Life at Desana

Why it’s important for distributed teams to have off-sites

July 10, 2023

And how we ran our last all-company get-together.

Recently, the Desana team gathered at a resort near London and spent the best part of three days eating, drinking, dancing, chatting and lounging around by the pool. We participated in a pub quiz, an awards ceremony and a sports day. We shared snacks from our different cultures and played lots and lots of games too.

We also spent time reviewing our progress over the last year and perhaps more importantly, looking ahead to our future, whilst realigning on our goals and mission as a company.

But why? What was the point in it all?

To arrange the event had cost a lot of money and occupied the time and brainpower of various team mates (Should I have spent two working days devising quiz questions? Probably not. Did I? Yes). That’s not even counting the more than 105 cumulative days “lost” to travel, the event itself and outfit planning.

Yet, despite that, as a company we decided that having an off-site was a non-negotiable essential. Here’s why:

Getting to know each other

There’s a lot you can do to get to know people remotely. But undeniably it takes more time and - in many circumstances - there’s a certain something that you don’t know is missing until you meet in person. (As a colleague at a previous off-site put it to me: “It’s that final 5%.”)

Spending a few days together is a sure way to quickly learn more about those you work with, whether it’s their stellar sack race skills or that you share the same number of siblings.

And having these small moments of connection is a way to build trust so people can work together more effectively when they return to the remote world.

Here’s how we facilitated it: One of our first activities was “Human Bingo” where you have a list of different characteristics (born in October, loves carrots etc) and have to find someone to match each one. A favourite ice breaker, normally this descends into running around shouting “Who hasn’t seen Eastenders?”

We wanted to make it more focused on getting to know each other and so we tried to put the emphasis on finding things in common (for example “Find someone who shares your favourite TV show”) or sharing moments with people (“Share 5 things you are grateful for” or “Play best of 3 Rock Paper Scissors”).

In a less “organised fun” kinda way, we also shared lots of meals together - and that’s not something to be underestimated as a potent way of reinforcing relationships. There’s a reason why eating together is universal to human societies: it helps forge bonds.

Cross-team collaboration

As a company grows, there’s a risk that different departments become siloed off, hampering cross-team innovation and collaboration. It’s for this reason that Steve Jobs put the toilets in the middle of the Pixar building: so that everyone would be forced to go to the same place and on the way might bump into people they otherwise wouldn’t have talked to, leading to new and unexpected ideas.

This problem is exacerbated by being a remote team, with fewer of those unscripted watercooler moments. When colleagues only ever see and work closely with their teammates, how can they be expected to come up with game-changing collaborations?

This is another reason why off-sites are important: to facilitate those serendipitous moments which either lead to something in the moment or just help to plant a seed of connection.

Here’s how we facilitated it: We made a point of mixing people up, particularly when it came to our competitions. For both our sports day activities and our pub quiz we assigned randomised teams, ensuring that everyone was working together with people outside their home team.

Inter-team connectedness

At the same time, one big reason for getting people together is to strengthen existing bonds between those who already work closely. It’s also a great opportunity to get things done. After all, we all know that there are some conversations that are just easier to have in person.

Whether it’s reassessing team structure, providing people with opportunities for shadowing or just a little bit of team silliness while together, it’s worth seizing this time to make the most of whatever is needed for your team.

Here’s how we facilitated it: As a company our role was just to give people enough time to have these conversations and connections. It led to some lovely team moments - from the Product team (and friends) battling it out in a rounders match or one member of the Supply team making Christmas come early when she brought gifts for the whole team.

Company updates - and the side conversations

With (almost) everyone in one room, it seems silly to pass up the chance for a company update. It’s perfect for re-energizing the team, making sure they feel excitement, inspired and informed about the company’s next steps.

But it’s even more important because of those conversations that happen afterwards, whether it’s ideas bouncing off each other or those “sidle up” conversations, where people ask those small questions that don’t feel significant enough to ask remotely (but are actually quite significant).

Here’s how we facilitated it: With reflections on our company mission, statistical updates and a reaffirming of expectations (don’t make Desana your whole life) plus some news from our People team, there was plenty to talk about. We made sure this didn’t fall too early (so people weren’t tired from travelling and could absorb information) or too late (so they still had time for followup conversations).

Honouring achievement

We all know how important it is to recognise those people who have gone above and beyond. Of course, a lot can be done in a remote world, with shoutouts and acknowledgements in company and team calls, plus 1-to-1 feedback. But hearing the applause of colleagues in person (rather than silent claps on Zoom) feels much more special and carries more weight with it.

Here’s how we facilitated it: We ran a proper awards ceremony (MC-ed by one very entertaining and glamorous presenter, if I do say so myself), with mini trophies and mini speeches. Crucially, we got the whole team to vote for their highlights of the last year and their team member of the year so everyone felt buy-in and hype - and even those who weren’t attending were able to participate.

These are just a small sample of reasons why getting people together in one place is invaluable.

While we’re a small team we don’t believe in the inherent superiority of all things remote. Remote work is amazing, but different to what we have been used to in years past, so you have to make a conscious effort at it. Indeed, a lot of what we do at Desana is about facilitating in-person connection wherever possible.

In-person connection has been the norm for millenia, while the telephone has been with us for only a few generations and video conferencing has been in widespread use for less than two decades. It’ll take a long while yet for our brains - used to a whole host of in-person cues and norms - to adjust.

Yet, as mass resignations and disgruntled employees show, forcing everyone back to one location is not a solution either.

As always, it’s about knowing what you want to get out of time spent together and being intentional with it.

And, in our minds, gathering a few times a year and spending that time really well is a crucial use of time and resources - even if time well spent might look very much like stuffing yourself with Takis before being half-drowned in an impromptu water polo match.