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On Office Holiday Parties and Remote Teams

Have some kind of holiday/end-of-year activity with your remote team. Get them together physically if you can, but if you can’t there’s plenty of good substitutes. Encourage your team to volunteer for charitable work, and give them paid time off to do it.

December 2nd, 2016

The best experience I ever had with a traditional holiday office party was when I ran a satellite office of 10 people for a company that employed about 1000 overall. In previous years, the company simply flew us to HQ for the big office-wide affair: a noisy, catered off-site bash in which we barely got to talk to anyone at length. This year HQ wanted to save on travel expenses. I was given a modest budget and the latitude to do mostly whatever I felt was best for the team.

I polled the team for ideas, and eventually we agreed on a long, lazy late lunch at a renowned NYC Italian restaurant followed by videogames back at the office. No significant others, no work talk. Just us, great food, drinks, and some friendly videogame trash talk.

Since we were not to discuss work, at lunch we played the icebreaker game of two truths and a lie. (Never heard of it? Try it. It’s highly entertaining, particularly with software engineers.) We all learned some interesting things about the people we spent our waking hours with, and built up trust and shared experiences. Most of all we just had a good time. (I was also murdered many times over in “Call of Duty.”) Mission accomplished.

The Mission

Why bother with the office party anyway, remote team or not? For one thing, it’s kind of expected, and holding out on it looks rather Scrooge-ish. It’s also a great excuse to create some personal, human connections and we all know these bridges are important when, for example, your team is in the heat of tracking down and fixing a crippling production bug, or responding to a customer complaint. It’s handy to have friendly faces around when your work is getting called into question by your end users.

So definitely do it. Blow budget on it. Do your best not to make it not feel like a forced team-building exercise—even though the reality is that’s exactly what a good holiday office party is.

Make Sure Everyone is Included

If you have the means to get everyone on the team together, do it. Fly/train/drive in your remote members if you can swing it. If it’s not possible to gather your team physically in the same place, here are some substitute ideas.

The important thing is to make sure no one is forgotten. Really. If only one of your team members is remote and the other 99 are local, the one will remember the time they were left out of the holiday party planning. That’s not good when crunch time comes along.

Ideas and Inspiration

  • Have a long lunch or dinner at a favorite restaurant for the local folks, if there are any. Post meal reviews and selfies in a common chat channel. For the remote folks, spring for a dinner with a significant other or friend. Have them post their meal pics in the same channel. This also works if everyone is remote.
  • Hold a team-wide Secret Santa, with the reveal over video chat or Skype. (Plan ahead so everyone gets their gifts in time.)
  • Conduct a team-wide White Elephant or Yankee swap gift exchange, held over video chat or Skype.
  • The Less Everything no-input team gift: everyone joins a video chat and shops online for a gift for each member of the team, one by one. The gift recipient must remain muted while their present is being discussed.
  • Hold a bad sweater contest over video chat. Winner doesn’t have to wear it the next day, everyone else does. (My personal favorite.)
  • Just have a party with video chat turned on. No work allowed, online karaoke optional.

Update: It should go without saying, but all of this should be on the company dime. See Scrooge reference above.

Give Back as a Team

Here’s the easiest and probably best idea of them all: build team trust and help the world at the same time, by volunteering for a local charitable cause. After all, it’s the giving season, we’re a lucky bunch for the most part, and there are dozens if not 100s of organizations out there that could use you and your team’s smarts. Let them choose the cause, take ownership over coordinating the effort, and share their experience with the rest of the team via chat, video chat or Skype. (Make sure the morning/afternoon/day is paid time off, of course.)

Last year I volunteered for the Hour of Code project along with a couple of other members of my team. Despite being placed in different schools, our shared experience prompted quite of bit of discussion around assumed knowledge and the way we pick up new technology, discussions which we still reference all the time in various chats. Another mission accomplished.

Your Turn

In case you missed it, there is an anti-pattern here: doing nothing. ‘Tis the season and make it happen. Any other ideas? Let me know! I’ll update this post as they come in.

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