Distributed teams have lots of benefits and advantages when done right. There are specific challenges too, and lack of in-person interaction is one of the hardest things to overcome, despite there are all sorts of modern communication tools we use every day. Meetups come to rescue here, so if you don’t run them yet, it’s a good idea to start preparing your first one.
I joined Automattic at the beginning of 2020, and knew that teams have a practice of regular meetups, but COVID-19 pandemic in combination with conflict in Ukraine delayed my first meetup for 2.5 years. I just got back from the first one and realized how important that experience for bonding distributed teams.
During the normal days, everyone in the team operates within their own time-zone and context (family, life events, local news, laws, regulations, etc) which might be very different between locations. These differences may significantly affect the ways each individual behaves or engaged in particular situations. Getting together at the meetup brings everyone on the same page – same time zone, same location, same schedule and so on. All that boosts the quality of interactions during the meetup.
Seeing each other in-person for the first time helps to build the full image of your teammates. During the video calls you can definitely see how their face and top of the body looks, maybe how they sound, but it’s really hard to understand how tall they are or what’s their weight, how their voice sound without microphone, how they move, how they speak while not in the meetings, and many other little details you can sense only in person.
Personal interactions are pretty limited in distributed environment too. We have some social time together or chatting in virtual water coolers, but it’s not the same as getting together in the bar after work or sharing lunchtime. At the meetup there is enough space and time for those activities because all of us are far from home and no one needs to pick kids from school or go to the dentist.
Lots of communication in distributed environment is asynchronous. This is great and works well for most of the discussions. However, there are types of activities which are more effective when done synchronously. In distributed teams sync time might be very limited (if available at all) due to the time zones, but a few days at the meetup can easily give us the same amount of sync time as six months of weekly team calls.
Last but not least, a meetup creates a shared experience and memories for the whole team, and some of them could be pretty unique. This time on top of all the great things we did during the meetup we experienced a false fire alarm in the hotel 🚨 We got together outside the hotel and made a ton of jokes about it, where else we could get this?! All these experiences and memories will stay with us forever and will support the team all along the way when we’re back to usual distributed work.
Can your distributed team survive without meetups? I think, yes, it’s possible! At least we were able to operate pretty successfully without in-person meetups for the last 2.5 years, but meetups help us bring morale and relationships within the team to the new level. Meetups make our distributed work much easier and joyful.
As a final bonus, we’re able to learn from each other during the meetups. At least I’ve learned a lot of things from my teammates last week.