I was about 3 months into my tour in Afghanistan while serving in the Army National Guard when I experienced my first team building event for a job. I was in an engineering unit and operated heavy equipment. When off duty I hit the gym for a couple hours a day. This was mainly because there wasn’t much else to do so it helped pass the time.

One day as I was heading out of our make shift tent on my way to the gym like I did every day. As I walked past my platoon sergeant’s bunk he shouts out “White! Where you heading?” When I first passed I’d noticed there was several guys crammed in his bunk area, which was a bit unusual. They were all having some pretty good laughs which wasn’t unusual but it looked a bit more jubilant than normal. I poked my head back around the bunk and said “Heading to the gym like I do every day sergeant”. He smiled real big and said “Not today White. Come on in here”. So I shuffled into the crowded room and he said “It’s team building night!”

Turns out ol SGT had a value size bottle of Original Listerine, not full of Listerine but full of bourbon. I don’t remember much more of that evening but I know we shared drinks and likely some terrible stories. We’d been training, working and living together for months but that evening was great to set the ranks and stresses aside and bond as people.

Years later at one of my first remote jobs I worked from home for the first 90 days. Not meeting anyone in the company like this wasn’t that big of a deal. Most things were quite easy to do remotely. Other parts were very difficult to get comfortable.

Connecting with developers to get my machine setup and access to all the apps wasn’t difficult. Having some kickoff meetings to get rolling on projects wasn’t bad either. Making use of Skype, other traditional communication like email and issue tracking systems the getting things done part of the job was easy. But I never really felt completely connected to the team and who they were until we meet in person.

We did get the whole team together for a week of work and evening fun. Spending that time together really helped me connect Skype usernames to faces and their sarcastic jokes. Sarcasm is one of the most challenging emotions to pick up on remotely. It was also valuable to put not only faces with names but their personalities, body language and everything else that you learn about people when meeting in person.

Team building at Formstack

The Product Design and Development teams at Formstack just got together for our first in person team summit. We do get the whole company together once a year for our All Hands meetup but this was the first team specific event and it was fantastic.

At Formstack we’ve been growing really fast, our Product team alone has grown from 8 to 20 in the past year. It’s fantastic to have all the new faces, but we really wanted to get everyone together.

So we all met up in Indianapolis, IN at our HQ for a week. We worked on special projects that came from ideas the team pitched. In the evenings we went bowling, played cards, shared drinks and just hung out together. We watched movies during lunch, played lots of ping pong in our office and shared embarrassing photos. It wasn’t anything elaborate but it was time together. And that’s all it takes really.

Why is it important?

Making an effort to know your teammates on a deeper level can make a huge difference in the work place. You might not thing this is important. Why care if your team connects on this level? I think the bonds and brotherhood is very natural in a combat situation like mine in Afghanistan. But it transfers to the civilian world too.

If you really know and care about the person on the other side of a design critique, Github issue or comment thread you’ll likely take more time to take greater effort in your communications with them. If a teammate is counting on you to hand off your end of a project and you‘ve built that bond, you’ll work that much harder to make sure you hold up your end of the project. It was a bit more life and death with my team in Afghanistan, but it’s all the same.

Sure, you should do all these things to help your team no matter what. But it really takes it to the next level when your team has connected on a deeper level.