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Virtual Offsites: A Collaboration Approach for Distributed Teams

This blog was co-authored by myself and Simon Darken. 


Once a year, PagerDuty’s SREs get together for a three-day, in-person offsite. With the team spread across three time zones in the U.S. and Canada, encompassing two offices and three remote members, face time is rare and valuable. We use our offsites for thoughtful discussions on team health, long-term project roadmap planning, refining and updating our team’s mission, and to simply spend time together as a team.

“I wish we could get together more often,” is one of the recurring comments from team members. Sadly, it would be difficult to gather the team more than once a year from both a logistical and financial standpoint. What’s a distributed team to do?

Enter the virtual offsite. What is it exactly? With the aid of a laptop and a handful of online collaboration tools, a virtual offsite allows teams to maintain a regular cadence of focused group discussions and long-term planning conversations from the comfort of their own homes. Through the magic of the interwebs, teams can enjoy many of the benefits of an in-person offsite—all without the expense and logistical challenges.

With a couple of successful virtual offsites now under our collective belts, we’d like to share some tips on how your team can conduct a successful virtual offsite.

It’s All About Preparation!

A Few Weeks Before

  • Collect potential discussion topics from the team a few weeks before the offsite. Prepare a range of discussion topics, and mix up the presenters and types of topics (e.g., team health, company strategy, technical).
  • The agenda for the offsite should be similar to an in-person offsite. If you get lots of topics, vote on them before the offsite and seed the agenda with, at minimum, the top-voted topic from the team.
  • Encourage pre-offsite research and proposals to help narrow the scope of topics or to give folks a chance for some asynchronous discussion before the offsite.
  • Include plenty of time for topics suggested by the team. Someone will have to lead every session and facilitate the discussion.
  • Determine which video conferencing tool to use. (You don’t want to try out this tool for the first time during your offsite!) At PagerDuty, we use Zoom and make use of the Gallery View, which allows us to see all team members at once.
  • Buy and distribute props to the team early (see “Running the Sessions” section below for more info). Keep in mind that shipping can take some time, especially when shipping internationally. For example, regular shipping from the U.S. to Canada will probably take at least a week using regular mail.

Scheduling

  • Schedule a time that works for everyone and allow for breaks. Our team is distributed across four North American time zones so we had our offsites roughly from 10 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. P.T. Have at least one 15-minute break between sessions and one 30-minute break in the middle of the offsite.
  • Four hours per day is a good amount of time for a virtual offsite. It’s tiring! Two consecutive four-hour days are recommended. Expect to get through about four sessions each day, with three 15-minute breaks.

The Day of the Virtual Offsite

  • We learned by experience that offsites work better if everyone attends remotely. We previously tried having some people in a conference room and some people remote, but found that the people sitting together in a conference room would dominate the conversation. Also, the audio quality of people calling in from home is generally better than when some people are in large conference rooms.
  • Encourage the team to work from home if they have reliable Internet connections. Everyone needs to have a quiet space so they can have their microphones on during the offsite meeting times. For those who must work in the office, a separate conference room should be reserved for each person.
  • Make sure that other teams realize that your team is unavailable. For example, we post in our team’s Slack channel that the team will be unavailable. In addition, suggest to the team that they make themselves invisible on chat apps and social media.
  • State the ground rules at the beginning of the day. We like to remind everyone to be engaged, respectful, contribute to the discussion, and avoid getting distracted by social media, Slack, etc.
  • Schedule the heavier topics for earlier in the day when people are at their freshest. Don’t just present to the team; involve the team. You want people to be engaged even though they’re dialing in. Virtual offsites aren’t as interactive as physical offsites where people can move around the room, write on whiteboards, and use sticky notes. See the sidebar for more ideas on how we make virtual offsites more interactive.
  • Record offsite sessions and distribute to the team afterwards. We refer back to the recordings later so that one person isn’t stuck as the note-taker the whole time. Also, we review the recordings to note action items, create project plans, or gather any other good ideas resulting from the various sessions.

Ideas for Making a Virtual Offsite More Interactive

  • Use tools that allow real-time group collaboration such as Trello or Google Docs.
    Do some group brainstorming or blue-sky thinking and ask individual team members to expand on their ideas.
  • Ask the team to upvote ideas and topics to highlight whatever is most interesting / important to the team.
  • Have a session where team members sketch out solutions to a problem and then share their solutions with the team.

Running the Sessions

  • Moderation is always a challenge, especially remotely. The person leading the session should also facilitate and moderate the conversation. It’s difficult to make sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinions. Vigilance is required and, sometimes, encouragement is also needed. To keep the conversation on track and avoid tangents, ask the team self-moderate as well. Be diligent about trying to stick to your timeboxed agenda—running long on one session will have a cascading effect and prevent you from working through all the topics.
  • Discussions in a virtual offsite naturally occur more slowly since everyone isn’t in the same room, and it’s important to take that into account. If team members have done some research upfront (as mentioned in the prep section above), it helps mitigate the “slow discussion” by having part of the conversations offline prior to the live meeting.
  • Avoid screen-sharing during the offsite sessions as much as possible or you won’t be able to see your team members. As mentioned in the sidebar, using collaborative tools like Trello or Google Docs allows people to view live updates so folks can follow along on their own computers. Zoom’s Gallery View allowed us to see everyone at once, which helped to keep people engaged during the conversations.
  • Brainstorming sessions are a particularly great place to leverage a real-time collaboration tool . When using Trello, for example, the ability to create, share and upvote cards is an excellent substitute for a whiteboard and/or Post-it notes. In many ways, it’s better since everyone on the team can participate simultaneously, whereas for an in-person meeting, only one person could participate at a time. Trello allows for a dynamic discussion based on the team’s feedback to complement a static agenda.
  • Make it easier for people to identify that they have something to say. With everyone remote, you’ll have lots of small heads on the screen and it can be difficult to know who is waiting to speak. Zoom has a “Raise Hand” option that you can use, but we’ve used a different technique that worked well and is a little more fun. Everyone was sent a colorful hat that they put on their head when they wanted to speak. The meeting moderator watched for someone putting their hat on and called on people in roughly the same order in which they put on hats. After each person finished speaking, they took off their hat.

You’ll probably only have one or two people waiting to speak at any time
but this photo gives you an idea what the hats looked like.

  • Make nonverbal communication easier. With bigger teams, there are lots of little faces on the screen making it difficult to see if people are engaged or what their reactions are to the topic at hand. We use red and green stars to indicate whether or not we agree with the speaker. If people want to show agreement with what the speaker is saying they’ll hold up a green star. If they disagree, they hold up a red star. It makes the sessions much more interactive than they would be otherwise.

We got stars from a local party supplies store but homemade stars worked just as well. One team member used red and green shoes as a substitute!

Key Takeaways

Nothing beats an in-person offsite to increase team bonding, but with a little planning, it really is possible to have an engaging virtual offsite. Get creative and find ways to encourage participation and collaboration. Consider the agenda carefully and spend time preparing to ensure success. And on the day of the offsite, make everyone equal by having everyone attend remotely.

As more and more companies move toward a distributed workforce, it’s imperative to find ways to bring teams together—and a virtual offsite is just one option you can add to your tool belt.

For PagerDuty’s SRE Team, feedback has been universally positive, and our offsites have brought tangible benefits for team communication and project planning. Try it and let us know how it works for you!

Good luck and have fun!

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