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Blog post summary: Periodic Face-to-Face by Martin Fowler

I remain a big fan of Martin Fowler’s writings, and his most recent “Periodic Face-to-Face” article struck a chord. Some highlights below but the tldr:

Remote teams benefit from face-to-face gatherings every few months, to build trust and rapport. During those gatherings, focus on that tasks that require input from many people with rapid feedback, such as debates about product strategy and explorations of systems architecture. View the travel expenses as an investment and a cost effective way to set direction, reduce conflict and increase motivation.

Read on for other highlights…

Remote-first teams have benefits: a wider recruitment pool, support for caregiving responsibilities, and avoiding a commute.

But there is still nothing like being in the same place with the other members of a team. Without those deeper bonds, misunderstandings fester into serious relationship difficulties, for example.

To be effective in remote-first work, ensure regular face-to-face meetings. During these, schedule the elements of work that are done better together. e.g., tasks that require lots of input from many people with rapid feedback such as debates about product strategy and explorations of systems architecture.

But the most valuable part of a face-to-face gathering isn’t the scheduled work, it’s chitchat, conviviality, and informal conversations, mostly not about work. For people to work effectively together they need to trust each other and trust is hard to develop online. So, include what may feel like too much time for breaks and opportunities to step outside the office. I would avoid any artificial “team building” exercises, if only because of how much I hate them.

The rule of thumb I would use is to get together for a week every two or three months. Perhaps less for more seasoned teams, but at least two face-to-face meetings a year. Existing offices may well become less of a day-to-day workspace, and more a location for these kinds of irregular team gatherings.

Some organizations may balk at the costs of travel and accommodation for a team assembly like this, but they should think of it as an investment in the team’s effectiveness. Neglecting these face-to-faces leads to teams getting stuck, heading off in the wrong direction, plagued with conflict, and people losing motivation. Compared to this, saving on airplanes and hotels is a false economy.


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