Hanging out in the Mediterranean: how Hotjar does remote team meetups
In June 2016 the Hotjar team flew in from all over the world to spend a week together on the gorgeous island of Malta (click here in case you’re wondering where it is).
Hotjar Headquarters is in Malta so we figured - why not hold our bi-annual company meetup there? The weather is perfect, there’s a lot do, and when you see how breathtaking the island is you’ll understand why movie and TV show producers like to film there (e.g. movies/shows like Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Troy, 13 Hours, The Da Vinci Code, and much more were filmed in Malta).
Hotjar has always been a 100% remote/distributed team. We live all over the world and the benefits of this, we believe, outweigh the challenges. Of course, the main challenge of being part of a fully distributed team is getting to know each other in person. Stuff like body language, nuances, and quirks that don't come across over a Google Hangout.
Team bonding even from a workshop setting tends to not happen when you're fully remote and we can't really toss a ball around over the Internet to learn agile (more on that later).
So twice a year we meet in person to achieve three things:
- To get to know each other (most of us haven’t met in person before)
- Have fun together (as Roald Dahl said, "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.")
- Work together and share ideas/knowledge (much easier in person)
So, in mid-April 2016, the Hotjar team got this message from our founder David in Basecamp (one of the team communication tools we use to keep up with projects):
Now, we’d already been told earlier that we’d be meeting as a team in June, and since our team at that point was 14 members strong it wasn't a complete logistical nightmare. Although, we did have some newer team members onboard during the meetup (what a great first week to have).
After the date was set we started looking at flights on our own and after they were approved (to make sure we weren't renting out a Gulfstream G650) we purchased our tickets and were immediately reimbursed via wire transfer which took care of the travel portion of the trip.
The actual "event" was only three days (Tue-Thurs) but almost everyone planned to stay for a week or more to enjoy the island and get as much face to face time as possible.
For our accommodations, we used Airbnb for Business. This made finding a place to stay super easy. When a company signs up for a business account through Airbnb, each employee/team member picks the place they want to stay with their own Airbnb account. Then, when it comes time to pay, you just select the business name and it's taken care of:
Must haves for planning a team meetup
Besides airfare and accommodations, an international team meetup wouldn't work without the following things:
Passports: If you don't have a passport, you're not going to get into whatever country you’re traveling to. Depending on where you’re going and how long you're staying you may need a Visa but for most short-term trips, a passport will do.
Taxis: We made a spreadsheet with everyone’s flight numbers, arrival times, and departures times to make sure that taxis were arranged for everyone arriving (to take them to their Airbnb) and upon departure. Depending on the size of your team this may or may not be necessary but having all the rides paid for and arranged weeks in advance made coming and going to and from the airport a hassle-free experience.
A plan for our users: We’d be an awful team if we all went to Malta for a week and didn’t take care of our users. So, we planned time to talk to our users in Intercom (the support/messaging app we use) each day as an entire team. Everyone from the founders to our Customer Success agents jumped in and helped. This made handling support tickets efficient and ensured that our users wouldn’t be left in the dark for 3 days straight.
Our agenda was a nice mix of work and play (and to be fair, we often have fun while we work together anyhow). So, to accomplish our objectives of bonding as a team and working together, we made sure that fun was baked into everything we did.
And, the best part? The team came up with the agenda together:
After a lengthy discussion, we settled on an agenda and started putting dates and times on the calendar to make sure all of us knew exactly what would be happening for the 3 days of our “planned” time together.
As you can see, this is an amazing and productive way to spend 3 days in the Mediterranean:
Did we achieve our goals?
We set out to do three things during our time in Malta so I want to look at each goal and give Hotjar a pass or fail.
Goal #1: to get to know each other ✓ Pass
Before coming to Malta, about 80% of the team hadn't met in person before as many of us were fairly new to the team. Sure, we’d talked in Hipchat, Google Hangouts, hosted webinars and meetings together, and spent a lot of time emailing.
But, the actual handshake side-hug nice to meet you? That hadn't happened for most of us yet.
After spending a week together eating, drinking, working, playing, brainstorming, dining, walking, talking, whiteboarding it suffices to say - we got to know each other very well.
“It felt as if we'd known each other for a long time. Remote work also created the kind of bond you'd get from working with amazing people closely together in an office. So the location truly is irrelevant. We're all a little crazy, each and every one of us, but that's what makes it interesting to work with this team. Truly smart and diverse people, working towards a common goal of taking over the world changing how websites are built and designed by democratizing access to analytics tools that only a few years ago cost tens of thousands a year.”
~ Christian Nussbaumer, Customer Success
This helped us function as a remote team because we were intentional about taking the time to learn about how each person on the team thinks. This means that we got into politics, religion, culture, current events, hobbies, favorite sports teams, and how each one of us processes information.
This is stuff you can’t fully understand over a webcam.
To get to know someone, you have to spend time with them. This meant sharing meals, coming up with ideas and solving problems, getting lost, learning Maltese slang, teaching, leading, and of course lounging by the pool.
