One of the keys to successful agile teams is to emphasize handshakes over handoffs. In other words, as a leader in a distributed organization, you want to find ways for people to spontaneously connect with each other on a personal level, not just discuss work. This is why a regular face-to-face meeting is so important. In my current organization, we refer to these events as “gatherings” or “meetups,” as it is as much about our work community coming together as it is about the important work we do.

Regular Meetups vs. Meetings

Many companies successful with distributed teams still find value in bringing people together at least once a year to share visions for the company, products and to plan new directions. These face-to-face meetups provide remote workers a needed opportunity to connect with each other, making social connections which are just as important as the business and intellectual connections. These meetups work best when they take place over multiple days.

The working days of these meetups should contain a mix of strategic and tactical topics. Strategic topics help everyone involved see the big picture and how their role contributes. Tactical topics can cover skill-building, exploring design options or brainstorming new solutions. It helps everyone determine where they can contribute uniquely to the larger vision. With more than one day, the staff can make connections between the strategic and tactical.

Evenings (and early mornings) should allow opportunities for team members as well as colleagues across teams to build personal connections. While large group dinners are adequate, sometimes allowing staff to self-organize into smaller groups allows them time to connect with people that may share common personal interests. Meeting over multiple days can provide many opportunities to connect with different colleagues.

At my current organization, we’ve abandoned most “organized social events” in favor of letting team members discover common interests during the day through various warmup exercises. One exercise, the “low-tech social network,” has a large sheet of paper on a wall easily accessed by everyone. People put their name and three interests on a sticky note and place it on the large paper. They then draw a line between their sticky note and others with similar interests as shown in Figure 1:

low tech social network
Figure 1: Low Tech Social Network

With this and similar exercises, we’ve found a board gaming group emerge in the evenings of our events and “coffee aficionados” meeting at lunch to show how they grind and prepare their favorite cups of coffee. Other interests spark connections throughout the rest of the year. This helps build personal connections beyond work and helps individuals feel a stronger connection to our organization.

Self-organizing vs. Pre-planned

Multi-day events can be approached in different ways. One way is to carefully plan and balance the strategic with the tactical meetings and the social versus workshop events. This can require tremendous effort in planning and is highly likely to disappoint someone in an ever-growing organization. Another approach is to carefully pay attention to how your agile teams work: they self-organize. Instead of detailed planning, we found an approach that allows our group to self-organize and carefully co-plan the event with us. The format is referred to as Open Space Technology.

In the “open space” format, a multi-day event is organized around a theme. This helps participants understand the main focus for the business over the next six to 12 months. Team members will begin discussing what challenges or ideas they are wrestling with before the event and how it aligns with the theme. It is important to not pre-plan an agenda of topics during this time, and leave this part up to the participants. If the theme is announced four to six weeks in advance, they will begin discovering what topics are critical to discuss in this unique meetup event with colleagues and what may be more easily resolved in their normal remote work environment.

Our multi-day meetup starts with a warm-up period. We engage in some icebreaker events that allow everyone gathered to learn about their co-workers and the organization. The low-tech social network mentioned previously is only one such activity that launches at this time and continues across the multiple days. Next, some of our senior leaders talk about the theme of the event, how it relates to our product roadmap or some challenges we face as an organization.

Then, we “open the space” for discussion. In this part of the meetup, team members are introduced to principles and one law of the Open Space Technology format, which serves as a working agreement for the work days. Then participants are asked to pitch topics and indicate where and when the discussion will take place on a pre-arranged grid showing times and breakout spaces. With weeks to consider their topics, the schedule grid becomes filled within 20 minutes and participants are off to their workshops. On the board, you will observe the strategic and the tactical topics desired—and usually more than enough topics to help participants meet the theme of the meetup. Notes are captured in each session, so others not able to attend can still catch up in the evening or morning.

At the close of the work day, the group gathers to share highlights of conversations that may be important for the larger group to hear. Some may want to continue those conversations into dinner. Others may wish to go and read the notes for those sessions in the morning. Some social events are mentioned at this time for those who wish to join.

The next day, the cycle continues. The group gathers to share insights with others on conversations that happened over dinner and breakfast. Then, with a new empty schedule grid, new topics are proposed that may continue some of the prior day’s conversations, raise new discoveries and challenges, or even start proposing solutions to previously raised problems.

When closing the space on the last day, we ask what ideas will be taken to action, who will lead these new actions and how will they let others know how they can help or be informed. Sometimes the work after these meetups can be as intense as the preparation. Actions coming from the meetup can sometimes launch new improvement initiatives with the organization that can last several weeks. At this stage, we are helping these new initiative leaders prepare plans, gather volunteers and help them find the resources to achieve their organizational improvement goals.

Small vs. Large Meetups

One question we’re asking is: How large can this open space format grow? We have had up to 90 people participate within my organization. I’ve personally facilitated one-day versions of Open Space Technology meetups for 200 people, and I’ve observed open space conferences as large as 1,100 people.

However, the goal may not be to grow large but to spread ourselves out. Over the last year, we have been experimenting with smaller meetings that help smaller sub-communities become established within our organization. Some of these meetups have been organized around a new product, and some around new disciplines such as data science. Again, we are finding that self-organizing these smaller meetups (with support from experienced internal facilitators) is providing connections between employees that would not easily occur in our typical ways of working.

By experiencing different ways to self-organize, more of our staff are encouraged to take on new initiatives beyond their day-to-day duties to improve our work and our organization. This is always a key goal for agile organizations: catalyzing continuous improvement. This is why we find these face-to-face meetups so valuable. For us, the meetups are not “another day in the office.” Instead, the meetups bring our community together to learn, to strengthen our connections in technical and non-technical interests, and to deeply collaborate on building the next iteration of our organization and our products.

A previous version was published on September 14, 2017 by Mark Kilby.