The deep value of gathering with remote staff

January 22 2012 | arielmstallings
Offbeat Home's Cat Rocketship and Offbeat Mama's Stephanie Kaloi under the Space Needle
This is a post I've been meaning to write since October, when I finally gathered most of my remote staff into one place for Geek Girl Con and the Offbeat Empire Reception.

I've worked with folks via IM and email for over a decade, and I've always been like FUCK YEAH REMOTE WORKING. It's so awesome that everyone can work from home, in their locations of choice, without having to deal with commuting or offices or childcare or anything else. Remote working is awesome and allows me to have an AMAZING staff that I could never assemble all in one city.

But in all my loving of remote work, somehow I forgot that OH YEAH: it's really fucking awesome to actually be in one place at one time. I'd met many of my Empire staffers before last fall, but mostly just in one-on-one situations…. I met up with Stephanie and her family when they were visiting Portland last year. I swung by Rockethaus in Des Moines, Iowa on a trip to visit my mother-in-law in Iowa City. But never had these staffers met EACH OTHER, and never had we been able to hang out all together in one place for a weekend.

The business value of having everyone together was pretty much immeasurable. Everyone had conversed via email and IM and even group video chat conferences… but it's a whole different thing to have everyone just hanging out together, sharing hotel rooms, and getting drunk and being inappopropro and gossiping and piling into cabs for rides home.

There are challenges with getting remote staff all into one place — of course, there are the social nuances of interacting with a bunch of people who are mostly used to spending most days quietly behind their computers. My developer, Jennifer, is a quiet type — she's worked with me on projects from her home for the last 10 years, while she's been raising and homeschooling her four children. This is not a woman known for her drunken karaoke and loud-mouthery — unlike myself and Megan. I worried to myself that staffers wouldn't socially mesh and it would feel weird or uncomfortable, but you know what? It didn't. Not at all. Jennifer slayed everyone with her beneath-her-breath snarkery, and everyone adapted to each-other pretty easily. I mean, isn't that the core message of the Empire — that we can all be different kinds of freaks and get along?

There's also the weirdness of A) staff who couldn't make it feeling left out and B) staff turnover after the fact. The ever-fretting social engineer in me has just had to put on her big girl panties and recognize that not everyone who works with me will be able to make it to get-togethers, and that staff will come and go and that's ok. People who should be there won't make it, and I won't always have ongoing work for some folks who were able to make it. It's ok! This is not 6th grade. We can all deal with it.

My biggest mistake in October, however, was packing too much into the weekend. Remote staff get-together, hosting a 200-person party, AND attending a con?! TOO MUCH. Really, just getting everyone into one pace at one time would have been enough social stimulation for a group of nerds used to working from home in greasy ponytails and pajamas.

This in mind, plans are underway for an Empire Staff Retreat in April. No big party, no convention. Just a little staff retreat out at Sacred Groves. Sort of like a weekend-long slumber party, but with open wifi and lots of talk of content management systems and monetization strategies.

My goal is to have some sort of staff meet-up every year. It's really REALLY worth it.

  1. Fuck yeah!!!!!!
    LOVE this topic… Espesh since I'm flying out my long term assistant from USA to Australia for a 2 week long planning/dreaming retreat.
    We haven't met beyond Skype video chats, so I am flipping over the moon excited!
    I just know its Gunna be reaaaaaaally super useful!!!!

  2. Sort-of-related-but-sort-of-not question: How would one go about getting a job with OBE? Do you handpick people, or are there ever classified adds?

  3. You know, it's funny/weird… at our office, we're 8 people under one roof, plus 2 web guys who work from home. I'm not sure we've ever all been in the same room AND WE ALL LIVE HERE.

  4. I've been working from home for almost ten years now (gulp — where did the time go??). I get together with the rest of my group on average once per month and that mix reaaaally works for me. I get the face-to-face interaction I need AND the quiet time to development software. In fact I'm amazed you can make it 6 whole months before you see each other! But then again I don't have 6 different schedules to coordinate…

  5. YEA!!!!!!!!!!!! in any form….i wish to retreat right now…. LOL have a great one. and LOVE me some OBE(verything)

  6. I so hear this. Currently working with a team in 3 different Canadian cities, one of those in the remote frozen north, for a project team based in a totally different time zone halfway around the world. Email, phone, video conference….it works for getting by day to day, but nothing beats meeting up in person semi-regularly!

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