Last month our remote team met in the Philippines. Time went by in a snap: board games, surfing, snorkeling to the backdrop of volcanoes and, yes, working. The best thing: Hatem met other team members for the first time, and vice versa. As usual some things went well and others … were not my fault! Just kidding! 😉 Want to know what I learnt for future remote team gatherings like this? Read on!

Our current remote setup

Let’s start with a short summary of how our remote team is organized.

We’re now 7 remote workers. Everyone is free to roam in all UTC+ timezones and we do. Two are based in Africa timezones the rest in Asia timezones. We have video calls each week, one for the tech team, one for the company, and we play a boardgame once a week so we’ve time to just chat.

I think that works pretty well for us, and I am nevertheless convinced that you got to meet occasionally. I’ll get to why in a bit. But first, how did the meeting happen? Hint: It wasn’t conceived and planned in a strategic leadership meeting. It was more like …

One thing leads to another

After joining engageSPARK a couple of months ago, Hatem heard about diving in the Philippines—which is pretty awesome by the way—and he immediately decided to head there. He doesn’t need much convincing to travel. 🙂

Obviously coming to the Philippines meant that Hatem might meet everyone based in the country. Here’s a bit of magic for you though: when other team members heard that he was coming, travel plans were forged and a team spread out over continents pulled together as if by a magnet.

That’s how most things happen in our kind of remote team: one person wants to do something, others chime in. I love that. (More about how that relates to leadership below.)

So what happened when everyone was stuck on the same island?

Team building: Surfing works just fine

In earlier years, we’ve tried organized team building activities. I remember trying to build a water conduit out of provided materials. That was fun, if artificial. For some reason we stayed away from that kind of organized activity lately (which I like, but that’s a different topic.)Instead we did things that someone advocated for.

Let’s take Pinto as an example. Pinto is an outdoor museum in the outskirts of Metro Manila, and Avner loves it. This isn’t much of an exaggeration: there is real enthusiasm when he talks about it. And so we ended up exploring this strangely beautiful place, an Escher-painting made stone, bound by reality, with art tucked away in the unlikeliest corners. (A field stone exhibition, really?) I love playing devil’s advocate, but even I have to admit that it’s lovely. You should visit if you can.

In the same way we went bowling, and we went surfing. We played board games (well, mostly card games) and snorkeled around a sandbar near a beautiful volcano island, Camiguin. (See picture at the top!) To be honest, simply following the strongest pull isn’t much of leadership but generally it seemed to work out: we had plenty of quiet time and excitement together.

Of course, there is more to team building. I like our general approach and I think it went well enough—but we can do better and I have some ideas on that. First though, let’s talk about the biggest let down of our team meeting and the entity responsible for this: taifuns.

Taifuns and the Beauty of Plan B

Taifuns are tropical storms that hit the Philippines in the second half of the year. They can bring destruction with them and regularly do and even when they aren’t destructive they still ground planes and dock ferries, messing up travel plans for thousands of people.Grounding plans is exactly what one taifun did for us.

For our team meeting, this meant while everyone ended up in the same country, we never all met in the same place. There was always one person missing: not yet there, or already gone. That’s a big missed opportunity for a distributed team such as ours. Taifuns are nothing new, of course. And a plan B sounds like the obvious thing to have, right? Right.

That’s then one lesson for me: plan earlier and rigorously so that the entire team ends up together. Ideally, start out together. Optimize chances.

What lesson could we learn when it comes to work?

Adapting to working together

The first work-related lesson is: we were less effective working together physically.

The second lesson is: I should have told you so! Because then I could now say: I told you so. Missed opportunity! Joking aside, I did expect us to be less effective together for a couple of reasons.

When it comes to actually working, we never developed the habits of a well-functioning office team, for example respecting each others focus time. We’re used to work together, but apart. Each on our own, we manage our days to get work done. We wake up on our own time, find coffee or make tea, play with our kids or feed the dogs or find a coworking space and jump online, to take care of our part of the engageSPARK journey.

Those habits and routines don’t work traveling together as a team.

And then there were things that chewed a bit off each day. Traveling in a group is time consuming. It’s constant communication and negotiation. For example, try having breakfast with everyone. You’re going to wait a long time until the long sleepers are up and everyone agrees on a food place. And then you look at the menu and, what are you eating? Nothing is fast.

Lastly, the point of the time together was to bridge the gap that video calls can never quite close one hundred percent. It means that all the above is not just expected but fine. But each of us did have less focus time. That was not obvious to everyone and that was something I want to do better.

My lesson here is: communicate that a team travel is not a project retreat. Tasks that are heavy on communication might get done faster, but personal focus time will suffer. There may be one fix for that loss in perceived productivity, if you can pull it off: a common project.

