Distributed Teams Need Face Time

Photo of five people sitting around a table with laptops. Some have headphones.
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

There's a genre of post I've seen on LinkedIn and the fediverse recently that goes something like "I worked with people in person again and forgot how great it felt!" In the warming discourse about remote work and Return To Office (RTO) policies, I worry that pandemic-imposed remote work—which was a lot of folks' first time working remotely, and which was missing key features of successful distributed teams—set people up to believe in a false dichotomy: that you're either in an office weekly or you never see your coworkers.

There are lots of feelings and takes about RTO policies. Some people love offices and working outside of the house. Some see RTO as a middle-management power trip. I have my own opinions, too (hint: I'm a big fan of remote work). As people navigate these conversations and potential fights, I want to help make sure that they have as clear a picture of what effective distributed work looks like as possible. If the choice is laid out as "come to the office or never see another person,"—supported by occasional breathless praise of in-person meetings—that's a thumb on the scale.

Face to Face is Necessary

I've worked remotely and on widely distributed teams for well over a decade now. My first experience was at Mozilla, which was globally distributed—no two people on my team were in the same state—and, luckily for me, filled with people who had experience working this way. At least one of them, John O'Duinn, even turned that experience into a book.

When I first moved away from an office, Laura Thomson gave me two great pieces of advice for being an effective remote team member: you need to make deposits into the "trust bank," and being clear and predictable is a good way to do that. She talks about trust in her original Minimal Viable Bureaucracy talk, which is still a useful resource for building distributed teams and/or a culture of "aligned autonomy."

Trust is a valuable, circulating currency on distributed teams. You can't see or necessarily even contact each other, so you have to know that your team has your back—and vice versa. We make withdrawals on that account when we ask for things, and also when we step away from the desk to handle something and don't answer a question as immediately as we could in person, and when our teammate reads tone into our text comments. Trust moves in microtransactions. It smooths out all those moments of human imperfection and lets us give each other grace.

We make deposits to the trust bank in just as many ways: when we say we'll do something and then do it; when we take time to help a coworker; when we build rapport outside of the tasks at hand. The goofy, off-topic part of stand-up meetings where we're just chatting serves a purpose by creating a moment for that human connection and trust. It helps us ground the Slack handles and profile pictures in the real human behind them.

Face time is one of the best ways to build trust. It is critical for distributed teams to meet in person at least a couple of times a year to maintain that overall trust balance. It reminds us how people act when we aren't forced into patterns that work well on Zoom. (I feel this one as a member of the Church of Interruption.) That informs how we interpret our interactions with each other, both synchronously and asynchronously. Team on-sites give us space to reconnect as people, outside of the demands on our time in the day-to-day.

This is invigorating and I suspect that sometimes people mistakenly attribute that feeling to being in person instead of to being in person sometimes. Part of the reason it is invigorating is because it's a change from the norm. We don't expect the same level of regular productivity during an on-site, and we save big, consequential conversations. In my last role, I did the same thing for the days once every few months that I did go into an office: keep the calendar open, expect to have unplanned conversations with people about both work and non-work, plan for the day to be less about working and more about making deposits into the trust bank.

At the start of the pandemic, as many people became remote workers for the first time, this sort of face time wasn't available. (Whether or not it's a worth it or good idea now in 2024 is a separate discussion.) We were also making a Herculean, unsustainable effort to be patient and understanding with each other—an effort that was visibly wearing on people by the end of 2020. We were, to stretch the metaphor to the breaking point, extending trust credit because of the unique, unprecedented (sorry) circumstances.

Occasional face time, when the barriers imposed by digital communications can fall away and we can be more natural and more casual, is a crucial component of successful, sustainable distributed teams. It helps keep the trust bank topped up, facilitates very-high-bandwidth conversations, and, as a break from the every day, is energizing.

Face Time is Not Sufficient

Just spending time in person a few times per year is not enough. There are particular goals to those face-to-face occasions, as well as other practices distributed teams need to succeed.

Face Time should Build Trust

There are many ways to under-use a team on-site, from not planning, to only planning for Big Topics, to expecting the week to be normal. People are people and will get some benefits out of seeing each other in three dimensions, but these are expensive events and we should try to get as much value out of them as we can.

The first priority in planning should be to identify a few goals. This usually includes one or two Big Topics—decisions to be made, conversations that need to happen, etc—but should not include every open question in front of the team. Another goal for any effective team on-site is to build trust. Activities that contribute include unstructured time together (in an environment where small group conversation can happen organically), inclusive social outings away from the office, and other opportunities for people to engage with each other in ways that aren't part of a regular week. Those aren't just for fun—though they often are fun—but are also an integral part of a successful team on-site.

Distribution Requires Investment, Just Like RTO

Most offices have kitchens, or at least a sink and a microwave. They're such ubiquitous features that it's easy to gloss over how much they cost. And they're practical at a surface level, so we may not look deeper into why they exist—after all, if the value of office space were purely in the desks and meeting rooms, surely kitchens would be a waste of space.

When people talk about "serendipitous interactions" in an office, they invariably mention conversations around the water cooler or in the kitchen. These spaces, along with casual seating away from desks, couches, and other lounge areas, actively facilitate those kind of interactions. They are stochastic, but not at all serendipitous: offices dedicate a significant percentage of space to create environments where they happen.

Distributed work also requires investment, but in different practices. Communication is a major area, covering everything from clear and effective writing, to how Slack channels are managed, to how tickets are written and accepted, to the technology and staff that support sync and async communication. The investment required may look more like feedback and coaching dedicated to how we communicate, which can feel more difficult to deliver effectively and which might require folks like managers to spend time learning it themselves.

Distributed teams also need investment for these periodic face-to-face events, for technology that supports them, for adapting processes from in-person and synchronous to asynchronous, and more. Just like paying rent, building and stocking a kitchen, installing screens and information radiators, etc, is required for successful office space.