2021 Virtual Company Retreat

Due to the Covid pandemic, our company, like so many others, has been forced to forego the typical in-person company retreat in favor of a remote retreat. For us, this decision was made in May as the Delta variant was roaring in Europe and beginning to take hold in the US and there was just too much uncertainty around whether all of our team members would be able to travel to a destination. And even more importantly would we all feel comfortable traveling and being together in-person.

To help make that decision I decided to send out a survey to the team. This survey asked a few questions:

  • What is your comfort level in traveling this fall (2021) for a team retreat?
  • What is your comfort level in traveling next year (Spring or Summer 2022) for a team retreat?
  • What is your comfort level in traveling to these destinations: Lisbon, Chicago, San Diego, Dublin:
  • My preference moving forward would be…
  • Would you attend a team retreat where there is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals?
  • We’d like to have a comprehensive understanding of what is most important for you in attending a retreat in this new environment. Please share your thoughts on the topic:

While I’m sure there are some knowledge gaps in the questions we asked, the goal was to get a sense of how comfortable the team was in traveling, what we thought of being together with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated team members, and how everyone felt about the logistics of leaving the country (and returning) without too much hassle.

A bit of background for folks who don’t know our team. We’re 15 team members strong, from 9 countries and 4 continents. Needless to say, there’s not a single, central location that’s “easy” for everyone. Many of us would need to travel internationally to attend any kind of in-person event with the whole company.

So, the decision was made to hold our 2021 company retreat remotely. And looking at the decision now it was 100% the right move. We just wrapped up the event yesterday and it was a smashing success.

If you’re a remote team (or a colocated team who’s been “forced” to go remote due to the pandemic) my goal here is to offer some insights into what we did, what we feel worked well and what didn’t, and what we’d do differently next time.

Schedule and Agenda

The first decision was how long the event would be. Our only previous retreat was an in-person one in Berlin in 2019. This was held just before the WordCamp Europe event and was 2 full days.

For a remote retreat, I knew from the outset that we did NOT want to have full-day events. For one thing, our team spans 9 time zones, so even just a few hours a day makes for some very late and/or early days for team members. Additionally, for me as the founder, I just didn’t want to organize that much structured time.

We ended up going with an agenda of a 3-day retreat, and us spending 3 hours a day together.

Regarding timezones, since our team is split between European timezones and the Americas we staggered the schedule, with the first and third day going from 4-7 pm CET (10 – 1 ET) and the middle day from 7-10 pm CET (1-4 ET). Felt like this was a nice balance for both “sides of the pond” and gave us all a bit of regular work time around the retreat each day.

Balancing Work and Play

In our initial in-person retreat we had a great balance of about half our time being work and the other half being fun and teambuilding. I very much wanted to keep this balance the same for our virtual retreat.

In setting our agenda for each day I first brainstormed, researched, and reached out to the team and colleagues for suggestions of events that they’ve done in other team-building events. Much credit to these few blog posts from other amazing distributed companies (like Close, Helpscout, Microverse, and Doist) as they recounted their virtual retreats from 2020. Thank you for sharing your lessons so we could make our event so special!

With a 3 hour block of time, there is really just time for 3 main sessions per day. In those days we wanted to have a mix of fun and work activities. In the end, our agenda looked like this:

Day 1:

  • 10:00 – 11:00 – Founder company update
  • 11:00 – 12:00 – Activity: Treasure Mountain
  • 12:00 – 12:15 – Break, downtime, hangout
  • 12:15 – 1:00 – Meal Together!

Day 2:

  • 1:00 – 1:30 – Support process updates
  • 1:30 – 2:00 – Brand and style guide update
  • 2:00 – 3:00 – Magic Show with Harrison Kramer
  • 3:00 – 3:30 – Show Your Work
  • 3:30 – 4:00 – Focus on Mental Health with Dr. Sherry Walling

Day 3:

  • 10:00 – 10:30 – OKRs!
  • 10:30 – 11:30 – World’s Top Coffee Masterclass
  • 11:30 – 11:45 – Break, downtime, hangout
  • 12:00 – 1:00 – Tynker Competition!
  • 1:00 – 1:30 – Wrapup

So, a nice mix of fun and work. You might say “yeah but Craig there’s really like 2 fun activities and 1 work slot each day”. True, I hadn’t meant for this to happen, and in hindsight, I would have liked to have more dedicated work time. That’s about the only thing I’d change next time. I will say though that true to our Work Hard, Play Hard mentality, our work sessions were very focused and extremely efficient. So a big win there.

For me when it comes to work activities at a team retreat they all should focus around really big picture, strategic activities that affect the entire company. Not a lot of “real work” is done during these, but expectations are clarified, goals are set via OKRs, and a review of the previous year happens.

The reality is that the purpose of a team retreat is not to get actual work done. It’s to take the opportunity to take a step back, reflect on what we’re doing as a company, set and communicate some objectives, and bond as a team. Many of those things just don’t happen when we’re talking about the nitty-gritty details of the work we’re doing.

It’s the day after the event as I’m writing this blog post, and I feel very confident in saying that strong bonds were formed amongst the team during the event, we all learned a lot about each other (and ourselves as Tynker builders!) and can go forward into our normal work lives with those stronger bonds and connection to the company. With this stronger sense of belonging we do our best work.

Lessons Learned

As we always strive to Keep It Real here in our Castos Centrals posts, here are the few things that I would do differently next time:

  • Have 1 more work session. It’s tough to strike the balance here because I really liked having the 2 fun activities each day, but we wanted to do a more in-depth “Show Your Work” session where a handful of team members could share what they’ve been working on lately, and just didn’t have time for that.
  • Related to the above, for our next retreat I would like almost everyone on the team to present and lead a session. Some on our team are shy or are introverts, but we all have some unique perspectives and insights that are hugely valuable for the rest of the team to experience together.
  • Mealtime was a bit ‘off’. It was 7:00 pm CET, 1:00 ET (so dinner here in Europe and lunchtime in the US). But only a few of us actually ate during the session. I wasn’t sure if I should have my camera on or off, because let’s be honest, who wants to watch me eat pizza?
  • Organizing the agenda was easier than I thought. I first set the external activities, and then fit our work sessions in around those.
  • The entire thing was less work and way more fun than I expected. I set off looking for a 3rd party to do the whole thing. I’m very glad we didn’t do that, because for me to MC the event and have other presenters come in for the Fun times was pretty easy…just a few emails to book those activities.
  • We should have done this a lot sooner. It’s fairly daunting to think about doing a 3 day, 9 hour meeting together. But the truth is the time flied by, and I wish we would’ve done it sooner.
  • We’re going to do it again, soon. This won’t be just an annual event. I think we could do twice yearly or even a shorter version each quarter that could be a half day event.
  • Take more pictures! I only took two screenshots of our time together and wish I would’ve done more.

Team Feedback

A survey was sent out at the end of the event to all team members. The response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. While we like to take a critical look at how we do everything here at Castos, I think for our first shot at having a remote company retreat this was hugely successful. And I hope that this retro helps you in organizing such an event for your remote team.

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