Periodic Face-to-Face

27 February 2024

Improvements in communications technology have led an increasing number of teams that work in a Remote-First style, a trend that was boosted by the forced isolation of Covid-19 pandemic. But a team that operates remotely still benefits from face-to-face gatherings, and should do them every few months.

Remote-first teams have everyone in a separate location, communicating entirely by email, chat, video and other communication tools. It has definite benefits: people can be recruited to the team from all over the world, and we can involve people with care-giving responsibilities. Wasteful hours of frustrating commutes can be turned into productive or recuperative time.

But however capable folks may be at remote working, and however nifty modern collaboration tools become, there is still nothing like being in the same place with the other members of a team. Human interactions are always richer when they are face-to-face. Video calls too easily become transactional, with little time for the chitchat that builds a proper human relationship. Without those deeper bonds, misunderstandings fester into serious relationship difficulties, and teams can get tangled in situations that would be effectively resolved if everyone were able to talk in person.

A regular pattern I see from those who are effective in remote-first work is that they ensure regular face-to-face meetings. During these they schedule those elements of work that are done better together. Remote work is more effective for tasks that require solo concentration, and modern tools can make remote pairing workable. But tasks that require lots of input from many people with rapid feedback are much easier to do when everyone is in the same room. No video-conference system can create the that depth of interaction, staring at a computer screen to see what other people are doing is draining, with no opportunity to pop out for a coffee together to break up the work. Debates about product strategy, explorations of systems architecture, explorations of new ground - these are common tasks for when the team is assembled.

For people to work effectively together they need to trust each other, aware of how much they can rely on each other. Trust is hard to develop online, where there isn't the social cues that can happen when we are in the same room. Thus the most valuable part of a face-to-face gathering isn't the scheduled work, it's chitchat while getting a coffee, and conviviality over lunch. Informal conversations, mostly not about work, forge the human contact that makes the work interactions be more effective.

Those guidelines suggest what the content for a face-to-face should be. Working together is both valuable in its own right, and an important part of team bonding. So we should set a full day of work, focusing on those tasks that benefit from the low-latency communication that comes from being together. We should then include what feels like too much time for breaks, informal chatter, and opportunities to step outside the office. I would avoid any artificial “team building” exercises, if only because of how much I hate them. Those who do gatherings like this stress the value from everyone energized afterwards, and thus able to be more effective in the following weeks.

Remote teams can be formed at large distances, and it's common to see members separated by hours of travel. For such teams, the rule of thumb I would use is to get together for a week every two or three months. After the team has become seasoned they may then decide to reduce the frequency, but I would worry if a team isn't having at least two face-to-face meetings a year. If a team is all in the same city, but using a remote-first style to reduce commuting, then they can organize shorter gatherings, and do them more frequently.

This kind of gathering may lead to rethinking of how to configure office space. Much has been made of how offices are far less used since the pandemic. Offices could well become less of a day-to-day workspace, and more a location for these kinds of irregular team gatherings. This leads to a need for flexible and comfortable team gathering spaces.

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.

Further Reading

Remote-first is one form of remote work, I explore the different styles of remote working and their trade-offs in Remote versus Co-located Work.

At Thoughtworks, we learned the importance of regular face-to-face gatherings for remote teams when we first started our offshore development centers nearly two decades ago. These generated the practices I describe in Using an Agile Software Process with Offshore Development.

Remote work, particularly when crossing time zones, puts a greater premium on asynchronous patterns of collaboration. My colleague Sumeet Moghe, a product manager, goes into depth on how to do this in his book The Async-First Playbook

Atlassian, a software product company, has recently entirely shifted to remote working, and published a report on its experiences. They have learned that it's wise for teams to have a face-to-face gathering roughly three times per year. Claire Lew surveyed remote-first teams in 2018, noting that a quarter of their respondents did retreats “several times a year”. 37Signals has operated as a remote-first company for nearly two decades and schedules meetups twice a year.


Alejandro Batanero, Andrew Thal, Chris Ford, Heiko Gerin, Kief Morris, Kuldeep Singh, Matt Newman, Michael Chaffee, Naval Prabhakar, Rafael Detoni, and Ramki Sitaraman discussed drafts of this post on our internal mailing list.