How we ran our company retreat (hybrid!)

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At SessionLab, we’ve always been a fully remote company. We love being a globally distributed team who can do our best work wherever we are! 

But seeing each other at our in-person team retreats have always been an integral part of our culture and are a massive part of building team cohesion.

We previously aimed for a full team retreat twice a year. After a fun and productive team meeting in Barcelona in February 2020, we were already anticipating the summer meeting when we would see each other again.

Sadly, the global pandemic had other plans. The world turned upside down, including the world of workshops and work retreats, too. While we were fortunate enough to have remote working as our default setting, remote team building is still a topic we are looking to master.

We have tried a range of online team events in the past year and half: escape rooms, virtual scavenger hunts, self-designed holiday team events. Alongside our weekly team lunches these have done a good job of helping us stay connected as a team. Yet we have been very much looking forward to the opportunity to come when we can see each other live without taking unnecessary pandemic risks.

After some logistical rearrangement and thorough planning, we were able to find a spot to meet together as an (almost) full team!

Here are some key takeaways from our team trip we hope will help you when planning your own company retreat!

1. Accept that logistics will take more time and things can change

We’ve always tried to find a nice and inspiring location for our meetings. We wanted to ensure that our 2021 company retreat was no exception! 

As a result of the global pandemic, we had some additional considerations. We thought long and hard about where everyone on our globally distributed team had the best chance to arrive. 

And first and foremost, it is important to align with your team if you are collectively fine to take the implications of international travel with regards to the pandemic situation, and decide if you go for a live meeting or stay virtual.

We had to consider the impact of travel restrictions, vaccination passports and visa requirements while also keeping everyone on the team safe. We also wanted to find a place where we could be isolated from larger crowds while still having access to amenities. 

Croatia was not a hard choice for us, given that it minimised the number of border crossings our team collectively had to take and was relatively easy for everyone to reach. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Croatia has a wonderful seaside! 

For several weeks we monitored the covid case numbers and waited to make travel bookings until we felt fairly certain that new restrictions wouldn’t be put into place. While this meant more expensive tickets, this meant we could be flexible in the event we had to reschedule or find a different location for our company retreat.

The extra attention to detail and decision making took a more time to organise than previously, but it was important we got everything right in order to bring the team together safely and effectively. 

Plan additional time and budget for team retreats under such circumstances, and have a back-up prepared. In the event of another global lockdown, we were ready with an all-virtual retreat too.

2. Prepare for hybrid scenarios

While our team retreats are among the most anticipated events of the year, there can be a range of reasons why someone might be unable to join. 

Whether such a decision is due to cautiousness around pandemic travel, personal circumstances or unexpected last-minute events, it’s important to acknowledge and respect the personal choice of everyone in your team.

Just because someone is unable to travel doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be involved in the company retreat. It’s important to think through the agenda and consider when and how you will be able to involve the people who can’t join in live.

In our case, one of our team members wasn’t able to join us in Croatia. Knowing this in advance gave us a chance to prepare and shape our agenda accordingly. 

Prepare the tech to allow remote participation

A large portion of our company retreat was a 2-day workshop on defining our team values and culture. With topics like these, it’s essential to receive contributions from everyone in the team.

Remote participation for fully virtual retreats is simple in that everyone has an equal entry point. Everyone has their own device and so each participant can see and hear one another clearly and without interference. 

Every hybrid set-up is different, though in our case we would have a single remote participant in a room of eight. In our case, we used a single laptop with one microphone and speaker for our remote participant to be present in the room. 

Wide angle GoPro view of our team in live from a remote participants point of view

This meant that we reduced possible interference, limited the impact on our internet connection and also ensured there was as little tech in the room as possible.

