February 10th, 2015 by Allison Schwartz
In last week’s installment of this series on maintaining company culture in a distributed world, I wrote about how Fog Creek began and how we’ve had to change now that we’ve built a remote team (which makes up half of our workforce). In particular it went into how we’re working to ensure Fog Creek remains a supportive, communal environment – two touchstones of our founding principles. In this week’s blog, I talk about the 3rd cornerstone of Fog Creek culture, something a bit more… FUN!!!
Going Remote Whilst Retaining the Fun
Have you seen Aardvark’d? It’s a documentary from 2005 about the year Fog Creek went from a team of 2 to 10, comprising 6 full-time employees and 4 interns. For us Creekers, it’s a hilarious, if somewhat cringeworthy, piece of nostalgia (which you can watch in full). But it is a glimpse into how Fog Creek’s day-to-day has always included a healthy dose of good times. For example, 19 minutes into the movie, a discussion about the possibility of jumping out the office window onto the roof of the building next door begins, and it doesn’t end until minute 24. You see the Fog Creek interns measure the distance, practice jumping, and take the “can we or can’t we” argument to the street. Literally.
It may seem unimportant (and slightly ridiculous) but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a great example of how Fog Creek has always encouraged our employees to play and form relationships based on more than just work. It’s a part of our secret sauce for employee retention and happiness. To wit, 10 years later, 4 of those 6 full-time employees in the movie still work at Fog Creek (ok, 1 is at our sister company, Trello) and 2 of the 4 interns became full-time Fog Creek employees who were with us until 2013. The proof is in the pudding – fun matters!
When our entire team was located at our office at 55 Broadway fun was extremely easy to come by. You’d see it in casual situations, chatting over coffee around the Espresso machine and over long lunches. Or during afternoon snack breaks in the kitchen, lovingly referred to as “Cheese O’clock”. Conversations would range from astronomy to what happened on Lost (yes, we’ve been around that long). There were larger, organized events too. Such as our beer bashes on Friday afternoons, with themes ranging from The Olympics to British Pub. Or all-company parties at bars and restaurants to celebrate product launches and major milestones. Not forgetting the annual catered picnic each spring to mark the end of the brutal New York winter.
When we opened our doors to remote employees, we knew we’d have to figure out ways to bring both the casual and the planned fun to Creekers across the globe. But guess what – it’s not easy! Just how do you get people who are generally introverted and dispersed all over the world to get to know their co-workers, especially those they don’t work with directly?
For nearly 2 years, we’ve been tackling this question. We’ve tried a lot of things – some have worked, others haven’t. Below are 3 of our most successful strategies so far, and how we implemented them:
1. Make Communication Easy
First, we supply our team with super-convenient communication channels. Like many companies with remotes, we use Google Hangouts and a client strictly for chat, Slack. Within our Slack instance, we have an all-company channel, team channels, and many more niche channels where employees, remote or not, engage in conversations about non-work related topics. Similarly, but more unique to Fog Creek, is CoffeeTime. Written by one of our devs, CoffeeTime is a program that schedules a casual weekly meeting between 2 random employees. Check it out, and/or dig into the code to create your own!
2. Run Remote-friendly Events
Second, we plan activities which remote employees can easily participate in. In the past, we’ve had remote beer bashes, where remote employees meet up on a Google Hangout to have a beer while the employees in HQ do the same. We also translated two long-standing annual Fog Creek competitions to our remote workforce. The first is our mix-tape competition, which we hold every year during the summer. Employees who want to participate anonymously submit a digital mix-tape. We spend all summer listening to the tapes, discussing them in Slack, trying to figure out who created each one. We announce a winner at our end-of-summer party. Our annual Halloween costume contest is the second. In the years before remote employees, everyone participating showed up to work in costume. The only difference now is that our remote employees send us pictures and keep their costumes on all day during video chats.
Both are great opportunities to learn something new about our co-workers (Who’s creative? Who can create a costume? Who knows every song in Neil Young’s catalogue?). It also strengthens those bonds built by fun, the importance of which I highlighted above.
3. Don’t Forget Face-to-face Activities
Third, it’s great to get everyone together every now and then. To that end, our remote employees go on off-sites as teams, and, twice a year, the whole company comes together at HQ for Remote Week. We fly all our remote employees to New York, put them up for 6 nights at a hotel we’ve vetted, and then stock the week with social events like meals out, trivia and karaoke. There’s also all company and individual team meetings for long-term planning and discussing big-picture issues. We end with 1 of our 2 annual, extravagant all-company parties – Welcome to the Summer or the Holiday Party. Based on employee feedback, we’ve found that remote weeks are a great time for Creekers to refresh relationships, build new ones, and see their jobs and teams in the wider company context.
At the end of the day, having a company with a distributed team isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of an organization who cares about it’s employees’ happiness and quality of life, then packing up your company’s culture and sending it across the world can be an opportunity to get even better at it. And that’s good for everyone, regardless of location.