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How we’re building a remote-first team culture (aka virtual event ideas that you’re welcome to steal)

How we’re building a remote-first team culture (aka virtual event ideas that you’re welcome to steal)

As an engineering-centric organization that’s been 60%+ remote for most of our history, we’ve always been creative with the ways we stay connected – and, with COVID-19 making us and all teams 100% remote, we’re sharing a bit about how we’ve created camaraderie as we’ve grown (and continue to span even more countries) to help you do the same.

Our company, like many others right now, is all working from home. While we have some experience with this - over 60% of our team was already remote, with co-workers across Bosnia, Canada, Germany, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US - this current health and economic crisis was something new.

As a People Manager, I wanted to make sure our employees felt connected and supported, especially during this difficult time of extreme social isolation. But after some research, I quickly realized that very few of the articles, blogs, and talks on team-building focused on companies spread across multiple time-zones, in particular ones that hired international team members.

I had already organized a few remote team-building activities, such as Munch N Learns, “Cawfee Tawks”, and Book Club. But, when we went fully remote, I knew we had to boost the frequency and variety. We needed fluid meetups that gave everyone a chance to bond without an agenda. Enter “Timescale Family Feud”, Beer o’clock, Water cooler Chats, and more.  

The result? Our team feels more connected now than ever before.

Bar graphs showing quarterly replies from April 2019-March 2020, on various vectors.
Our quarterly employee satisfaction survey results: Timescalers feel like we’re communicating better and bonding more post-100% remote work than ever before.

We are all struggling with this new reality, but most teams and organizations don’t have the foundation to know how to build a strong all-remote culture.

And that’s why I wrote this post: to help teams find ways to stay connected in this new reality, using what we’ve done at Timescale as a guide.

The problem

So, how can we bond, when we’re all remote, spread across multiple time-zones, and amidst a global health crisis?

In all of my reading and conversations with HR professionals, I found that no one had solved the most difficult piece of the puzzle: scheduling. I could never schedule something that worked perfectly for everyone on the team, or people would say they were interested but never follow through. And, this was pre-COVID-19.

In the current environment, the challenge compounds: even for our team members who’ve been working remotely, they’re now balancing home-schooling and childcare, partners’ work schedules and meeting times, texts and messages from friends and family, and general anxiety.

My Solution

Getting Started

In general, remote team members aren’t thinking about setting up time to chat with other Timescalers, because that requires vulnerability (e.g., admitting they want to virtually hang out with others) and perseverance (e.g., if it isn’t work-related, it can easily get dismissed). When it comes to attendance for these team events, I had to follow the same guidelines as an in-person event: make it easy and make it known.

I was lucky, since we’d recently run an Employee Satisfaction Survey where many people said they wanted more ways to connect (i.e., I knew people were eager to participate in non-work related events). If you’re not armed with such results, I’d venture to guess your teammates feel similarly :).

Additionally, after talking with every team member to ensure everyone feels supported during this time (and always!), my notes reflected one common theme: a real desire to get to know each other better. Historically, we held a biannual “All Hands and Feet,” bringing everyone to the NYC HQ and, every time, people would say how much they enjoyed bonding with the people they usually only see through a screen.

I knew I could eliminate vulnerability by telling people we were going to do something, instead of asking. I simply created the event and announced it to everyone. My advice: give the team the option to participate and they’ll make the effort to show if they find it has value.

In remote-bonding, “if you build it, they will come.”

Getting the word out: small things matter

We run all of our internal communication via Slack, and I simply post in our #general channel, making the details extremely clear: writing the day of the week and month (avoiding confusing folks with my US-formatting for numerical dates) and including all applicable time zones.

One or two days prior, I remind everyone about the event (Slack automated reminders to the rescue!) with a link to the video call (removing the friction of finding it in their calendar). Quick aside on Slack reminders: I also use these to ask people to vote for different topics and remind them to complete surveys.

Our virtual event run-down

Cawfee Tawks

With remote employees, there isn’t much cross-departmental congregation, and now this is true for everyone. “Cawfee Tawks” are my attempt to solve this problem: I send monthly 30-minute video calls invites, placing 3 random team members on each call. There’s no set agenda, and conversations are organic (any topic goes!).

Google Hangout meeting with 3 people on video
Cawfee Tawk with Dodd (located in Texas, engineering team), Solar (upstate NY, web team), and me (NYC, top right corner)

Water cooler Chats

Much as the name suggests, this is a space where people can “spontaneously” meet for a bit, without requiring an invite. Each chat is scheduled for a random 30 minute period throughout the week and is open for anyone who has the time to join. Scheduling them at different times and days mitigates the multiple time zone issue.

Always-On Google Hangout

For those who like an “office environment” or simply like company, it’s comforting to know that we’re all working together, even if we’re not in the same place. Our Always-On Google Hangout gives folks a way to feel connected (even if we’re not talking, just working with someone else on our screen).

To encourage more people to sign-on and remind people to take time to connect with others, I post silly challenges in Slack, like an hourly fitness challenge that gets people up and moving every hour. If anyone joins at the top of the hour, you’ll see me doing some cardio. I’ll also post something like, “I’ll sing a song to the next person to join the Hangouts link” to motivate people.

