As much as I love working remotely all the time, even I have to admit that it's not perfect.
For one, building relationships and making connections in a purely virtual environment is harder, because all of that passive bonding now requires conscious and deliberate effort.
Secondarily, there are some types of work that are just feel easier in person. Things like brainstorming and certain types of workshopping for example.
If you're managing a single team that is primarily remote, these sorts of challenges can be mitigated with a bit of effort.
But if you're responsible for multiple teams or an entire org, solving the same problems is much harder.
There are all sorts of things you can do to mitigate the challenges with building relationships and doing certain types of work.
In fact, here are some things I prepared earlier:
- Getting the entire team together a few times a year
- Establishing casual contact time through shared physical activity
- Building relationships by pairing together on technical problems
These sorts of things work because the group of people is already working together on a day-to-day basis, so putting together a group activity or organising a pairing session isn't all that hard.
It gets harder and harder the further you move outside of a single team, because the existing connections get more tenuous, and the scheduling gets harder.
I'm a member of the Production Engineering org in Atlassian and we recently found ourselves in exactly this sort of situation.
We have a Head of Engineering with a number of direct reports (Senior Engineering Managers), who in turn have a number of direct reports (Engineering Managers, like me) who are directly responsible for teams.
Not that many layers, but enough that individual Engineering Managers don't really interact with each other all that much. This, in turn, leads to a somewhat disconnected leadership team across the board.
To make things more challenging, our org is growing rapidly and in order to weather that particular storm, we need our leadership team to be aligned and connected.
Have an org-wide offsite.
Or in our case, an onsite.
All In The Family
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, an offsite is typically when you gather together a group of people at some location, with the intent to focus on strategy or team building or similar.
Many jokes have been had at the expense of the offsite, but at its core, it's all about getting a group of people together with the intent to align and connect them.
Back in the day when everyone was in the office, it typically meant a physical relocation to somewhere else in order to distractions. Like a hotel or a mountain retreat or something.
With pretty much everyone remote, instead of going to some neutral third-party, we all just congregated at the Atlassian office in Sydney. An easy trip for me (Brisbane, Queensland), but a much longer trip for others who were coming from as far away as Poland, India or the US.
The offsite (onsite?) ran for ~4 days and shook out like this.
The first day was to align us all at the Production Engineering level. This was primarily an information sharing exercise where our glorious leader talked about how we were evolving and growing and how we hoped to continue to improve the org moving forward. This was very much an alignment activity.
On the connection side of things, in the afternoon on the first day we did a social activity together. Specifically, a VR escape room.
On the second and third day we broke into two groups, because Production Engineering has two obvious halves with their own goals and priorities: Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) and Tenant Platform.
I'm a member of Tenant Platform, so for us those two days were focused on workshopping the following things:
- Understanding how internal customers onboard onto Tenant Platform
- Coming up with an org structure that would let us grow more effectively
- Exploring what our architectural strategy should be
The final day was coming back together as the entirety of Production Engineering and sharing our learnings.
Threading through the activities outlined above were lunches and dinners and other opportunities to get to know each other a little bit better.
But was it all worth it?
Freak On A Leash
As much as I'm not a massive fan of travelling, it was really great to see all of my peers in person.
From a relationship building and connection point of view, I consider the offsite a huge success.
In a single week, I learned more about the people that I work with than I have in the last year and a half of remote working, and I assume the reverse holds true as well. That additional empathy and understanding will only help moving forward into the future.
In terms of actual outcomes, I'm less sure.
We definitely had a lot of good conversations, but I don't really think that it was necessary for us to get together physically to have those conversations. Sure, the brainstorming activities would have been more challenging remotely, but they would have been doable all the same.
It just requires focus and discipline.
Atlassian is a remote first company these days (TEAM Anywhere!) and I think it would be better to practice doing those hard pieces of work in the same setting that we do our work every single day: remotely.
After all, the more we do the hard thing, the easier it will get.
That's not to say that we didn't get any meaningful outcomes though, because I think we did.
For example, I understand the direction of the Production Engineering org more than I did before.
Getting that same level of understanding in a remote environment would almost certainly have taken longer, both because my own focus is often pulled in many directions and because there would have been less of a catalyst to provide the information in an easily digestible format.
From the Tenant Platform point of view, we have a better shared understanding of both our onboarding process and our potential future org structure and it's not like we're just going to stop thinking about that stuff because we're back working remotely. It's going to evolve and change and mutate and turn into something amazing.
I just know it.
Got The Life
Bringing it all back together, offsites are definitely an effectively way to mitigate some of the challenges encountered with a remote leadership team.
In my mind they help to build relationships, connection and empathy, but are also a way to bring focus to certain sorts of conversations.
Expensive though, so there is a real cost/benefit tradeoff there that you need to be very cognizant of. I shudder to think what the cost was for our most recent offsite, being that we trekked people from all across the world to Sydney for almost an entire week.
From my own personal point of view, the most recent offsite was exhausting but valuable and I would gladly do it again.
In a quarter or two.
I need to recharge a bit first.