Teambuilding and culture in a distributed workplace

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Matt tells me that company culture isn't the imaginary thing you are trying to create, it's what you actually end up with based on a million little things that happened in real life. You can't fake it, you can't wish it better, you have to accept the reality and look at the way things ended up despite what the policy said.

That's not an argument against trying to change things, but it means that none of us individually can completely control the end result, we only get to contribute little pieces. As a manager who feels responsible for doing everything I can to contribute to a healthy, positive, sustainable work environment and an employee who wants to work in such a place, one of the most amazing feelings is seeing other people take up the challenge, and make little gestures which pull everyone together in feeling like a team, like we are interconnected. You know, that whole Ubuntu thing.

I want to tell you a true story. For Ubuntu One, the server development team that writes the code is a completely separate department from the operational sysadmin team that deploys the code. This sysadmin team also services Launchpad and all the other websites that Canonical operates. There are some natural tensions between stability and feature development, we have different managers, the sysadmin team is much smaller and spread around the world in terms of timezones, the Ubuntu release schedule deadlines are carved in wiki stone, and we all want to get rid of downtime on the site. All of these things are forces which would tend to drive the teams apart, rather than together. We talk about devops ideas, but that ideal doesn't change the reality of people working together under pressure with somewhat conflicting goals. We call this particular group of sysadmins "LOSA". We do much of our real time collaboration over IRC, and the sysadmins are usually idling in a number of IRC channels, one per product team that they support. Because we're not always sure who will be on duty at a given time, we ended up with a convention of saying "losa ping" on the IRC channel when we needed something done: kicking off a planned code update, running an ad-hoc test query against the staging or production DB, etc.

[caption id="attachment_153" align="alignleft" width="265" caption="Losa Ping"]losa ping love online services[/caption] After a particularly exhausting few months where it felt like we were saying losa ping every 30 minutes, the losa team went off duty for a week to have an in person meetup, and do some of their planning and teambuilding out of reach of the daily barrage of phone and IRC interruptions. Philip had an idea for a joke, and arranged for a cake to be secretly delivered.

As you can imagine, it was a hit, and everyone felt a little closer together. But the story doesn't end there. [caption id="attachment_156" align="alignleft" width="307" caption="Losa pong"][/caption] Months have gone by and we all forgot about the cake. Last week the Ubuntu One team gathered for an in person meeting. We were just as remote, the sysadmin team wasn't there, we were sequestered away from laptops and IRC. The last day we had our afternoon break for coffee, and were amazed to see another cake! Later Michael confessed, and everyone had this silly grin on their face that just wouldn't go away.

Two departments spread over several countries and dozens of different cities. Different backgrounds, different daily pressures, different opinions on the right way to do things. And yet, two cakes over several months make everyone feel connected. The cake is a symptom of the culture. You can't prescribe it, you can't control it, but you can contribute to it and you sure can enjoy it. What a fantastic crew.

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