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The Secrets of Productive Virtual Offsites - Tips from GitHub

by Gábor Zöld
/ December 1, 2021
#Management
Allison McMillan virtual offsite cover

The Secrets of Productive Virtual Offsites - Tips from GitHub - Interview with Allison McMillan (Director of Engineering, GitHub)

How is a virtual offsite supposed to work?

How do you do team building online? How can you align people without getting them in the same room? How do you stop them from browsing Twitter the whole time?

You need to organize virtual offsites very differently than you would an in-person event.

We bring you virtual offsite ideas, tips, and stories from Allison McMillan, Director of Engineering at GitHub. She talks about the problems she’s faced and what has worked well for her so far. Based on an interview in episode 52 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Toth.

This blog post covers:

About Allison McMillan

Allison lives in Washington, DC, and she works as Director of Engineering at GitHub.

She’s the mother of two children, ages three and six. She loves traveling and baking, and she’s trying to find more time to write blog posts.

How do you define a virtual offsite?

I define an offsite as at least one entire workday set aside to have discussions with your team. A virtual offsite has the same goals, but you bring everyone together in a virtual space rather than a physical location.

Most offsites prioritize team building often as the main goal or at least as a secondary objective. Make these bonding events fun, and provide opportunities for teammates to get to know each other, while getting everyone on the same page about the current topic.

You can hold offsites anywhere from two to 30 people or even more. The necessary amount of time, the agenda, and the goals may vary depending on the number of participants. 

Location requirements

I consider an offsite a state of mind rather than a physical location.

Going to a different location can help you achieve this state of mind. Depending on your preference, it may be a different location at your house, a coffee shop, a coworking location, or a different continent.

The idea is to get yourself away from daily tasks and to put your brain into a different gear.

What are the ground rules at a virtual offsite? 

The goal is to set up similar group contracts than you’d have at an in-person event.

Using phones

Dealing with devices is a challenge during a virtual offsite. At an in-person event, you all agree to keep your laptops closed and your phones on the side. You can’t do this at a virtual event, as you have to use at least one device, but you can put an emphasis on staying engaged with your colleagues and the topic.

Using microphones

The general rule of thumb is to mute everyone in the meeting channel as default, unless a specific meeting has different requirements. When the participants want to speak, they need to hit the unmute button. This helps you avoid unnecessary noise.

Speak in rounds

We try to make sure that no one speaks for a second time until everyone has had a chance to speak. This provides equal opportunity for everyone.

What goals and expectations can you set for a virtual offsite? 

You can accomplish the same goals in a virtual offsite as you would at an in-person offsite.

  • Working out values
  • Aligning vision
  • Team building
  • Creating a roadmap
  • Working on team culture
  • Learning sessions
  • Game days

Offsites are commonly used to lay out the engineering culture and the values of a team. You may hold a department-wide retrospective meeting in the office with this goal in mind, but you can dig deeper at an offsite. For example, we’ve held virtual offsites to work out our values and guiding principles, or to define what success is for us.

At GitHub, we tend to put people from engineering, product and design into the same team. It’s a great place to discuss conflicting ideas about these topics, so we can get on the same page and move forward.

Learning sessions

We try to put knowledge sharing sessions into synchronous time lanes. We make sure to record these sessions though, so anyone who misses it has a chance to catch up later.

We’ve recently tried taking a technical deep-dive in an offsite. A senior engineer walked the team through a complicated part of the codebase.

Fewer unplanned interactions

You’ll miss out on some serendipitous interactions, but there are plenty of ice breakers and ways you can use to get to know each other. We’ve experimented with Airbnb virtual experiences that were a lot of fun during the pandemic. You can utilize these virtual tools to make these events more interactive.

Who do you invite for a virtual offsite? 

Virtual offsite for squads

Employees from engineering, product, and design work in so-called EPD squads at GitHub. Organizing an offsite for EPD squads is a great way to facilitate team building. These offsites include around 5-10 people.

Virtual offsite for leadership groups

We’ve also organized virtual offsites for the leadership team. For example, the latest leadership offsite included my direct reports,  my product and design counterparts, their direct reports and myself. This event included over 10 people.

Virtual offsite for departments

You can hold an offsite for an entire department. Depending on the size of your team and organization, you can hold these with around 30 individuals or more.

How do you prepare for a virtual offsite?

Set goals

Set clear goals and communicate them in advance. Create an agenda and make sure to get it to everyone ahead of time so they can collect their thoughts.

Prepare activities

Try to come up with special activities; these are especially important in virtual group events. This can help you create an atmosphere that pulls your team out of the normal, and it can help you maintain engagement during the day.

Coordinate with your company

Remember to communicate your offsite event outside your team to the rest of your organization. Let everyone know in advance that you and your team won’t be available in that time period. It’s important information for other teams that often interact with your employees.

Start communicating it at least two weeks before, and follow up with reminders about one week out and one day out. Encourage your team members to put it on their Slack status and share it in common channels. Let everyone know you’re unavailable because you have an offsite.

