The Power of Face-to-Face Meetups for Remote Teams

by David Appleyard, Tuts+ Manager, Editor, Designer.

David Appleyard

Organising a successful remote team meetup is a bit like trying to navigate an obstacle course. It involves an effort to make the most of your (often all too short) time together, managing the expectations of a team who generally love the convenience of their home office, and hitting a good balance of work and social time.

But if you pull it off, it can be an incredibly rewarding and beneficial experience for the whole team. I'd love to share a few of the lessons we've learned from our meetups over the past few years.

The Tuts+ Remote Team

One of the things I love about working with Tuts+ is the international nature of our team. Our editors are scattered all over the world—from the UK and France, to Thailand and Vancouver. Envato has long been a proponent of remote working, and nowhere is it better demonstrated than in our worldwide team of 20+ Tuts+ editors all around the globe.

It means that we don't have to worry about where we go to find experts in their respective fields, and allows us to build a team based purely around talent and expertise, rather than geographical convenience.

Day-to-day, we spend a lot of time communicating online. Through email, Basecamp, Trello, Skype, and various other apps and platforms, we've found a workflow and rhythm that works well for the team (as well as our network of hundreds of instructors). That said, it's something we're always refining and tweaking—the perfect remote workflow often always seems to be just "one app away".

Face-to-Face is Irreplaceable

Although Skype, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting all have their respective merits and drawbacks, there's no way to truly replicate the benefit of meeting as a team face-to-face. It provides for a completely different type of communication, and a better understanding of someone's personality that just doesn't come through in a video conference.

Spending time working and socialising in the same place can create a group dynamic that doesn't just begin and end during the meetup. It continues well into the future, giving you a shared experience to look back on, and a clearer appreciation for how a particular team member thinks and works.

Organising the London Meetup

We've had the chance to meet a few times as a team in recent years. In 2011, we met at the company-wide Envato meetup in Malaysia, then the following year we had a smaller meetup for our US-based editors in New York. These were completely different events, with the former being a two-week "company retreat", and the latter a long weekend into which we packed everything we could!

This month, we had the chance to organise another meetup in London, for our UK and European team. Although organising a community night was a big part of this responsibility, I'm not going to delve into that today. Jordan Lewis published an in-depth piece on this process last month, and he's comprehensively covered the ins-and-outs of organising a meetup.

Instead, I'd like to share a few insights into how best to structure your time and energy as an internal team, to make the most of the time you have together.

Work With the Time You Have

First and foremost, it's important to recognise that your time is limited. Whether you have two weeks or two days together will hugely impact how best to schedule activities and meetings.

From my experience, how you do this can really make-or-break the atmosphere and success of the meetup. Focus too much on the social element and you'll have a team who worry about falling behind on their day-to-day tasks, and miss the chance to work together as a team. But place too much emphasis on filling the day with meetings, and no-one will have the energy for the evening's social schedule.

It comes down to the time you have. In Malaysia, with two weeks together, it was no problem to have a mix of "work and play" over the fortnight. In New York, the benefit of hindsight showed me that trying to pack a series of meetings and discussions, as well as social events, into two days lead to a schedule that was too hectic, and meant we were racing from one thing to the next.

In London, we rectified this by accepting the weekend would primarily be a social event, with the main aim being to better get to know each other's personalities. I found that, by creating a more relaxed pace to the meetup, the conversation inevitably turns towards work anyway, with the collaboration and brainstorming you'd expect happening in little groups over the course of the weekend.

It's Everyone, or No-One

The team

With a team that's literally scattered around the circumference of the world, it's rare for us to have an event with the entire Tuts+ team in one place (in fact, it's never happened in seven years!). This leads to another challenge when arranging meetings/discussion times—figuring out how to include people not in attendance.

As a remote worker myself, I've come to appreciate the importance of including everyone on meetings and discussions that have a long-term planning element to them. But when three quarters of the team are suddenly in the same place, it can be easy to forget the other few people who are missing out.

Remember that if you're going to have a series of important discussions during the meetup, you'll need to have a setup that allows you to conference in those who couldn't make it (and be prepared to find that it's considerably more complicated than just logging into Skype as you normally would!)

Time to Talk About the Big Things

It might sound obvious, but if you've gone to the time and expense to get your remote team in one place, now is the time to talk about the "big picture". Try to put normal day-to-day work on the back-burner, and free up time to discuss your strategy for the coming year, the big challenges you're facing, and how you could be improving your product/service/team.

This worked really well for us in Malaysia. We had the time to discuss the direction of our network as a team, choose the content areas on which to place our focus over the coming year, and which new topics to launch into. Then we went back home, and got started on the bigger task of putting all our words into action.

Take Time to Reflect

I'm a proud introvert, and spending time constantly interacting with a group of team members in person quickly erodes away my energy levels. It's worth remembering that a good chunk of your remote team are likely in the same boat, and will need a day or two to rest and reflect before getting started working on everything you've discussed.

This time of reflection is really important. At every meetup we've organised to date, I've left with a notebook full of ideas, scribbles, and suggestions from the rest of the team. The absolute best time to re-read this, turn it into something useful, and start actioning everything is right when you get back home.

For me, it's the most important part of the whole process. It turns what was likely a few days of lively discussion and fun socialising into what can become a valuable activity for your company, converting crazy ideas and discussion threads into actual projects that can improve your product, and please your customers.

I certainly haven't got it right every time, and with every meetup I organise, I learn something new. Hopefully, a few of these suggestions can help you avoid disaster and let you make the most of your time together as a team. Have fun!

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