Photo by Allie on Unsplash

We Ran a Virtual Offsite

In October last year, I — along with the rest of the DisplayLink Test Practice team — held our first company Test Community of Practice Offsite. Having travelled to Poland with the UK based contingent of our Test Engineers, we met up in a hotel with colleagues from our Katowice office for three days of community driven learning and social activities, culminating in a day long security testing workshop provided by Digital Interruption’s Jay Harris. At the end of the event we all agreed that we’d enjoyed it, that it had been a good use of our time and, crucially, we wanted to do it again in 2020.

Well — its now 2020, and right now the idea of holding a face to face event with 35 colleagues from across Europe seems a little………irresponsible.

Even so, my job is to make sure that the Test Community at DisplayLink have the opportunity to share their expertise and to learn from others, and it didn’t feel right to hide behind the global lockdown as an excuse for not doing that. At times like these community is even more important that usual. With that in mind, in the first week of June we held the Test Community of Practice (virtual) Offsite, and whilst still buzzing from it I would like to share some of the things we did and the decisions we made that helped make it a success.

When we announced our intent to hold the event virtually (we had been in lockdown for 2–3 weeks at this point) the first thing we did was ask the community to come together and input on three things — what would we like to get out of the event, what would we like to try, and what should we be careful to avoid. Here are the key points that came out of this discussion.

Let’s include our third party contractors this time — we tell our teams and our people that when we have contractors working with us, we will treat them the same as any of our other employees. If we were to share/learn something of value during the event, it doesn’t make sense for us to exclude a portion of the Test Engineers that work with us day to day. So from the outset, they were all invited and encouraged to contrbute to the day.

Can anyone else come? — the community wanted to open the event up to the whole company. On the one hand, I loved this idea as it would give us as a community the chance to share our expertise with the wider company. On the other hand though, we wanted this event to be about and for the community. If we allowed the event to be expanded to two or three times its normal size we may lose that sense of community we wanted to foster. In the end, we decided that we would limit it to no more than a third extra new attendees

PLEEEEEASE don’t make me sit in a virtual meeting for three days straight! — it turns out, sitting in front of a webcam all day is really tiring! Our people told us they just wouldn’t be able to concentrate for three days straight sitting infront of their monitors dialled into online meetings, and I was inclined to agree. We decided, as it was our first attempt at doing it virtually, that we would play it safe and just go for a one day event. One of the members of the community then made the suggestion that instead of one whole day we try doing two half days — the idea of having a nice overnight break in the middle just felt right so we went for the afternoon of the 2nd and the morning of the 3rd June.

We also asked our community what they would like to get out of the event. Having colated their feedback we found ourselves with three key goals for the event — Share experiences from across the business, Learn something new, and Have fun together. We shared these themes and, having been met with approval, opened a Trello based call for papers to the community.

It was very important for us that the sessions that were run came from the test community themselves; we believe that anyone and everyone in our community should have the confidence to learn new things and to share them, and to do that we give them a platform to do so. I was delighted to see that the proposals for sessions came flooding in, with topics covering overviews of interesting projects being worked on by particular teams, interactive sessions looking to identify ways that we as a community can work more closely and effectively, and sessions introducing us to new tools and approaches being used across the company.

Whilst I wont go into detail about the content of the sessions we ran, I will share the experiences of running the event; what we did, what tools we used and why. Firstly, we (as so many of us do these days) had a variety of tools available to choose from to actually host the event. As a company we actively use Teams for messaging and meetings, and in the office we have LifeSize set up in all our meeting rooms. We also had the option of Zoom, but we decided that the best middle ground was going to be to use LifeSize. Whilst the functionality and integrated chat of Teams is slightly better, it was going to be hard enough to keep the community feel of the event without being able to see everyones faces — something that LifeSize lets you do. It also allows for easy recording and storage of the sessions we ran, so we were able to keep them for future use.

Next, we thought about collaboration tools. All of our teams use Miro boards for collaboration exercises within their teams, so we decided that we would use this for the interactive sessions that we held. We had one session looking at ways we could unify our performance testing approaches between our different approaches, a session on what each team thought they had within their skillset that they could share with others in the community, and lastly a rolling retrospective board for people to add feelings and feedback to throughout the two days. This worked really well, albeit it with a few people struggling to sign in initially. Once those minor issues were sorted Miro turned out to be a really useful tool and helped the sessions flow really smoothly (I have since been other events where, if the session is run by someone who ACTUALLY knows what they’re doing with Miro, it can be even better!).

In terms of actually running the two days, we really were concerned about the feeling of burnout. It’s hard enough to sit in front of a screen with your headphones on all day without getting distracted, tired or bored, but more than that — those who were presenting had put a lot of time and effort into their sessions, and we wanted to make sure that they had an audience who were ready willing and energised to take part. We added in lots of breaks to keep things broken up and so that people had the chance to stand up, fetch drinks for their children etc, and then come back fresh for the next session. We added some virtual icebreakers mixed in throughout the two days, including a scavenger hunt, a virtual wordsearch and a ‘find something in common’ session that managed to keep people smiling and talking to one another.

I feel at this point I should mention etiquette. I was very clear with the attendees right from the start that as they are all in their own homes, its to be expected that someone may knock on the door, their children may decide to join them or need something, and that was absolutely ok — right now work is invading into your home life, and we don’t expect the world to stop just because we’re having a meeting. As it happens my children made several appearances during the two days, so (lucky me) I got to lead by example!

The last thing I would like to talk about is the bit in the middle. As I mentioned before, we did a proper face to face offsite event last year, where the whole community came together in one place. We all stayed in a hotel and we all went out for dinner together and for some evening fun and games. This provided some really great ‘off the clock’ time where people spent time together as people instead of as work colleagues, and some really important relationships were made. This time, although we were stuck at home we wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose the social side of the community meetup. We couldn’t TELL our people to sit at home, ignore their families out of work hours as we were madating that they had fun with their work colleagues (as we all know — mandatory fun is always the best kind of fun). So what to do? Well, we decided that we would trust our community. We told them that we would do what we would do if we’d been able to meet up in person, and we would buy them dinner. If they were able to get somewhere to deliver some dinner for them and their family, then we would cover the cost for it. And IF in the evening they wanted to join us for a drink, some socialising and some fun and games (I’d put together a Family Fortunes game for us to play online) then that would be great. If not then that was fine — we hoped they enjoyed their dinner, had a good night’s sleep and we would see them in the morning. As it happens we had a great turn out in the evening where we all got together, shared some great stories and when inevitably the conversation turned to things going on at work, we were able to have the safe and candid conversations that we would have had sitting face to face together.

Make no mistake, I would have preferred it if we could have all been together in one physical space. Whilst through necessity we have all had to learn how to carry on with our jobs, our lives and our communities through a webcam, and whilst things have got better after society’s initial shaky start to its new virtual world, I still believe that being together is better. I have to say though, I’m really proud of the event that we held, everyone who spoke and held sessions for us, and everyone in attendance who through themselves into the event and made it as successful as it was. We’ve been asked if we can do it again later in the year, and I’m already looking forward to it :)



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