Book Club

Originally suggested by one of our engineers, Book Club is fairly straightforward: we vote on a list of books via Slack, and, once we have a winning title, participants have a month or so to finish. During the month, we host two Book Club meetings to discuss topics raised in the book (and any title goes, from The Righteous Mind’s moral philosophy to Algorithms to Live By’s look at how we make decisions).

While we launched this pre-100% remote, it’s become even more popular lately: people are looking for a break from streaming the latest Netflix and Disney+ releases, and a good book is a pretty great alternative.
We offer an annual Self Development Stipend for employees to use for online classes, books, or conferences, and team members are welcome to use it to purchase Book Club titles.

Timescale Family Feud

Family Feud is a classic television game show, and, early on, I started a Timescale-specific version – and it’s continued in our 100% virtual transition. Every other week, I put together an anonymous survey with 10 questions, both general interest and about the Timescale team, and send it out via Typeform (another amazing tool).

Zoom meeting with 6+ videos, one person displaying question for Family Feud game.
For example, “Of our remote team members, who has the most interesting looking home office?” or “Which Timescaler would you go to for parental advice?”.

Once the results are tallied (points based on the actual number of votes per answer), I schedule the game, announce it in Slack, and put the event on our group calendar so everyone has access and can join if they’d like.

Game play is simple:

I split participants into two teams. It’s great if we have even numbers, but not required.

We loosely follow Family Feud rules: I pose a question from the survey, and the first team gets two strikes (versus three in the real game), and then it’s the opposing team’s turn to possibly steal all the accrued points.

Points are based on the actual number of votes each answer received. For example, for the question, “What’s the last thing you grab before leaving the house?”, our survey returned the following results:

  • Keys - 9 votes/points
  • Phone - 2 votes/points
  • Shoes - 2 votes/points
  • Water bottle - 1 vote/point
  • Jacket - 1 vote/point
  • Team 1 correctly picked the answers keys, and phone, receiving 11 points.

After 2 “strikes” from Team 1 (missed guesses, where their answers weren’t among top 5 survey responses) Team 2 got a chance to respond and “steal” the points with a correct guess.

Team 2 guessed water (one of the top 5 responses), so they ended the round with 12 points (11 stolen from the first team, plus the 1 point for their answer).

Answers can get very specific, so it’s tricky to guess the correct response to certain questions. But, I think this is part of the fun, and we’ve had some great laughs (and are always surprised by our teammates’ answers)

“Beer” o’clock

Before COVID-19, like many startups, the NY office used to have an un-official “Beer” o’clock on Fridays around 4:30pm. Someone would turn to someone else, make the announcement that it was that time, and we’d gradually make our way to the kitchen table where we drank (alcohol optional), played games, and generally hung out for an hour or so before heading home to kick off our weekend.

In our first virtual-only week, I really missed the connection with my teammates. I put it on our Timescale-wide group calendar as a joke – and it’s now become another weekly virtual call staple.

Note on Happy Hours:
When I posed my “what to do for remote team bonding?” dilemma to other professionals in the tech scene, I always got the same suggestion: “How about a virtual Happy Hour?” Happy Hours are all well and good if your whole team is in relatively the same place, but for my European team, a US-hosted Happy Hour is 10 or 11 in the evening. Additionally, Happy Hours inherently place a focus on drinking, which isn’t comfortable for everyone – and inclusivity is very important to me.

Drinking was–and is–always optional for any Beer O’clock event (it’s merely a fun name, which plays a role in folks being curious and wanting to attend).

Munch ‘n Learns

A riff on the traditional “Lunch and Learn” or Brownbag sessions, Munch ‘n Learns are an opportunity for team members to share what they know and learn from others. Our topics have ranged from health and wellness (presentation deck) to more technical talks on Kubernetes (presentation deck) and Rust. Since these meetings are more content-driven, we draw in a different crowd (v. those who prefer Book Club or more casual, less structured activities, like the always-on Hangout).

Parting advice

People want - and need - to connect, and going all-remote doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your culture - in fact, it can help your team members bond in new ways. This can take a myriad of forms, and after some trial-and-error, I found that the answer was pretty simple: use your company’s culture as a baseline for activities.

As noted earlier, we’ve found that COVID-19 and a fully virtual workplace has strengthened our team’s connection to each other – and I’m confident anyone can do the same.

Make your events as diverse as your team and schedule them as frequently as possible, ensuring you’re accessible and including as many people as possible.

Don’t get disheartened about “low participation” or waiting for too much input from the team - quality trumps quantity, especially as you get up and running (even more so if you’re also adjusting to a remote-only situation); when your event is a success, your team will spread the word to others.

...and, it turns out that creating events for remote teams follows the same logic as software development: experiment, be brave, see what works, learn, and iterate.

If you have questions, other ideas, or want to chat about all things remote work and team-building, I’d love to hear from you!

Connect and send me a message on LinkedIn, or reach out via email ([email protected]) – and here’s to continuing to create amazing company cultures, no matter the circumstances.

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