Virtual Offsites: Collaboration for Distributed Teams
Nothing beats an in-person offsite to foster team bonding, but with a little planning, virtual offsites can be just as engaging, interactive, and fun.
Once a year, PagerDuty’s site reliability engineers (SREs) get together for a three-day, in-person offsite. With the team spread across three time zones in the US and Canada, facetime 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.
But from a logistical and financial standpoint, it’s difficult to gather the team more than once a year. So what’s a distributed team to do?
The solution: a virtual offsite. With the aid of a laptop, some online collaboration tools, and the magic of the interwebs, a virtual offsite allows teams to maintain a regular cadence of focused group discussions and long-term planning conversations, all from the comfort of their own homes.
With a couple of successful virtual offsites under our collective belts, we’d like to share some tips on how your team can conduct one effectively.
A Few Weeks Before
Collect potential discussion topics from the team and prepare a range of different discussion topics. Make sure you mix up the presenters!
The agenda for the virtual offsite should be similar to an in-person offsite. If you get lots of topics, vote on them beforehand and seed the agenda with the top-voted topics. Encourage pre-offsite research and proposals to help narrow the scope of topics.
Determine which video conferencing tool to use. 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” below for more info). Keep in mind that shipping can take some time, especially when shipping internationally.
Schedule a time that works for everyone and allows for breaks. Have at least one 15-minute break between sessions and one 30-minute break in the middle of the offsite.
Allow for ample time on each topic suggested by the team. Assign a team member to lead every session and facilitate the discussion.
Four hours per day is a good amount of time for a virtual offsite.
Two consecutive four-hour days are recommended. Expect to get through about four sessions each day.
The Day of the Virtual Offsite: The Setup
We learned by experience that offsites work better if every individual attends remotely.
Encourage the team to work from home if they have reliable Internet connections. For those who must work in the office, a separate room should be reserved for each person.
Everyone needs a quiet space so they can have their microphones on during the offsite.
Notify other teams that your team will be unavailable. Your team members should also make themselves invisible on chat apps and social media.
State ground rules at the beginning of the day. Remind everyone to be engaged, be respectful, contribute to the discussion, and avoid distractions.
Schedule heavier topics early, when people are at their freshest.
Don't just talk at your team members; involve them.
Record offsite sessions so no one person is stuck as note-taker. Distribute to the team afterwards. We review the recordings to note action items, create project plans, etc.
Running the Sessions
Moderation. The person leading the session should also facilitate and moderate the conversation. Ensure everyone has a chance to voice their opinions. To help keep the conversation on track, ask the team to self-moderate as well. Be diligent about sticking to your timeboxed agenda — running long on one session will have a cascading effect and cut time from the rest of your topics. Discussions in a virtual offsite naturally are slower since everyone isn’t in the same room. Having team members do research upfront helps save time by allowing for conversations offline before the offsite.
Avoid screen-sharing during the sessions as you won’t be able to see your team members. Additionally, using collaborative tools like Trello or Google Docs allows people to view live updates on their own computers.
Brainstorming sessions are a particularly great place to leverage a real-time collaboration tool. For example, when using Trello, the ability to create, share, and upvote cards is an excellent substitute for a whiteboard and/or Post-it notes. Trello also allows for a dynamic discussion based on the team’s feedback to complement a static agenda.
Make it easy for people to show they have something to say. Zoom has a "Raise Hand" option that you can use, but we have a different technique that’s a little more fun: Everyone was sent a colorful hat that they put on their head when they wanted to speak. The moderator watched for these hats and called on people in the order they were put on. After each person finished speaking, they removed their hat.
Make nonverbal communication easier. It’s important to see people’s reactions to the topic at hand. We hold up green and red stars to indicate whether we agree (green) or disagree (red) with the speaker. It makes the sessions more interactive than they would be otherwise.
"We used red and green stars. One person used red and green shoes as a substitute!"
Nothing beats an in-person offsite to foster team bonding, but with a little planning, virtual offsites can be just as engaging, interactive, and fun!
Get creative and find ways to encourage participation and collaboration. Consider the agenda carefully and spend time preparing to ensure success. On the day of the offsite, make everyone equal by having everyone attend remotely.
As 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. Good luck and have fun!
As the Manager of Site Reliability Engineering for PagerDuty, Dave Bresci focuses on the reliability, scalability and resiliency of PagerDuty’s infrastructure. Dave has over 20 years of technology experience, most recently at Dynatrace as Director of Tools and Automation Engineering.
Simon Darken, Agile Coach for PagerDuty, has had a long career in technology at companies around the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently, he has been leading Agile teams at a variety of small and medium-sized e-commerce and tech companies.
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