Beau Lebens, Engineering Manager of Automattic

How to approach distributed team meetups

In Season 2, Episode 8 of Lead Time Chats, Jean Hsu, VP of Engineering at Range, chats with Beau Lebens, about distributed team meetups.

Beau has worked at Automattic, which has been distributed for long before the pandemic, for over 12 years. Automattic is well-known for their regular in-person team meetups and company-wide meetups that are a critical part of their distributed culture.

Beau and Jean discuss:

  • The purpose and structure of a standard Automattic in-person team meetup
  • Different ways Automattic teams have connected socially this past year, including a zoom cocktail class, escape rooms
  • BBC Dad and how normalized it is now to see a more personal glimpse into people’s family lives
  • How distributed teams can find a mix of NIRL (not in real life) events and physical meetups to build culture and belonging

Additional Resources

  • Inside the Grand Meetup - Hear from Automattic's CEO Matt Mullenweg and other Automatticians about the annual all-company meetup
  • How We Work - More from Automattic's blog about how the company works
  • Beau's Blog - More insights from Beau about his work at Automattic

Takeaways from Beau

In-person meetups where you spend 24/7 with coworkers can be incredibly effective for bonding

“In an office-based environment, you get all these little micro interactions throughout the year, right? You're building that relationship, that culture sort of every minute. We have some amount of that through Slack, through Github through P2, but that's more sort of transactional work oriented. And so we save up all of those moments. And then for a week 24/7, and for a lot of teams, it really is... they spend like 16 hours a day together doing things together. It's every meal, they're going out for drinks afterwards, they're being tourists together. And you just jam all of those moments into a week, which is super intense, which is why when people get anxious about it, but it's also surprisingly effective. It's amazing  how well you feel like you know someone after spending an intense week like that with them.”

Online meetups require more structure and organization than in-person meetups

“One of the things that we certainly learned is that where you could maybe get away with a looser plan in a face-to-face meetup, if you're doing it online, especially if people have to get up at some weird time because of time zones, you really want it to be more organized, more structured, more scheduled. So people have gotten a lot more rigorous with planning their team meetups.”

It’s important to consciously hitting pause on your work to make space for meetups

“The other big benefit of doing them as a team, physical, all at once, is that your other work stops, kind of whether you want to or not. You're in this different place. It's very difficult to maintain any normal work. So we would very consciously sort of hit pause on whatever people were doing. And in these NIRL (not in real life) meetups, people schedule them in the crossover time zone period that they can, and then have tried to fill in work around that. And I think that hasn't worked very well.”

Supplement less frequent in-person meetups with other regular team-building activities.

“Just within my organization, we've added about 50 engineers since the pandemic, and they've never met the teammates. And honestly, it's visible. Like you can tell that they don't have the same level of relationships with everyone, or with other folks that have been around that had spent time together. So we will definitely be going back to some form of meetups. What I do think will happen is that we've sort of started building some different muscles in this time. We've learned some new tricks that we probably should have learned previously. We've gotten better at like online workshops and that using some online gaming and things like that to help build teams. So I think we'll find that we'll use those to supplement meetups. Whereas before we put sort of all of our eggs in the meetup basket, now we'll be able to spread that over the year a bit more with some of these other approaches.”

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About Lead Time Chats

Listen in on unscripted conversations between Jean Hsu, VP of Engineering at Range and engineering leadership coach, and engineering leaders and other influential folks in tech.

Lead Time Chats is brought to you by Range. Range helps hybrid teams check-in asynchronously about what matters most. Know what's happening through status updates that pull from tools like Github and JIRA without scheduling yet another meeting.

Checking-in with Range creates more focus time for heads-down work, all while feeling a deeper sense of connection and belonging with your team. To learn more about Range, you can check it out here.

Season 2 Episodes

» Episode 1: Camille Fournier on making boring plans

» Episode 2: Tess Rinearson on early career engineering managers

» Episode 3: Kim Scott on building for systemic justice

» Episode 4: Sumeet Arora on moving on from a big company

» Episode 5: Rachael Stedman on IC manager work

» Episode 6: Chris Bee on Behaviors of Effective Eng Leaders

» Episode 7: Lynne Tye on the Engineering Hiring Landscape

Season 1 Episodes

» Episode 1: Will Larson on the path of the senior engineer

» Episode 2: Duretti Hirpa on mentoring junior and mid-level engineers

» Episode 3: Cate Huston on working with an external coach

» Episode 4: Juan Pablo Buriticá on common eng manager mistakes

» Episode 5: Gergely Orosz on the decision to go into management

» Episode 6: Lara Hogan on leading effectively in a pandemic

» Episode 7: Kaya Thomas on common early career engineer challenges

» Episode 8: Uma Chingunde on starting a VPE role in a pandemic

» Episode 9: Katie Wilde on supporting your team's mental health

» Episode 10: Akhil Gupta on navigating uncertainty in new roles

» Episode 11: Harper Reed on giving everyone a voice in team meetings

» Episode 12: Marc Hedlund on sponsorship

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Lead Time Chats: Beau Lebens on distributed team meetups
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