The Way We Work
June 19, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

Face time matters — and not just the pixelated versions of teammates that you see via Skype.

Technology and evolving business practices have lifted geographic boundaries, and organizations can easily assemble a dream team that isn't limited by location. But researchers have found that connecting remote teams in person can still be a critical ingredient to success.

Context matters when it comes to strengthening relationships, a survey by Stanford University Professor Pam Hinds found: “Our findings suggest that site visits promote...knowledge about distant colleagues that is situated in context and intertwined with practice...[and] that deepens relational coordination between co-workers.”

The relational coordination that Professor Hinds examined is a key factor in building a successful remote team. In essence, it refers to building strong team relationships that can then more easily span multiple locations. In-person interaction is a key ingredient in building trust, establishing personal bonds, deepening communication and reinforcing company culture.

oDesk and Thumbtack understand the importance of that face time. Relying on world-class freelancers scattered across the globe, both companies have invested time and resources to go beyond pixels and connect with their team members in person. However, they've taken different — even opposite — approaches to bridge the distance.

oDesk: The Headquarters Meetup

oDesk started a visitation program for remote contractors a little over two years ago. Each quarter, several contractors come to our headquarters in Redwood City, California, for two weeks. They work on site, attend company meetings and hang out with their stateside colleagues.

According to oDesk's Shipra Kayan, "relationships have changed for the better." Because her job as interaction designer requires her to work closely with many remote engineers and designers, Kayan has had plenty of opportunity to experience how connections are strengthened by these visits.

A gift from oDesk's visiting Ukrainian contractors

A gift from oDesk's Ukrainian QA team, after visiting the office

"It’s always easier to work with someone when you have met them and know where they’re coming from," she said. "Even accents are easier to understand once you've talked in person."

Visits also help people feel more comfortable sharing input and suggestions. As one visiting contractor pointed out, "people that work remotely have a lot to suggest...but it is difficult to express thoughts and ideas via email threads or Skype chats." After two weeks in the office, Kayan knows these remote teammates feel more at ease about speaking up.

Kayan is emphatic about the importance of the program, saying that money spent on travel expenses is more than made up in strengthened communication and productivity gains. She believes it’s also a way to invest in oDesk's workforce. "We value our contractors, and [these visits] are a way to communicate that to them."

Thumbtack: The Off-Site Meetup

Jonathan Swanson, CEO and founder of Thumbtack, a local services marketplace, is just as enthusiastic about his company's visitation program with contractors.

However, he brings the company culture to them; every six months, Swanson flies to the Philippines and spends several weeks traveling from city to city. "We have 225 contractors [there]. I try to see 100 people every time I go."

During his visits, he throws parties, hosts beach trips and leads team-building events. "We want to integrate our contractors into [company] culture as much as possible and make sure they really love working for us. I also have retreats with the team leaders and we talk about things that are coming up and how we can get better, that sort of thing."

Swanson visits his oDesk team in the Philippines

Swanson is confident that the bi-yearly visits have been more than worth the travel costs. "We have 150 people who have been with us a year, another 60 or so who have been here for three years. Many of them want to work for Thumbtack for the rest of their lives. There is very little attrition and I don’t have to recruit new people."

"If I hadn't visited, I think the team would still be surviving and would be fine," Swanson said, noting that the visits weren't financially feasible during Thumbtack’s early years. But he also contends that face time does make a big difference. "It deepens relationships and allows you to really harness your contractors' skills. [Without them] our team wouldn't be nearly as good. It’s hard to completely unleash that energy unless you can get together and hang out."

Would face-to-face interactions strengthen your team? Do you do them already? Add to the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.