Team-building in the time of COVID-19: The story of SeedCon 2020
Our two-week internal conference, how we put it together, and what we learnt in the process
As a fully distributed team with members spread across multiple countries, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t hit SystemSeed as hard as it has other, co-located, agencies.
However we did lose one big thing this year, and that is our annual gathering of the whole team. We normally do this by flying everyone into one place for a conference, such as a DrupalCon. This year it was going to be Frontend United in Minsk, which we were co-organising.
When that didn’t happen due to the whole conference being cancelled, we wanted to do something else to bring us together in a different way, and so the very first SeedCon was born!
What was SeedCon?
SeedCon was two weeks of learning and doing for the whole SystemSeed team, coordinated via Slack and Google Meet.
Week one was made up of learning sessions. We focused on agile skills in the mornings and then had other topic sessions in the afternoons.
Agile at SeedCon
To give everyone a sense of achievement and something to focus on, we worked with Vic Page of Actineo who delivered broad Agile training that then focused onto Scrum. Everyone took the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master (PSM I) exam at the end.
We chose this focus because we’re already an Agile organisation, but most of us hadn’t had any formal training and only knew Agile and Scrum as we do it - not in any broader sense.
Through the curriculum that Vic designed for us, we gave everyone the same baseline of knowledge and opened up discussions about our own Agile approach, and how we could improve it. We kept a parking lot throughout the whole week and noted down potential areas for improvement and further discussion as we went. This is a living document that we’ll be referring to over the next few months as we continue to develop as an Agile agency.
A well-rounded agenda
In addition to our Agile sessions in the mornings, we ran afternoon sessions on different topics with guest speakers from inside and outside the organisation. These included:
- Consulting skills
- Product slicing and prioritisation
- Our DevOps approach
Each of these sessions gave us something new to consider and as each presenter had been asked to make their sessions interactive, the engagement and energy remained high.
This year, more than ever, it was vital that we took part in a team and personal development exercise together. The result has been increased knowledge, increased understanding between team members, and real new tools and products for the company.
Hosting an internal hackathon
Week two of SeedCon was our ‘doing’ week.
We split into three teams of four people each made up of:
- One non-technical, business-oriented person
- One designer
- Two engineers
We brought in a couple of contractors to help us even out the skills in the teams, and this was a good investment as it really showed in the results.
The teams were presented with a dozen different outcomes that they could work on, alongside a few ground rules. They were then turned loose to self-organise as they wished with the deadline to demo their solutions on Friday morning that week.
As we asked all teams to run their hacks as Agile projects, we kept Vic Page with us as an Agile coach and also a judge for the ‘most Agile team’ award.
Hacking good results!
Our main objective with the hackathons was for team members to practice the skills they’d learned during the previous week, but we actually got brilliantly usable results too. These were:
- An integration between three of our core management tools
- A new brand and roadmap for one of our products
- A shortcut for all new sites that we will develop from here on out
We’ll be sharing more details about each of these individual products in future articles.
Three things we learned from the SeedCon experience
1. Everyone loves a team shirt
To make us feel like we were all part of the same event we sent everyone a SeedCon 2020 shirt. In keeping with our values, they were made of sustainably and ethically produced organic cotton, in a factory powered by renewable energy and are fully recyclable. Unfortunately, mailing time for our different team member’s countries varies a lot, so some people received their shirts very late. We’ll send everything earlier next time.
2. Taking time out from client work is hugely valuable - if it’s well structured
Stopping work on client projects is a big gamble, however, the time spent together was invaluable. We usually work in small groups on asynchronous schedules, so bringing all team members together to focus on the same things, in the same way, was a real change for us. We structured it well, and were careful not to overload people in the first week with too much screen-learning time each day. As many of our team have English as their second or third language, that was vital. Having a variety of subjects on the agenda kept things fresh too.
3. Our people are awesome
We already knew that our people are smart, capable and fun to work with. SeedCon really reinforced it. From our first week kick-off to our closing prizes-plus-Halloween-fancy-dress drinks party, every single person was fully engaged and worked hard to make the event a personal and team success. This was a brilliant event to share as a team, and brought us closer together than we already were.
Would we do it again?
We definitely would do it again and recommend that others set up their own similar events too.
It really worked to fulfil all our objectives of team-building, knowledge and skills growth, improving our own practices and tools, and having fun together.
SeedCon 2020 is the first of a new annual tradition for SystemSeed, and although we hope that we can have an in-person event in 2021, doing it again as a virtual conference wouldn’t be a terrible thing.