It’s in those walks through the streets of the capital and the team building exercises with someone you met 12 hours previous that you see real relationships bloom. It’s choosing to walk back instead of taking the cab because you’re enjoying the people you’re with. True friendships blossom when you decide to sing an American country western song at an Irish Pub in Malta (yeah, weird) or text the team member you just met 3 days earlier to see if they want to meet you for coffee in the morning.
So did we meet our first goal?
Most definitely. Now that we know each other a bit more, our names are more than words on a screen - they’re memories of real people we really met and shared life with…
...even if it was just for a week.
Goal #2: have fun together ✓ Pass
I don’t think I have to write about how we had fun. Instead, I’ll just show you. Here are a few pictures from our time in Malta (I’d say we passed with flying colors):
Goal #3: work together and share ideas/knowledge✓ Pass
Our meetup would be nothing more than a paid vacation if we didn’t come together to work, plan, train, educate, brainstorm, challenge each other, and dream about the future of Hotjar. As you can see from the agenda, there weren’t “work days” and “fun days”- it was all mixed in together.
“I was new to Hotjar at the time and I was impressed by the level of collaboration of colleagues who never met face to face.”
~ Stephanie Mifsud, Full-stack Developer
Learning lean agile
One of the training/teamwork exercises we did was centered around Agile and Lean. This was about learning to work in small sprints while collaborating and pivoting, as opposed to working in long marathons by ourselves. It's a way to bring teams together to focus on what works while simultaneously being effective and adaptable.
The software developers who gave us the Agile Manifesto in 2001 said they came up with the agile methodology as a way of "...uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it."
The Manifesto itself expresses the 4 goals of the agile method like this:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The "Lean" way says that teams should "relentlessly eliminate anything that isn’t adding value and only work on what we absolutely need to be doing at this moment in time."
Needless to say, as a young SaaS startup team, getting trained and participating in exercises that were Lean/Agile provided a lot of value by forcing us to work together, plan, test, iterate, change, adapt, reflect, and communicate.
Our lean Agile team exercise:
- We broke up into pre-assigned "tribes" to make sure that team members from different areas (e.g. Product, Marketing, Customer Success, Operations) who didn't usually work together would have to team up.
- Each tribe received 4 tubes of tennis balls (about 24 in total)
- We were shown these two slides:
- We started the game and kept score. We did (5) 1-minute iterations with a 1-minute break in between each one to assess our strategy, make changes, and get redeploy.
Here're a few brief videos of each tribe trying to figure it out:
The secret to winning this exercise (as we soon found out) was that there is no secret. There's no right or wrong way to do it. The goal of the exercise was to learn how to work on a common task together, assess our strategy, make iterative changes, redeploy, and come closer each time to reaching our goal.
"So...what'd everyone think?"
We work Agile everywhere - not just software. A common misconception about Agile/Lean though is that it's only about "doing more stuff faster." But that's not the case. The goal isn't always to "do more things," it's about managing and predicting our velocity so we can do more things that matter.
We'd rather work on one thing a week that moves a metric for us than 6 things that don't really mean much in the grand scheme of things. Here's what a few of our team members had to say about the Ball Point Game:
"Diversity in how people think is more important than I've given it credit for. It was really interesting to see all our different ways of approaching the problem-solving games we did."
~ Erik Näslund, Chief Architect
"The biggest takeaway for me was the agile learning / training that we did. We're an agile company, but as we grow we need to make sure we spend the right amount of time training people on what this means. The exercise, as silly as it may be, along with the time together the rest of the week, gave me a huge amount of information needed to revamp the structure to how we were running sprints and really helped the department ship more work on a weekly and more focused process."
~ Tara Robertson, VP of Marketing
"I think the scrum exercises were great. For new people, the benefits of scrum might not be immediately obvious which the tennis ball exercise helped with. Scrum is all about correct estimates and improved velocity sprint-over-sprint to be able to ship more as the team gets better and better."
~ Jonathan Vella, Director of Design
So, what else did we accomplish? In short- a lot. Here’s a list of some of the other ideas that took shape at our Malta meetup:
- The birth of our Hotjar Training Series which was built to help our users see Hotjar as a total solution, instead of just using one or two of the tools in isolation
- Our content and strategy roadmap
- Strategies, tactics, and plans for increasing "user addiction"
- New developer onboarding and role assignments
- How Hotjar’s direction of growth is measured and defined by responding creatively to user feedback
- The Hotjar onboarding process - improvements, ideas, and updates
- Brainstorming ideas for solving customer churn
- Brainstormed and listed out hacks, tricks, and tips for working remotely
Changing the way the web is Built
Our mantra at Hotjar is to change the way the web is built. It’s a long shot, it's near impossible, and it’s just the kind of goal that will keep us from being stagnant or complacent.
Part of “The Hotjar Way” is being remote. Hotjar was meant to be a remote team from its inception (more on that here) which means having the discipline, honesty, and inspiration to do what we do every day.
And, it’s meetups like the one we had in June that help us realize why we do what we do. It’s not just for a paycheck - we can get those anywhere. It’s bigger than that. It’s about creating something new and valuable that's going to help people.
And so far...
...we're off to a great start.