How we survived a pandemic: Part 4 – Virtual pizza nights and other distributed team social activities

Pizza and wine

This is a conversational blog post (cross-posted here) between Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell). We are using this approach to create some space to think together in ‘unprecedented times’. 

For regular readers this is a slight departure from our regular ‘Virtual Teams’ posts (you can read those on our Virtual Teams summary page) taking a broader view of work whilst midst global pandemic. 

In this month’s post we share our reflections on socialising when you are a distributed team. We share our experiences of our first virtual pre-conference pizza night and look at some other social activities that remote teams might like to explore to maintain some sanity in the middle of a pandemic. 

August… 

Maren: August has always been a super busy and exciting month at ALT as we, normally, gear up for our Annual Conference. This year, we have been gearing up for our first ever fully virtual summit and I have been enjoying the mounting excitement both in our team and in our community. I have been amazed how many people are able to engage with the event despite how much they have going on both at work and at home. Pretty much everyone in Learning Technology is overworked, exhausted and coping with the challenges of living through a global pandemic. It’s been particularly special to see hundreds of participants from 22 countries signing up, making time and joining in. In our staff team, too, we have been finding ways to preparing for a large virtual event and its delivery from home, with most of us still home-based with more family than usual and very much still in various levels of lockdowns. I have blogged about my thoughts ahead of the event, that I miss meeting colleagues in person, but also some of the lighter upsides such as more shoetweet possibilities and no conference chicken. You normally travel with suitcases filled with laptops, cables and other tech… how has your summit run up been?

Martin: Most of my preparation for the Summit has been similar to our other face-to-face conferences. Our event websites have always had a social aspect to them but we have looked at enhancing this with some extras. As my main role at face-to-face conferences is online delivery the project plan for the Summit was very familiar. The biggest change is probably swapping what equipment I can transport to what I have to hand and for the Summit mission control this meant I could benefit from lots of additional screen space. 

ALT has a long history of delivering online only events and the ALT Winter Conference has been held entirely virtual every year since 2015. One of the challenges of online events, similar to remote teams, is creating those social networking opportunities. We’ve used the ‘virtual cafe’ model in all our online events, using a video conference space for participants to drop into. This model in itself has been improved over the years and now we provide a dedicated meeter and greeter to make sure there is always a friendly face. For our last couple of events Jim Groom and Co. and Reclaim Hosting have hosted virtual karaoke nights for us. These are always fun, but I was also struck by how the Summit karaoke night was also an opportunity for those informal conversations you often get at face-to-face events and because the live stream was still going there is a recording of that moment captured in Jim’s KaraOERoke Post-Mortem. I have to confess I’ve mixed feelings about there being a recording and deliberately not played it back to hear the dumb things I might have said, but a clear example of the network effect. I’m interested if there was anything at the Summit that gave you a sense of social connections?   

Maren: I found the event really good for connecting with people, many of whom I haven’t been in touch with for months and also newcomers to ALT. I started blogging before the event, and that in itself sparked a lot of DM and Twitter conversations. I am fortunate that part of my job is to be at all the plenary sessions and welcome speakers, so I got a lot of conversations with wonderful speakers that way as well. Often I have been in touch with someone via email or calls for months before actually meeting them on the day, so that definitely helps. I also did a fair bit of #shoetweeting and that also sparked a lot of fun and connections, on a lighter tone than just summit chat. My favourite element of the conference social programme is hard to pick, but given my… er…. Reluctance when it comes to KaraOERke, I think it’s either the quiz or the online radio shows. Both really enabled me to play long or listen along with others, and in many cases meet new people either within the dedicated space or on Twitter. Within our team, we have a lot of backchannel chat during events and this year we even had a virtual pizza night via our watercooler chat and I loved that. Running this virtual event felt more like a shared experience for us a team this time round. Fortunately, the pizza wasn’t virtual! I think we have really grown into a collaborative team for online events over the past 2 years. What are your thoughts on this? 

Martin: I really enjoyed turning one of our face-to-face team traditions into a ‘virtual pizza night’. Using text chat also felt less intrusive, meaning I could juggle personal commitments with engaging with the team. It was also nice to have this whilst one of the Summit social activities, ALT Members Radio, was going on as there was an opportunity to share a moment together and also enjoy some banging tunes. I feel these moments, along with some of our more informal team activities like remote birthday afternoon tea, are useful ways to support remote team health and wellbeing. I’m left wondering if and how other teams deal with this. Doing a quick search of tips and suggestions I’m struggling to find examples of things the ALT team doesn’t already do and it’s interesting to see the number of times some of the activities we do like ‘written feedback by post’, informal chat channels, virtual coffee breaks are referenced elsewhere. Like all guidance I think the key is not what the ‘experts’ tell you to do, but how these ideas are implemented. Personally this is where I think ALT and you as our CEO have been particularly good at navigating the line between formal and informal, not making people feel pressured into doing something they feel encroaches on their personal space or would make them feel uncomfortable. I’m interested to hear if there are any suggested remote team activities you’ve come across and thought ‘we are definitely not doing that’?

Maren: You mean besides karaoke!? In my experience even the most basic activities can quickly become exclusive, eg activities that require you to have a shared cultural background or general knowledge, access to outside space, particularly foods or treats (dietary preferences are a big factor). I came across an activity as part of the unbounded (link) resources for online community building that involved telling a story related to one’s name and I immediately thought.. oh gosh, I wouldn’t know one! Meanwhile, in the past couple of months we have started to share responsibilities for chairing our weekly team meetings and I have been delighted with how much things have changed for the better as a consequence. Every member of staff takes turns. I especially like that everyone has invented team activities to start the day with… and each one, from animal corner to sharing recipes, and from sharing humble brags to movie recommendations has been successful and fun.  It’s been nice to see different personalities shape the tone of our meetings. It has also saved me a huge amount of time and effort most weeks, and given everyone more practical insight into what goes into chairing a successful meeting. A lot of folk have been socialising online more than I have this year and one thing I haven’t tried online is cocktails or a pub night. I don’t think our team is a party team, but at big events we have gone out together. I am not sure how I’d feel about that, but no doubt I’ll find out soon enough – how about you? 

Martin: Outside of work I’ve been to a virtual social get together with old colleagues which we did instead of a traditional face-to-face meetup at the Edinburgh Festival. Not the same experience but it did mean one of our colleagues who moved to the US was able to join. With a smaller team with very diverse interests harder to find something we would all be interested in doing. Reading How Ars Technica’s tech-savvy staffers conduct happy hours in locked-down 2020 it was interesting to see the range of online social activities that are available including everything from poker, RPG to virtual ‘rec rooms’. It was the later Rec Room, which particularly caught my eye, “a free-to-play social-space app that includes a series of structured and free-form multiplayer games and activities”. Perhaps for the next ALT team social activity we could go bowling, play some table tennis or do a bit of paintballing ;)