day to day interactions.
Even as a manager I feel like I know people a bit better than before, and that sort of empathy and understanding can only be beneficial.
I don't want to do it too frequently though, because it is exhausting and interruptive. Once every six months or so feels like a pretty good cadence, and both Atlassian and the team seem to be generally in favour of that.
Maybe next time we'll go to a shooting range.
Though I'm honestly not sure how much I trust anyone with a gun.