Scale Remote Engineering Teams with Company Retreats

October 9, 2015 John Bullard

At Distil Networks we recruit talented engineers from all over the world to ensure our bot detection and mitigation technology is always one step ahead of the bad guys. Our core team is in the San Francisco Bay Area but for a variety of reasons, including soaring housing costs, many of our best developers choose to live elsewhere in the country.

Scaling a remote engineering team introduces various challenges, especially with respect to communication. Like many organizations that manage remote teams, we find ourselves asking critical questions. Are we effectively sharing the company vision? Are we clearly communicating plans and business objectives across dispersed teams? And arguably most important – is the company culture both communicated and reinforced?

To address these concerns, we bring the entire company together twice each year at an event called the Distil All-Hands. It’s a company-wide retreat that gives our team an opportunity to interact face to face, discuss the technical vision, and reflect on our collective journey.

In this post, I’ll share guidelines that contribute to the success of our retreats and describe how such events can benefit other companies grappling with scaling remote engineering teams.

Keep Focus On the Big Picture

Once everyone is together some people will feel the temptation to fall into habitual work patterns. It will feel like the opportunity to run that code review, wrap up that outstanding pull request, or fix that tricky bug.

While well intentioned, these temptations must be discouraged.

Company retreats aren’t another day at the office. The reason for getting together (a non-negligible cost) is to leave work behind and share in the high-level vision of the company that is often eclipsed by day to day responsibilities.

It’s important that management establish a framework to reinforce this goal. No work should be assigned during the retreat and no deliverables expected. Schedules should be adjusted accordingly. Once at the company retreat laptops and phones should be left in rooms during presentations. Multitasking should not be permitted.

Reinforce Company Culture

Culture is a key ingredient in scaling a company. A well-established culture allows leaders to systematically influence every decision made in the company. Distil Networks has doubled in size in the past six months and will double again by our next company retreat. Culture becomes more and more important when experiencing such rapid growth.

Company retreats are a great place not just to discuss culture, but to reinforce it. Culture starts at the top – at retreats engineers are able to observe the actions, conduct, and behavior of the founding team. This sets the tone and provides reference for future decisions. Presentations should reinforce this by highlighting examples of past successes that were achieved while adhering to core cultural tenets.   

Discuss Vision and Provide Context

Members of remote engineering teams sometimes have trouble seeing how their individual pieces of the puzzle fit into the broader vision. Why one feature and not another? Why expand into new product categories rather than add features to the current product? When will we finally rebuild that legacy system?

Company retreats are a great opportunity to discuss company goals and more importantly provide context for those goals given market realities. It’s critical teams grok the criteria used to arrive at high level decisions. Contributing factors like the popularity of specific features, product margins, competitive landscape and market direction should all be explored.  

Reflect on Achievements to Keep Morale High

Burnout is a hot topic in tech right now. Successful startups take years of hard work to develop – overnight success is a myth. When moving at breakneck speed, week-in and week-out, it’s important to pause. And breath.

Company retreats allow the team to reflect on the mountain of work your team has shipped. They provide an opportunity for everyone on the team to step back and appreciate how far the product, process, and team dynamic have come.

Foster Serendipity Through Personal Interaction

Without the spontaneous interactions that happen during coffee breaks or over a game of ping pong, engineers are less likely to share serendipitous moments that so often precipitate real innovation. With the right structure, retreats can provide an environment rich with serendipitous moments.

Mix up engineering team members in housing assignments and morale events. Support cross-pollination of ideas by encouraging teams to present demos of their work–and not to shy away from discussing the challenges and difficulties. Often someone from another team will have a key insight into the problem at hand.

Encourage Social Bonding

Conflict is inevitable as engineers respond to the myriad challenges that arise in a fast-paced work environment. Emotions can escalate during debates among remote teams. It is important to remember that the voice on the other end of the line or the face on the video call belongs to a real person with friends, family, and ideas.

It’s common at company retreats for engineers to develop shared interests and form personal bonds that can help people mitigate conflicts. By building those relationships, engineering teams can more easily work through disagreements and come to a rational consensus. Our All-Hands retreats include structured as well as informal events designed to build the social capital that leads to effective social interactions. Putting everybody together in close quarters for a few days reveals the personal and social elements of their characters, bridging the gap between the personal and professional worlds.

Conclusion: Retreats Are Well Worth the Costs

Company retreats are an opportunity for distributed engineers to understand the broader purpose of their work, build close relationships with their coworkers, and leave inspired with a new set of problems to tackle. Not only does this boost morale and increase velocity; all of this results in reduced attrition and turnover in a highly competitive recruiting market.

Company retreats are an invaluable tool for startups grappling with scaling distributed engineering teams. They aren’t without cost – both in dollars and immediate productivity. But we’ve found the benefits easily outweigh the costs.

About the Author

John Bullard

John Bullard, Distil Networks’ VP of Engineering, is a technical entrepreneur focused on enterprise software. At Distil, John helps scale the the core platform and DevOps teams.

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