What are the specific challenges of virtual offsites? 

A virtual offsite can’t be the same as an in-person offsite. It’s a common mistake to try to recreate online the same experience you would have at in-person events. That just makes a virtual offsite weird.

Avoid this by incorporating activities you can do virtually but you wouldn’t be able to do in person.

Zoom fatigue

During the day, we take 15-minute breaks rather than 10 minutes or less. The goal is to counterbalance Zoom fatigue. Spending an entire day in a series of remote meetings tires you out in a different way than spending a day with them in person.

Lack of unplanned interactions

In a virtual environment, you don’t get the same serendipitous interactions as you do in person.

They can happen, but you have to create a space to facilitate that. For example, you won’t randomly learn that someone doesn’t like tomatoes by seeing them pick them out of their omelet during a lunch break, and get into a conversation about food. However you can provide an allowance for the participants to order food, and they may end up having similar conversations about what they had for lunch.

I make sure that the company provides an allowance for meal expenses for at least up to three meals per day. At an in-person offsite, this is a given, and it starts conversations that build connections. This way you can replace it to a degree in virtual space.

Distractions at home

You’re likely to face more distractions staying at home than you would at an in-person event.

People

My kids are back at school, but many of my colleagues are at home with other people, packages arrive and you need to get the door, etc. When I go to an offsite in person, I’m free of my parental responsibilities for that time. When I stay at home, I always get interrupted at least once.

Activities

Sitting in front of your computer is another source of distraction. When your focus veers, you can quickly end up scrolling on Twitter. You have to keep reminding yourself to focus and minimize these distractions, which would be a given at an in-person event.

Time zones

Time zones are a challenge for global teams at virtual events. It wasn’t difficult while every participant was in the USA, where the time difference only went up to three hours. As soon as you add Europe, you’re looking at 8-9 hours of time difference.

We need to make an effort to make the schedule fit for different time zones. For example, I’m in the East Coast time zone, so my synchronous time for a virtual offsite is 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. We can add more sessions from 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM and from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM.

People on the East Coast prefer one, while people on the West Coast may prefer another, and Europeans may have a different preference again.

Synchronous time

Synchronous time is limited, so maximize what you can get out of it.

We’ve been appointing a chunk of synchronous time with everyone together, and we set up time zone friendly options outside that. Time zone friendly options are the same programs or similar options but at different times so colleagues around the world can tune in when it suits their schedule.

Meal time

You have to account for meal times in different time zones. We take a 30-minute break around lunch times at different time zones, so no one has to rush eating.

What do you do to make a virtual offsite work? 

Minimize presentations

Limit the amount of frontal presentations you include in a virtual offsite. You can add some, but it’s easy to push too much information on the participants and lose engagement.

It’s too easy to tune out in a virtual event and to tell yourself it’s not a problem because you can read the notes later. You may need to bring in whimsy and fun topics to get everyone aligned and engaged.

Bring engaging activities

You need engaging and interactive activities in a virtual offsite to make it work. PowerPoint presentations can be difficult to follow and tend to lose the interest of the audience.

The Luma Institute has activities for virtual offsites you may want to try. There are other tools out there as well, but I’ve been using these with success.

Mix up presenters

I always make an effort to avoid being the only person speaking and facilitating during offsites.

When we set the agenda about the offsite’s goals, I tend to ask for volunteers to facilitate sessions. I help them prepare with tips on tools and methodology to maximize engagement. There are many ways to do it right, and everyone has a different style, which can enhance the offsite, so I only give them my suggestions.

Virtual offsite box

I always send a box to every participant for virtual offsites. I never assume that everyone has the materials I want them to use at hand, so I do my best to provide them. You can also turn this into a fun aspect of the event.

Provide travel days

When we used to take a full week for an offsite in-person, we made Monday and Friday travel days while Tuesday through Thursday covered the content.

In virtual offsites, we still make Monday and Friday travel days, even though there may be no travelling involved. We encourage our colleagues to use this time to set their brain into offsite mode. It’s a chance to tackle anything that might distract them during the virtual offsite.

Prevent distractions

It’s easier to communicate company-wide that you take an entire week for the offsite. If you tell everyone you’re only out for the middle of the week, participants are likely to get into things on Monday that bleed into the offsite.

Have fun

You may use travel days for fun activities.

We tend to do unboxings with the packages I send out to the team on the starting travel day. People post in the water cooler channel on Slack when they want to open their boxes. They get into a Zoom call with others who want to join, and they unbox together.

I encourage people to hop into Zoom on Fridays, and use it for team bonding or resting. Offsites are mentally exhausting both virtually and in person; it’s a different kind of work to engage with these topics and get to a resolution. Doing coffee chats with colleagues or grabbing lunch with them can be relaxing activities.

Prepare

We often schedule tool training on Monday. My tool of choice is Mural; it provides templates and flexibility to virtual offsites. We hold a short, interactive session where everyone can test out the tool in advance, so they’re familiar with it by the time we start the offsite.

