We recently noticed a pattern: Members from the engageSPARK tech team meet all over Asia, in a semi ad-hoc fashion. What does that have to do with an ice cream truck? I’ll explain that, and why it’s a good thing, and how we’re making a habit out of it.

There are numerous advantages to be remote: More effective work-life balance and better focus time are among them. The challenges are also well-documented: it’s harder to stay in touch, communication skills are a must and so on. The lesson that I want to focus on is the need to meet in person.

Yes, even with a remote team, people need to meet each other in person. Companies like Buffer and Gitlab have written at length about why and how. As Gitlab put it in their remote manifesto: “Bond in real life”.  Similarly to communication, in-person meetings in a remote team are something that don’t happen by accident: You need to make them happen.

How to do that then? One option is: Gather everyone at the same spot at the same time. Done. And yes, all-hands retreats have their place, but they come with a hefty price tag, in terms of invested time and money. For example, Buffer spent about $4300 per person, or a total of $100k, on a single retreat. Ouch. And I’m pretty sure a couple of people spend weeks preparing that.

That’s where the ice cream truck comes into play.

People walking to and crowding around an ice cream truck on a camping site

Ding, dong, ice cream! And whoever hears the bells, walks over.

That’s what happened to us ever since we went remote. Sab and I visited Bangkok, and Botond decided to join. Botond and I then met Banx in Singapore. Later, Zak and Sab met there, too, and probably end up meeting in Thailand again. Bali was another place where engageSPARKler ran into each other. Soon, the bells will be ringing in Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. Whenever someone is traveling, team members who are nearby try to meet up for a couple of days. And that’s awesome.

You know that you’ve built a team when gatherings around the Ice cream truck just happen. I love it.

Where do we go from here?

One problem is tracking. Currently, our tech team is very small: Nine people, starting Monday. Everyone can still sort of remember who will be where and when. Nevertheless, we started a wiki page where everyone can put their travel destinations, in case someone wants to meet. But at a certain size, this won’t work anymore. Taking Gitlab as an example: One of their team members created a spreadsheet to help others understand where he’ll be when during his travels, and for more structured meetups the company maintains a shared Google calendar.

Then there’s the cost. It’s great to meet and have an excuse to travel, but flights aren’t free. Gitlab, again, has “visiting grants”, subsidizing travel costs, to encourage meetups. Such a policy needs to be fair (and a fair amount of money) so this won’t be happening any time soon, but at some point “ice cream grants” are something I’d like to put on the menu.

Looking back I’m glad about all the opportunities that various team members had to meet each other, something that’s not obvious in a truly distributed team. And I’m excited to see more such gatherings around the Ice cream truck. With each time, meeting each other will become more and more a natural thing: simply part of our culture.