Bad entertainment at a company retreat or office party usually spurs nothing more than a few wisecracks or a couple of additional trips to the bar, but for employees at internet firm Ciena the cheesy band at the company's annual sales conference in 2007 actually ended up changing the way the company worked.

After coming together to gripe about the lackluster set, a few employees approached the CTO with a proposal -- instead of hiring these hacks again next year, they suggested, let's form a company rock band and entertain ourselves.

Thus OTN Speedwagon was born. The nerdily named company band has now pulled in 11 employees in ten cities across the world (and, as members are are quick to tell you, emerged victorious at the Fortune Magazine Battle of the Corporate Bands at the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame). But their success isn't just a quirky and endearing team-building idea you might want to steal. It's also a testament to just how much can be achieved by well run remote teams.

How to keep a remote band rocking

Think about it: something as tiny as a slightly delayed intro or miscommunication over tempo can ruin a song. The logistics involved in practicing a five-hour set list with nearly a dozen band members who aren't even on the same continent zone are immense, dwarfing the challenges of the average remote work project. How does OTN Speedwagon pull it off? .

The band has hammered out a successful system for practicing before gigs. "We create a folder in a secure file sharing system, with all of the selected songs for the year, including mp3 files and lyrics. Everybody downloads them and practices alone for most of the year. When we get together, we are very close to the finished product," explains Atlanta-based guitarist Chuck Kaplan. A few hours of practice when they all meet before a gig and they're good to go.

Lessons for the non-musical

All of which is interesting if you're interested in borrowing the idea of a remote band for your own dispersed team, but if your employees aren't particularly musically inclined, is there a takeaway here?

The first and most basic lesson is the value of having some non-work-related reason to get together (happy hours, trips, retreats, etc.) to ensure people know each other as full human beings outside the office (or Slack/Skype) , particularly when you're working remotely. Not only will people be happier (and therefore more productive), but they'll also meet others across the organization, breaking down silos and seeding fruitful collaborations.

"The band gave me my first direct interaction with Ciena's CEO, Gary Smith, and the rest of his executive leadership team," attests lead guitar Paul Bullock, who calls the band a "cultural hub" for the company.

"I think our relationships with each other help us better collaborate. Our mutual love of music has created a bond akin to that of a family," London-based admin/lead vocalist Amanda Barkham feels. "A bonded team will work better together remotely," she adds.

The second takeaway is the necessity of being incredibly precise in defining both roles and goals when working remotely. In the case of OTN Speedwagon that means deciding which version of a song to play down to nearly the last note before they start practicing. For your team it may simply mean a whole lot more clarity on who is responsible for what.

"We are able to be successful because we all know what our jobs are. It is very clear what our roles and responsibilities are, and because of this we have built up a trust that each member will show up with their job done," says Steve Darflinger, saxophone player and an account manager in the company's Denver office.

"Any ambiguity in remote teams can cause confusion. If everyone understands what they need to do in order to not let the team down, it helps breed success."

Published on: Mar 10, 2017
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