At Toptal, we’re building a software product that aims to revolutionize team creation, contracting, and human resources. Our remote team is completely distributed: we have no office, and we work from all around the globe. And when I say “all around the globe”, I mean all around the globe: our internal staff consists of nearly 50 full-time individuals from Brazil, USA, Russia, Argentina, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, and more. This includes engineers, designers, recruiters, sales, and executives.
Earlier this year, we decided it was time to bring everyone together in the same location for some unique team building. We’ve had tremendous success as an all virtual team. But regardless, we wanted to add an edge to our collaboration and creativity, and connect in-person. Our journey, the results that came of it, and the economics behind it are all explained thoroughly in the post that follows.
It all started with a conversation between Alexander (our CTO) and me in Ulyanovsk, Russia, about 1000 miles southeast of Moscow, where we were visiting a subset of our team that had come on fairly recently. (One of the benefits of being a remote company: we’re not constrained by the local talent pool — we hire the best, no matter where they’re located.)
At the time, our dev team consisted of about a dozen people, including QA, design and engineering. We were quite in sync and held meetings every day (via Skype), though many of us had never met in person. Plus, as mentioned above, we’d recently hired about half of the team and it would be nice to meet everyone.
Naturally, much of our remote team building discussion during this visit focused on tightening collaboration, boosting morale, and improving coordination amongst our completely distributed team. And while we strongly believe that working in the same room doesn’t provide extraordinary productivity gains, we figured that it would be faster to sync up our new virtual hires and build strong relationships if we were all together….
I got on the phone with my assistant and had her start hunting down properties. She found an absolutely stunning place—it really was remarkable: an eight-room villa in Phuket, Thailand, located at the highest point in the region, overlooking the city, sea and mountains. The view was just fantastic.
We also figured that we’d hire a chef to cook for us while we were there, and rent a car since the villa was somewhat removed from civilization. It was convenient, cost-effective, and certainly added to the experience.
On November 20th, we announced the trip to our whole remote company and they were completely ecstatic. To put this in perspective, we’d be bringing along engineers and designers from the Czech Republic, Brazil, Ukraine, and Russia, 80% of whom had never left their home countries or even owned passports. It was going to be the trip of their lives (and it certainly turned out to be). We decided to go away for a month, from January 8 to February 9.
Following months of anticipation, we took off for Thailand on January 7th, 2013.
It was amazing.
When we arrived, our chef was already cooking a curry dish, which ended up being the most memorable Thai dish I’ve eaten. Afterwards, I fell asleep, only to wake up five hours later, after the rest of the team arrived. We introduced ourselves (in person), had a drink, and went (back, for me) to bed. The next day, it was on.
While all of this was amazing, we experienced two hiccups that I hadn’t anticipated. You’ll probably laugh at one, if not both of them, but they were very real.
The first problem is pretty obvious: Internet connectivity. While we had checked that the villa would have Internet, they didn’t tell us that it would be a 3G MiFi. We even asked in advance if the connection was “good and stable”, but it seems that we all have our own definition on that one. As you can imagine, a single 3G MiFi does not fly so well for 12 people, much less 12 developers working around the clock. We first tried to have a company install a superior connection, but that wasn’t very helpful. Eventually, we went ahead and bought a 3G card for each developer.
The second problem almost brought the trip to a halt…
Girlfriends. Or wives, in some cases. That’s right. Most of the girlfriends (especially the Russian ones) were not okay with their significant other going away for more than two weeks, much less four. One of our engineers (whose name will go unspoken) was such a victim, and could only stay for the first half of the trip. Pretty much every single attendee asked if they could bring their girlfriend/wife for at least a week. But, alas, this was a remote company event, and the answer was no. Everyone acquiesced and, in the end, the biggest hurdle was surmounted.
The Economics: Breaking It Down
I’ve compiled all of [the] metrics into the following chart, which presents an overview of our remote team building findings.
The productivity gained and relationships formed on our trip were priceless, though the output is certainly economically quantifiable to a degree. In sum, $28,000 is really not so much for something like this, and if you plan on doing it two or three times a year, you make your investment back in spades.
Vis-à-Vis Remote Work
There’s also an extremely important observation that was acknowledged by almost everyone on the team. It’s an observation so important that I believe it should be made into a law. After the third week, we saw little-to-no additional collaboration occur relative to us working as a remote team. During the first couple of weeks, we were able to come up with new ideas, get synced up, and strengthen our relationships—but everything after that was down to execution. Yes, we discussed deadlines and did some paired programming, but the productivity gains from the last week were quite minimal. It was vividly clear, even obvious that we were more productive working remotely than we were during the final week of our unique team building in Thailand.
However, it’s not just that our remote environment allowed us to be more productive than we were in Thailand. On top of that, it’s that our experiences in Thailand allowed us to be more productive when working remotely in the future. After several months of reflection, it’s easy for me to say that our time spent pair programming, giving and attending tech talks, and collaborating on new features and designs left a solid impression on our team. We learned how to work together and gained a better sense for our strengths and weakness.
In the end, our trip was a massive success. We came up with some amazing ideas and concepts, got to know one another in person, and had a blast working as a team.
As we returned to our respective homes, we hit the ground running with fresh ideas and a sense of awe. We had experienced something together that was so transformative, so unreal, that it would affect us not only for our time at Toptal, but for the rest of our lives.
The true value to come out of this trip wasn’t found in the features we designed or the code we wrote; it was in the remote company culture we defined.
We’ll do it again. And again. And again.