Managers sometimes mistake teaching and training as the sole purpose for temporarily collocating a distributed team. Teaching can educate team members on policies, practices, processes and company information. Training typically encompasses skill-based development.

While both training and teaching are a necessity, they should not be the sole purpose of bringing together a distributed team for an education-based event. That’s because teaching and training alone miss out on the benefits of mingling and socialization.

The importance of mingling and socializing for distributed teams

Distributed teams tend to be very results-focused in their day-to-day work. Team members may not completely overlap their working hours because of different time zones. If there are six hours of overlap between distributed team members, there probably are few issues. When you get to four or fewer hours of overlap, collaborative work sessions will “get to business” quickly and then break quickly once the goal of the collaboration is achieved. There is little time for mingling before and after these sessions as you might have in a collocated team.

Mingling outside of meetings can have several key objectives. It can provide an opportunity to reflect on the work and work environment. For example, one distributed agile team I work with will often carry on conversations after a stand-up meeting into their team chat channel. In some cases, they will reflect on how they might change the meeting to bring up certain observations and obstacles sooner.

Mingling can also allow for socialization. First, socialization allows team members to get to know more about each team members’ work preferences, skills and strengths. Second, socialization allows team members to know what is important to their teammates. Let’s examine the benefits for incorporating these three objectives into education events:

  1. Reflect and improve on the work
  2. Socialize to learn work preferences
  3. Socialize to learn remote work context

Objective 1: Reflect and improve on the distributed team’s work

Since distributed teams may not have frequent mingling opportunities in their normal work day, the leader or manager may need to find or create other opportunities. Education events are one of those opportunities.

Education-based events allow team members to reflect on their work and possible ways to improve it. Often in teaching courses on facilitation, agile processes and distributed working, I find team members will experience eureka moments where they are thinking more about how their work might be different. New concepts during the education event can spark new ideas. A successful education event will provide many exercises for the attendees to think about the work (without being in the work), which leads to insights on how to apply new concepts and how to improve.

Where this experience differs for a distributed team is they realize they have a unique opportunity while collocated to explore options. They tend to spend more time talking through these options or even finding a place (and a shared drawing tool) to sketch out how the work may change. I’ve seen some distributed teams collaborate well into the night on how they can apply their new learning in between education sessions.

Objective 2: Socialize to learn work preferences

Collocated education-based events also provide new opportunities for socialization for distributed teams. Because you may be introducing many new concepts in these education events, it becomes important to take breaks. If it’s a half-day or day-long training, it is important to allow slightly longer breaks. These breaks can lead to conversations about what each team member will and will not try.

Such long breaks and discussion of where they are willing to explore concepts gives hints to fellow team members where individuals on the team may have certain preferences around how they work. When these discoveries are made, some team members will want to explore the working agreements of the team (which may or may not be part of the education event). This can lead to new understanding about cultural differences, personal preferences and past work experience that help team members better understand how they can collaborate.

Objective 3: Socialize to learn remote work context

Also, socialization during breaks allows team members to learn about relevant personal context. During a break, they may talk about family, hobbies or other personal interests. This allows team members to learn more about their teammates’ personal work environment and working conditions. This is information that is rarely discovered on virtual teams but can provide significant context in how a distributed team plans their work together.

Specifically, sharing some personal context helps team members be more understanding about interruptions in work as well. If distributed team members reveal they have a spouse, children or aging family member, this helps them prepare and adjust when interruptions pop up.

Also, by learning some personal interests, team members may find some commonalities that help them feel more of a personal connection to their fellow team members. These personal connections build affinity and trust on distributed teams, with the result that team members may tend to support each other more when the work becomes challenging. Some distributed teams will even extend this connection into their collaboration tools. When one group of teams learned they had common interests such as books, electronics and soccer, they created some “special interest groups” in their chat tools that allowed them to communicate about these interests outside their normal work collaboration times.

Planning your training and education event for your distributed team

There are many ways to provide these enhanced education opportunities. You can provide them in a classroom environment with a designed curriculum, as exercises that allow attendees to explore the concepts or as team-building exercises—and always with sufficient breaks to support socialization.

One example is to recognize opportunities for on-demand training. One distributed team I worked with had grown in size through hiring. They decided to split into two agile teams. One of the new teams realized they were less experienced in user interface design and tooling. By request, one of the front-end developers on another team put together a short tutorial on the current tools they used, the style guides they followed and why front-end development was done a specific way within the company.

It provided a good knowledge base for the other team, which frequently shared appreciation for the developer leading the mini-tutorial and helped both teams discover his skills as a teacher and subject matter expert. The key in this example is that management provided the time during the transition for the teams to sort through changes and challenges with the team split.

Yet another education opportunity can present itself when one team member attends a class or conference. Rather than writing a report, an alternative may be to debrief the team on what the lessons learned were, followed by discussion with team members on how they might apply this new knowledge together. Such conversations not only promote knowledge transfer, but can help all team members learn who are willing to pick up certain new skills at the time.

Education can also be in the form of a hackathon. In these events, people come together to try out new ideas and technology; they can last for a day or multiple days. In one distributed organization I worked with, we held a one-day hackathon every two weeks to help support cross-training and innovation across the organization. People were encouraged to publicize their projects internally and share how they thought it would help them in their own work, their current team’s work or the company overall.

In addition, they were encouraged to demo their project the next day and describe what was learned from the experience. In several cases, work continued from one small project team to the next as new technology was passed across the organization. It also allowed people to work together who would not normally have that opportunity.

These examples show how education and training can be leveraged in multiple ways by a distributed organization. Even though members of the organization may be in many different time zones and locations, these different types of training opportunities allow distributed teams to reflect and improve their work, socialize to learn work preferences and to learn remote work context.

So, don’t waste an education opportunity on just teaching a distributed team…look at how you can provide these other benefits through the education event.

A previous version was published on June 20, 2018 by Mark Kilby.