A few lessons from our first ever virtual all hands

Jeremy Katz
by Jeremy Katz
on June 30, 2020

While Tidelift has been a remote-first company from the beginning, our culture has always involved regularly getting people together in person. During our initial discussions about what would become Tidelift, the four founders met up in person to work through things even though we were distributed across the United States. As we grew, we knew that one of the important tenets of a distributed team was to gather everyone in person occasionally to get to know each other better. I’ve even written in the past about our approach to bringing a distributed team together in person.

Unfortunately, in the midst of a global pandemic, in-person meetings aren’t a safe option. But in times like these, it is even more important to bring people together, so we wanted to do what we could to recreate some of the in-person all hands experience. We put our collective heads together to think about what a virtual all hands experience might look like.

Lesson 1: How to name and schedule the event

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First, and arguably most importantly, we wanted to have a memorable name for the event. An off-handed comment about hand washing led to the obvious—this all hands meeting was going to be called Wash All Hands. So in April, we put together a few folks on the team who were interested in planning and got started.

Normally for an all hands, we do full days on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, allowing Monday and Friday as travel days. But with people on both the east and west coasts of the US, it would be inconvenient for at least some people to try to do 8 hour days of being together. Not to mention the fact that three days in a row of all day on Zoom meetings is exhausting! 

So we decided to instead set up using from 1pm-6pm ET (10am-3pm PT) on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. We built in a break time at 3pm ET/12pm PT for folks on the west coast to get lunch. Each day started with us pulling together small groups of three or four people to chat casually. This was inspired by the 1:1 “donut” chats we do every week through the Donut Slack integration.  

We then followed this with some 5-minute lightning talks where people across the company shared one of their own interests (credit card points secrets and what happens when you remove things from Hawaii were both big hits). We then got into the main part of the day with each day having a little bit different of a theme.

Lesson 2: Create a different focus for each day

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On Monday, we focused on really ensuring that everyone in the company was up to date on the current work from the product and engineering teams. In a fast moving startup, it can be tough to know everything that’s being built but that’s extra true in a distributed team and even more so during a pandemic. This included some high level information but also ensured we had time where everyone got into the product…even our recruiter and our head of finance! 

Tuesday we switched gears and thought about ways to help everyone on the team grow. One of our team members has a background in storytelling and content and so led us on an exploration of storytelling and how we can use it in our daily life (including not in work!). We also spent time as a company thinking through a lot of issues around unconscious bias and how we can each strive to improve ourselves in this regard.

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We didn’t do sessions on Wednesday. Instead we felt it was worth using the day to allow everyone to focus on some self-care or dependent care. People did all kinds of cool things that day, mostly outdoors. We had watercolor paintings, hikes, skateboarding, kayaks, rocket building with kids, and even a quiet day out on a patio with the cat. 

Thursday we were back to it and after an “ask me anything” session with the leadership team, we spent most of the day in our individual teams. The engineering and product team focused on retrospectives and thinking about how we can work more effectively together. Our sales and marketing team did some awesome work utilizing the storytelling workshop from earlier in the week to tell stories about our work engaging particular customers and prospects, and to share some of the most valuable tips they’d learned over the past few quarters.

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Lesson 3: Friday is for catch-up (or handwriting lessons)

Then we all didn’t need to grab a Lyft or hop on planes, so on Friday we were able to settle in and catch up with anything we needed to do from the week. We kept our typical demo Friday slot as a time to look at a slideshow of all the things that we did on Wednesday. We also made sure to think about how to involve the lifter community and so sent each team member postcards and postage to write thank you notes to many of our open source maintainer friends. This was a popular thing to do on Friday and a chance for many of us to realize just how bad our handwriting is now 🙈

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Looking back, overall we were able to learn a lot about how to do a virtual all hands. One of my primary goals of our all hands gatherings is for everyone to get to interact and know each other a little better… I don’t think we got as much there as we do in person, but building in the opportunity to see what people do to take care of themselves as well as the daily small groups was good. 

We also, I think, did a really good job of helping to get everyone aligned and on the same page which is my other primary goal from an all hands. I look forward to when travel and getting together is practical again… but until then, I think we will continue in our pattern of setting up and having a virtual all hands like this.

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