Flex Basics
December 19, 2023

How to Craft an In-Person Gathering Program for Distributed Teams

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Charlotte Johnson
Director, Workplace
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With the rise of remote work, organizations have significantly shifted their geographical distribution. Co-location, once the norm, has given way to remote and hybrid work arrangements and distributed teams.

Recent research from the Upwork Research Institute shows that creating distributed team best practices is one of three critical attributes common among high-performing companies. Organizations that embrace all three attributes – including building effective distributed work practices – are 2.5 times more likely to report a significant increase in their company’s revenue growth over the last 12 months and twice as likely to be completely confident in their organization’s future. Companies leading in distributed work practices are also 83% more likely to report their organization as agile.

But business performance aside, the shift to distributed work presents operational challenges for companies who recognize the value of in-person connection to strengthen relationships and foster team cohesion. Some companies have attempted to solve this by mandating a return to office.

While studies highlight the benefits of periodic in-person work, mandating a return to the office can lead to attrition and reduced employee satisfaction. Imposing a return-to-office policy also risks undermining employees' autonomy and eroding the sense of flexibility and control regarding work/life balance that they now place a premium on. It also strips away the element of intentional planning that underlies the most effective in-person gatherings.

The question arises for organizations looking to provide remote and flexible work options for their teams: How can we provide these critical drivers of satisfaction and retention while also facilitating periodic in-person interactions to maintain connection and cohesion within distributed teams? Furthermore, how can such a framework efficiently and equitably support in-person gatherings, especially as organizations become more complicated?

To address these questions, I’ve outlined four key takeaways to successfully construct an in-person gathering program tailored to the needs of distributed teams.

1. Understand the Moments that Matter

Leaders should start by assessing their team structure, operations, and objectives to determine the key points in time or reasons to gather in person. This will look different for different functional or project teams, and leaders and team members should be empowered to reflect and decide what is best for their needs.

A Gartner Research study states, “The essential capability to collaborate in a hybrid world is intentionality . . . thinking carefully about which work modes are best suited for the type of work being done and the employees who are doing it.” For distributed team leaders, this means strategizing about the moments when your team could benefit from in-person collaboration – for example, to kick off a project, welcome new hires, or simply for team bonding at set intervals.

Here are some questions that may help to determine the moments that matter for your organization:

  • Which work relationships would benefit from in-person forming or strengthening?
    Consider coordinating in-person gatherings to welcome new hires to the team after an organizational restructuring, to foster belonging within employee resource groups (“ERGs”), or to maintain team cohesion (research indicates the benefits of distributed teams coming together every 4-6 months to reinforce relationships, trust, and goodwill). If possible, encourage coordination among teams planning office visits so that they may co-mingle and meet with colleagues outside their immediate teams.

  • Which work initiatives would benefit from a focused, in-person meeting?
    Consider coordinating in-person gatherings at important moments requiring deep teamwork and focus, such as planning, strategizing, solving a complicated problem, kicking off a new project, or holding a retrospective.

2. Establish a Process Framework

A systematic approach is required for distributed organizations to enable in-person gathering at scale. At Upwork, we are experimenting with a middle-out approach in which we provide a recommended minimum in-person gathering cadence (top-down standards, driving operational alignment) – and leaders are able to customize their team’s in-person gathering calendar (bottom-up input, empowering flexibility).

We have incorporated this guidance into our annual planning cycle to ensure that teams are thoughtfully mapping out their in-person gatherings – based on the target outcome of the gathering, attendees, and timing – so that the required budget can be allocated accordingly. Once that budget is allocated, gathering plans are set and shared transparently to generate clarity and buy-in (and get people excited!).

3. Communicate Your Strategy Clearly

Setting explicit cultural norms – the shared expectations and rules that guide team members’ behaviors within the context of your company culture – is critical for distributed organizations, where not all team members cannot observe these behaviors in person. Team members must clearly understand how the company operates and how they can engage – including norms about how the company gathers (virtually and in-person). As with any cultural initiative, co-creation with your team members leads to the best outcomes.

When setting up a new in-person gathering policy, consider how you can integrate your team’s needs and feedback from the start. At Upwork, we started crafting our in-person gathering program by analyzing survey responses and conducting focus groups with representatives from various teams. We learned that:

  • Across the business, while people were happy and productive working remotely, many were also craving occasional in-person connection opportunities.

  • Leaving it completely up to individual leaders to decide when to gather their teams in person was creating inequities across teams (hence the need for some top-down guidance).

  • Our solution must offer flexibility and personal choice to provide a great experience for those with unique needs and preferences (e.g., caregivers who may have difficulty traveling to an in-person event).

When sharing your new policy, be clear and transparent, gather more feedback, and make it known that you will be iterating with your team’s input. We are all learning together in this new landscape!

4. Be Inclusive of Those Who Can’t Attend Events in Person

Inevitably, some people cannot attend in-person gatherings due to travel complexity or personal preference. Establishing clear standards around “hybrid meetings” (where some attendees are in person and others are remote) is important to ensure all participants can contribute meaningfully. Having a written reference guide helps to drive the adoption of these remote collaboration behaviors by setting clear expectations and showing people how to follow them.

At Upwork, we have published an internal meeting toolkit with tailored guidance about how to facilitate effective virtual, in-person, and hybrid meetings. Effective hybrid meeting facilitation promotes inclusivity, enabling meeting leaders to effectively capture diverse perspectives from all meeting participants, including remote attendees or introverted folks. We iterate on this toolkit by continuously collecting tips and tricks from the most successful teams to scale throughout the organization.

To create pathways for remote team members to engage in person with local colleagues, consider offering resources for them to gather in their communities (e.g., co-working or social stipends) and setting up Slack channels or social groups by geography so that people can easily find one another and connect.

Crafting Success in the Future of Work: Focus on the ‘How’

In the future of work, Dr. Rebecca Hinds, head of Asana’s Work Innovation Lab, emphasizes that the 'how' of work is more crucial than the 'when' or 'where.' As organizations strive for future success, a laser focus on this 'how' involves leveraging data and insights to guide their efforts. With many teams no longer co-located, it becomes imperative for organizations to design innovative ways for distributed teams to connect, incorporating periodic in-person gatherings. A systematic and inclusive approach provides a sturdy base for ensuring operational and cultural success.

To recap on navigating this evolving landscape, consider the following strategies:

  • Understand the Moments that Matter: Assess team structure, operations, and objectives to determine key in-person gathering points.

  • Establish a Process Framework: Implement a systematic approach for in-person gathering at scale in distributed organizations.

  • Communicate Your Strategy Clearly: Define explicit cultural norms for distributed organizations to guide team expectations and behavior.

  • Be Inclusive of Those Who Can't Attend Events in Person: Establish clear standards for hybrid meetings to accommodate both in-person and remote participants.

These strategies will help lay the foundation for fostering operational excellence and thriving team culture in a distributed work landscape.

About the Author

Charlotte Johnson
Director, Workplace at Upwork

Charlotte Johnson is Director of Workplace at Upwork, the world’s work marketplace — and an organization with team members in over 90 countries. Charlotte is passionate about designing the workplace of the future, and believes in the power of thoughtfully designed systems, processes, and cultural rituals to foster connection and community for distributed teams. She has a track record of success building these systems and spearheading the evolution of Upwork’s remote-first operating model.

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