At AgilityFeat, we work in a distributed manner. Primarily due to the insight that interruptions kill productivity and partially due to the painful traffic situation that exists in San José Costa Rica (where most of our team lives), our team members all work from home. We utilize Skype, Jira and many other tools for collaboration. We’ve honed our processes over time to maximize the output of our team while working in separate locations. Daily stand-ups, weekly sprints and hiring incredible people go a long way to making our distributed environments work exceptionally well. And while we’ve learned how to hire for our environment and enable our team for success working from home, there is simply no substitute for getting the team together for some good, old-fashioned team building.
Earlier this month we gathered our team in the gorgeous setting of Providencia, Costa Rica. We traveled from Charlottesville Virginia, Managua Nicaragua, San José Costa Rica and Boston, Massachusetts to spend 48 hours living, eating and surviving together. The experience was not only incredibly fun and rewarding but it brought us together in ways that have immediately made an impact to how we work together. Here are three insights I learned from the weekend that can be applied to any group looking to leverage an off-site event to foster teamwork.
1. Get the team out of their element
Under the expert guidance of Costa Rican Operations Chief, David Alfaro, we decided to take the team to a place that none of them had ever been. In fact, we were the first group to go to CentroPeak in Providencia. The remote location offered the benefit of being equally unfamiliar to everyone on our team. And once the attempts to scale tall objects in search of a phone signal slowed and the twitching from being disconnecting from the Internet stopped, the group settled into the task at hand. Free from distractions of work or other commitments, the team could focus all of their attention on being with one another. By removing all of the familiar context that we have for interacting with one another, we were free to explore new ways of connecting and working together.
2. Create some challenges
Problem solving is at the heart of what we do at AgilityFeat. Whether we’re solving a customer’s problem through a clever user experience or elegantly coding a complex application, the ability to marry communication, resourcefulness and skill is critical to our work. As a means of sharpening this ability, we broke our company into cross-functional teams of 4-5 people and had them solve a series of challenges. It was important for us to separate the team across various functions of our company so that people who did not work with each other each day had the opportunity interact as a team. The first set of challenges included a set of cryptogram based puzzles. This puzzle solving required contributions from each team member and established a basic level of team communication and trust. The puzzle solutions then lead to a scavenger hunt the following day that required the team members to climb mountains, transverse a river and even rappel. The challenges required communication, collaboration and most importantly determination. We discovered a great deal about each other as we spent time sweating, swearing and smiling throughout the challenges.
3. Make it easy to interact
Some of the most fun we had was over meals and playing games at night. The bonds that were strengthened by sharing food, telling stories or in our case, being collectively serenaded from sleep by one of our developers playing a flute could not have been replicated if we had planned for it. Our team slept together (bunk beds to be precise) and we all ate at one long table. These close quarters meant there was plenty of opportunity for people to let down their guard and connect with each of the on a very personal level.
In the end, the weekend had the wonderful and desired effect of strengthening our communication and teamwork. We discovered new ways of interacting with each other and had a great time doing so. We found common ground in tackling mental and physical challenges together as well as coming up with enough inside jokes to last us a few months. And while we don’t have the opportunity to see each other each day, the experiences we had together in Providencia go a long way towards making it feel like we do.