No common project

Before we all met, we were discussing doing a project together; Something big that everyone can contribute to and that we can get done in the time together. Usually those sprints feel awesome and it was a good idea until it hit the brick wall called reality.

First, as so often, there was an important customer, and a fruit basket of things to get done so that customer could launch. Delaying that customer for the sake of doing something vastly less important together did not seem like good business to us.

Second, there was the simple issue of what. It was simply hard to find a single thing that fit all these criteria: big enough but not too big. Has enough substance for really every role in our (admittedly small) team. Didn’t work. Still love the idea—and it would have made for a productive time.

What I’d like to try: find smaller projects that should get done over the time together that allow different groups of people to work on the same thing together.

And then there is friction. You can have more of that in person. Here is why.

Slip of the tongue

We’re an enjoyably diverse team. Our upbringing, the languages we speak, the stories we were told as a child, what we thought was “normal” when growing into adulthood—all those things give each of us a different perspective that we bring with us. We also bring our biases and blind spots that we’re maybe not quite aware of. So … we’re different! How’s that news?

I simply learnt that you run into awkward situations way more easily when in person. Those biases and blind spots and distinctions you fail to make because in your background they don’t matter—they creep out more easily over relaxed breakfast or when discussing at dinner than during a video call. You’re simply less guarded, less careful, your tongue slips—and boom someone isn’t happy.

The lesson here is that for better or worse when meeting in person we’ll also meet behavior and thoughts of others that usually stay concealed. We also learn how other team members handle offense—both when accidentally giving it and when being on the receiving end. Depending on how we handle those things, we might just be building a tight-knit team, one slip of the tongue at a time.

But the best thing is that we learn about ourselves, about careless thoughts we weren’t even aware of. What we bring with us brings us into trouble—and who we are determines how we make our way out. I find beauty in that. 🙂 

If you’re waiting for great insight into what to do or change, sorry, I’ve got none (yet). Take it as an observation. The next lesson is definitely actionable and something I’ll do better next time.

Saying no to 3rd-wheelers

While we were still planning one team member asked if it was alright to bring a friend. I didn’t think too much about it and that was a mistake.

The point of traveling together is to spend time as a team. That friend, nice as his presence was at times, prevented us to have this dedicated time. The solution? Have that friend join later. Make sure that there are a couple of days where we meet alone. My bad, lesson learnt.

The last lesson is about leadership in those more unorganized times of a remote team traveling together.

It’s about creating opportunities

A team retreat lasting one or two days almost requires tight planning and execution. Time is short, there is a point in assembling everyone in the same spot, and if you aren’t carefully designing this event, then you simply waste an opportunity.Leadership here is being intentional about time.

It’s a different beast when traveling together for a longer period of time. The immense beauty of this mode is that opportunities present themselves—opportunities to do things together, to spend time, to experience.

It happens naturally.

I personally love that—it fits my notion of how to build an ideal remote team: get self-motivated, skilled and compatible people together, let them know what the goal is and then get yourself and everything else out of their way.

And still, what I learnt is: I could have done a better job at creating even more opportunities. Why would that even be necessary? Because we don’t spend time equally with each other. Instead we gravitate towards people we like and seem to have things in common with. That’s not a bad thing, it’s how we humans are—unfortunately at work team you generally can’t choose whom you work with.

To be effective, we need to work well with everyone in a tiny team like ours. One way to establish a bit of a relationship is to figure out that you’ve things in common after all. Talking will do that. And regardless of commonalities, what you can always do is to come to respect another person for what they do.

The good news is that every single person on the team is a character and amazing in their own right.

They’re also on the team for a reason. (Figuring that part out is my job I heard.) In my experience it is enough to help someone see the amazing person in what is otherwise a nick name in Slack.

Obviously you can’t make those things happen. But you can create opportunities for people to talk that otherwise wouldn’t. I didn’t do this often enough, and realized along the way that this is something I might do better.

What I’ll improve next time

To sum up, here are the things I’d improve on:

  • Time together, and only the team. I’ll plan early and insist.
  • Common projects: We’d look for several smaller ones, not a single big one. And each project would likely be for part of the team, not for everyone.
  • Such projects tend to be intense & fast, but other things will be slower. I’ll have to figure out how to set expectations better that this is fine.
  • I’ll make sure that less likely people get a chance to talk, too.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. So let’s make it better. 🙂

Along the way of writing this article I asked Hatem to review it. We ended up having a long and insightful discussion around remote teams, culture and what countries, nationalities and upbringing mean in that context. I learnt a lot, which is part of why I write these pieces. And I think this improved both me and the article that you’re reading. Thanks Hatem! — Murat