80+ people. 7 countries. 16 cities. 37 pieces of luggage. We recently brought every member of the worldwide CircleCI team to our San Francisco headquarters for a full week.

2016-12-19-why-in-person-all-hands-teampic.jpg Nearly all of our team

Despite the logistical briar patch that arranging a company-wide all-hands can be for a business of our size, the cultural, social, and company benefits of all of of us being in the same place at the same time is invaluable, and well worth a couple of bramble snags.

Logistics

We have a team within CircleCI who handle the main logistics for All-Hands. These wonderful people arrange travel for any of our teammates living outside the Bay Area, book lodging to house everyone comfortably, and schedule meals and activities so we can socialize together as one big team.

2016-12-19-why-in-person-all-hands-expenses.png A breakdown of the costs for a week-long All-Hands event

One of the things we learned at our first All-Hands (back when the team was only about a dozen of us) was that if there is too much structure, the team risks burnout. With colleagues that range from highly introverted to highly extroverted and everywhere in between, we realized after the first try that sometimes people want to escape to their hotel rooms or homes to recharge their social batteries. These days, we are better at taking that into consideration: a main agenda for the week is distributed to the team, which handily lists events to which everyone is encouraged to attend as well as events that are wholly voluntary, to give everyone the freedom to choose for themselves.

Teams and breakout sessions

Within the main agenda structure, we encourage teams to schedule their own meetings, sprints, social outings, dinners, or anything else they might like to do. The flexibility for teams to be able to have some time to schedule things independently of the whole company is important, particularly since so many of us work remotely during the rest of the year - for some teams, it might be the only week all year where they work in the same country!

We also open up the floor (well, larger conference rooms) for semi-official breakout sessions: at the beginning of the All-Hands we supplied a wall and sticky notes for people to write down ideas for breakout sessions they’d like to attend, then everyone voted for their favorite topics. The votes were tallied by mid-week, and informal “attend-if-you-want” meetings were held based around topics that received the most votes.

2016-12-19-why-in-person-all-hands-stickies.jpg Some topics chosen for 2016’s breakout sessions were: workflows, product roadmap, collaborating with remote employees, diversity, and equity overview.

But, why?

If you’re thinking to yourself that organizing 80+ teammates for a whole week can be logistically treacherous, you’d be right. Aside from the monetary costs, the time and energy to bring every one of us to San Francisco for a week isn’t superfluous. So why do we do it?

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Setting a tone

We’re all on this ride together, so everyone needs to pull their lap bar down and keep their hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times (just kidding, we’re the “hands in the air as the roller coaster plummets down that first drop” kind of folks - it’s exhilarating). But we do all need to move in the same direction at the same time. We’re highly skilled at being an asynchronous team spread across multiple timezones, but there’s just something about being in the same city as everyone else that helps us align. Having our CEO and CTO stand up in front all of us and say “this is the plan for the coming year” is vital and sets a great tone for everyone.

Social butterflies (or not)

Bringing everyone together isn’t just good to vector into our company trajectory, it’s good for us to have social time with our colleagues. Whether it’s the group that heads out for cocktails, the few folks that gather around a conference room table after hours to play board games, the rousing frames of bowling, the late night run for pizza and beer, or the quick snack and chat in the kitchen before dashing off to pick up tiny humans from school or daycare, people within CircleCI getting to know each other outside of the code they write or the accounting documents they filed earlier in the day makes for a solid, empathetic team that truly cares for each other.

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A + B = C

Most importantly, the combination of everyone knowing the company’s direction and the fostering of genuine friendships among our team reduces employee turnover, and more importantly creates the kind of culture we have spent four years curating at CircleCI - one of kindness and trust. Our team is our most valuable asset, and how we interact says much about who we are as a company. We like to think we’re leading by example here in our little corner of the sky, and doing a pretty decent job at it.

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Scalability: can we do it?

It’s not immediately clear how scalable our All-Hands week is. It’s certainly come a long way since its meager beginnings with a couple of rental houses and only a handful of flights in the early days, but more people means greater logistical hurdles. Still, in spite of the challenges, it’s clear that everyone in the company - and indeed, the company itself - benefits greatly from the time we spend together.