I set up a practice board in advance and send out the instructions during the first travel day. The board has around five to six different assignments. They’re along the lines of "put an image here,” "put a post-it here,” and similar tasks to get you comfortable with using the features you’ll need during the virtual offsite.

How do you put together the content for a virtual offsite? 

When organizing a virtual offsite, nail down the goals first, then align the beginning and the end of every day with that. On the first day, I frame the entire offsite meeting by previewing the topics we aim to cover. I try to end each day with a recap.

While developing the agenda, you can come up with themes for each day. For example, day one focuses on the past, day two focuses on the present, and day three focuses on the future. Another example may be day one focuses on getting to know your team, day two focuses on building relationships within your department, and day three goes to the company level.

You don’t need to force themes; balancing heavy and light conversations within each day works too. It’s not ideal to follow up a two-hour workshop with a heavy topic that requires high engagement or sustained attention. When scheduling, be aware of the participants’ energy levels and how taxing the previous activities are.

Try to turn the program into a story that goes through the offsite and ends with a recap of what you’ve accomplished. Remind everyone of the fun activities and the decisions you’ve made. Make sure that everyone knows the next steps, who’s going to tackle them, and how you’ll update everyone on the progress.

Feedback survey

GitHub's feedback culture is great, so I always send out a feedback survey after virtual offsites.

The feedback has been mostly positive. Many compared our virtual offsites to in-person offsites that they’d attended, which is a great compliment. Many said they got closer together with colleagues and learned a lot too.

Top virtual offsite ideas from GitHub

Unconferences

My department loves to do an unconference in every different time zone. It’s a voluntary program. Whoever wants to participate joins the call, then they spend the first 10 minutes on deciding the topics to cover.

They write post-its with their ideas, vote on them, and hold sessions for the top ideas. We do 20-minute sessions, three of them at the same time, by breaking the call into groups, and we can fit two rounds of this into one call. This way, we cover six topics in an unconference meeting.

The topics can be anything from TV shows to pull requests. It’s such a popular session in my department that people try to get into additional unconferences outside their time zones.

Virtual offsite box 

I send every participant a box with everything they may need for the upcoming virtual offsite, and I add some fun stuff too. It took me a few virtual offsites to realize, but I have a formula for these boxes.

These boxes don’t need to be sophisticated. You can make them work at minimal cost.

Necessary equipment

Put in necessary supplies like post-its, whiteboards, and markers. Don’t make the assumption that everyone has these on hand; it may not be the case.

Fun stuff

Add some fun things too. For instance, at one virtual offsite, I sent everyone headbands that had a whiteboard speech bubble sticking out of it. I wrote Welcome! on mine, but others wrote funny messages on it and put it on; it was hilarious.

At a recent event, I sent everyone a craft kit to make a self-portrait, and we all shared them at the end. The feedback on it was great. Participating in a crafting activity turns on a different part of people’s brains.

I also like to send a children’s book with the protagonist being a character of color. Diversity is important to me, but I choose children's books because we often read books on management or technology, but children’s books cover similar concepts as well. It’s fun to rediscover that and to let it put you in a different mental space.

Snacks

I always add snacks to the box.

For one virtual offsite, I gave the participants four snack options, and I sent everyone what they preferred. Another time, I found a fun gourmet snack, and sent that to everyone to avoid shipping difficulties. Last time, I sent everyone a candy-coated popcorn in a variety of weird flavors.

Communications exercise

We did a special communications exercise at a recent virtual offsite. The idea was to highlight challenges in communication in a remote environment.

I sent everyone the same type of craft kit. We broke up into groups of three. We appointed one of them to be the builder, one to be the architect and one to be the observer.

The architects had to turn off their cameras, and they were given five minutes to build anything they wanted. When the time was up, we moved pairs of architects and observers into breakout rooms, and the architects had five minutes to show the observers what they had built.

In the next phase, we moved the builders into the breakout room, and the architects and the observers had eight minutes to describe what the architects had built. They were not allowed to use the camera to show it, and only one person could talk at a time. Then the builders were moved to a different breakout room, and they had to try and build the same construct as the architect.

At the end of the session, we brought everyone back together. We went in a round, and each group showed everyone what the architect built and what the builder built. Some of them looked similar, while others were wildly different.

Results

This started a discussion about communication and its challenges. It demonstrated lessons about writing code.

The architects didn’t expect to have to explain what they had built without showing it. They built complicated things for their own amusement, and they had a hard time explaining these to others.

Builders often said that they listened to the explanations, but they had no idea what they were to build.

In real life, software engineers often want to work with interesting or fancy tools to solve problems. They often forget that others have to maintain the code base, and they need to be able to make sense of it.

This exercise started conversations about which would have been easier in person, which parts would have been more difficult, and what would have worked out the same.

I wanted us to have these conversations in a fun way, and it worked. This was fun for me, and the feedback was positive as well. It made everyone think through the topic.

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About the author:

Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.