A Virtual Company Shares All
Seeq is now, and always has been, a fully distributed company. We have no physical office, and we hire people from all over the country and world. We've all come to love the benefits of working from the comfort of our homes, but people outside the company and prospective candidates tend to share a common concern: "How do you stay connected on a human level?"
Even if the question isn't expressed that bluntly, most people know that a major portion of their social interactions occur at work. They’re worried that may be difficult in a fully distributed team.
In regard to team effectiveness, this question can be reframed in terms of Stephen Covey's metaphor of an emotional bank account: positive interactions are “deposits” and negative interactions are “withdrawals.” In any work-focused team, there are often differences of opinions that can appear as withdrawals in the balance between coworkers. If the bank account is low or becomes overdrawn, the conflict can reduce the effectiveness of the team and ultimately the quality of the product.
Co-located teams can build up these emotional bank accounts naturally, whether through sharing meals, walks around the building, water cooler talk, or conversations about the new artwork hanging in your cube.
At Seeq, we have developed a variety of ways to build that trust and reinforce positive social bonds, including our annual all-team meetups and virtual parties. But our most effective tool yet has been our "Sharing Time." Sharing time is a daily activity where one person spends 10-20 minutes presenting a topic of interest in their non-work life.
It's not unlike show-and-tell from elementary school, but the effect is profound. Many of us agree that we know more about a wider set of distributed co-workers than we did about our co-located workers at previous jobs. Some of us have openly admitted that it's our favorite part of the day.
Sharing Time topics run the full gamut, and while there are absolutely no requirements to meet, topics typically fall into a few categories:
- Family and home introductions. Most people open with one of these at their first Sharing Time. Pets often get more air time than human family members.
- Travelogues. We can usually expect that the next share after a vacation will be a recounting of the adventures. We have a handful of digital nomads, so we are treated regularly to pictures of great scenery.
- Hobbies. These presentations often come with background and educational details designed to inform and inspire. Examples include J/24 sailboat racing, beekeeping, dressage, and musical instruments (even some live performances).
- Tours. These are themed presentations with a personal connection. Examples include "art in my house," "birthday cakes I made," and "evolution of my musical tastes."
- Non-sequiturs. We've learned how to prepare for the impending zombie apocalypse, manage a gopher infestation, and appreciate the wonders of an Instant Pot.
- Recent updates. Sharing doesn't have to be themed or formal. Sometimes, it's just some pictures of recent notable events. When in doubt, keep it simple!
Over the past 2 years since Sharing Time began, we have refined the format and logistics based on what works best for us. We’ve evaluated the time impact and determined that it is time well spent since the impact it has had on our coworker relationships has been overwhelmingly positive.
The format is informal and interactive:
- We use video by default for meetings, so cameras and mics are usually on. The fun is reinforced when you can see and hear reactions.
- Almost everyone uses supporting material, with formality ranging from Google photos to Powerpoint.
- Questions are encouraged, and tangents are frequent, so it can be highly interactive rather than a passive consumption of a slide deck.
- There is no archive of presentations, which lowers any stress that might result from a making a permanent record or worrying about how it will work without the verbal context. Occasionally, shares will offer inventories (eg favorite board games) that people ask to get posted into the #show-and-tell slack channel for future reference.
Our scheduling practice has also evolved:
- One sharing session per day is all we have time for. We skip days that have other sprint ceremonies like demo or retro in order to avoid meeting overload.
- Sharing happens at the same time each day. By adhering to a regular schedule, everyone can plan for it so that they have the opportunity to attend.
- Sharing is limited to 15 minutes. We keep it short and sweet to encourage participation.
- A coordinator manages the schedule and introductions. They have the important task of reminding folks when they're coming up in the rotation.
- The presenter schedule is not published. This avoids people cherry-picking which "interesting" people they want to see. It also allows freedom to cancel if the standup goes long, and there's not a big cascade of shuffled invites.
Perhaps most importantly, Sharing Time is entirely voluntary so there is no pressure to participate. However, it’s so much fun that while the practice was initiated by the Engineering team, it’s now grown beyond that team to encompass participants across all departments. With ~30 participants, each person shares every 6-8 weeks. So even though Seeq is a fully distributed company, we feel like we have the opportunity to know our coworkers as well as, if not better than, we would in a co-located office environment.