Having a computer in front of everyone when sitting around a table is naturally not a great setup for live interactions, especially when doing any type of exercise (e.g. grouping cards or post-it notes on the table)

What we ended up using for our hybrid setup was:

  • A single MacBook running Zoom
  • a GoPro Hero 8 camera with a very wide angle that allowed us to capture everyone at the table  
  • External speaker: Initially we tried with the laptop speakers, but the voice output was not ideal, so we ended up connecting an external “party” speaker that was available at the location. After adjusting the sound levels and reducing bass output, we found the voice was loud and crystal clear
  • The inbuilt microphone on the Macbook. This was also not ideal as it required everyone in the room to speak more loudly than normal though we unfortunately didn’t have a better one available. Next time, we would bring a high quality microphone to ensure remote participants could hear everything being said without issue. 

This worked well with one remote participant, and could possibly scale with more people connecting while still using only one computer input for the live group. If we were having multiple remote participants from different locations, then it would be useful to consider a dedicated laptop screen for each participant so they can be seen the same way.

This embodiment of the remote participant meant they effectively had a seat at the table. This was extremely effective in helping the hybrid collaboration work for all parties.

Embodiment of our colleague, James with a laptop, speaker and a GoPro camera. (And two cooking pots to elevate his camera view :-)

Hybrid meeting difficulties and how to manage them

Still with a relatively adequate video conferencing setup we had a couple of things we learnt how to do better:

  • Lack of non-verbal feedback for remote participants: The non-verbal communication that you observe so easily on people around is barely noticeable for the remote participants. 
    • Tip: whenever remote team members comment, acknowledge verbally that you’ve heard them and if you agree or disagree.
  • Sharing whiteboard content: any notes written on a physical whiteboard is nearly impossible to see through a webcam from several meters away. 
    • Tip: Either have a dedicated camera zoomed in on the whiteboard, or have somebody take pictures and share them regularly with remote participants.
  • Involving in interactive activities – e.g. brainwriting type of activities where you note ideas on post its:
    • Tip: We had them written up in Slack and somebody copied them on post-its while others were presenting.

Involvement in games, icebreakers and social activities

While the tips above – and a degree of empathy and patience both from live and remote team members – can help to get remote participants to be heard and involved at important work discussions, there are also the social activities that might make up your company retreat. 

Not everything can be done with remote participants, especially as a great deal of non-work interaction happens spontaneously, but with some foresight you can plan a more inclusive event. 

Here are a few tips for energiser activities that work for hybrid setups.

  • Simple games like Giants-Wizards-Elves or a rock-paper-scissors tournament work great in hybrid set-ups. The rules are easy to understand, it’s easy for people in different locations to interact with one another and the slight delay can add laughter to proceedings too. Try to have someone in charge of pairing up players and ensuring remote participants are included. This can keep things moving and help the group all have fun. 
  • Physical activities that get everyone moving like Shake Down can also make all the difference in a hybrid company retreat. Remote participants in particular are likely to be seated for a long time and we all know that Zoom fatigue is real! Getting everyone moving is a great activity that can bring some silliness to energy to proceedings!

Outside of scheduled work time, it’s also great to include some social activities where team members from remote locations can join in. Sadly, we only realised after two hours of playing self-defined charades that this would be a perfect activity for a hybrid team setup. Something to keep in mind for next time! 

3. Focus on what is hardest to do online

Prior to the pandemic, we used our live team meetings to align on strategy, plan the upcoming quarters, and workshop more complex product challenges.

After almost 2 years of the pandemic, we had run and improved each of these activities in virtual settings. As a team, we felt that building human bonds with one another is more difficult to do online and so we wanted this to be the focus of our team retreat..

Many of us on the team have kids and thus parental duties call them home after work hours, while others are dedicated to hobbies and sports. In any busy company, it can be hard to find time to just organically hang out and to get to know each other better. (Organised time helps though!)

We also felt that we hadn’t previously aligned together as a team on values and culture. Culture and attitude fit is one of the most important factors we look for when looking for new people to join our team. Yet this was undocumented and so not clearly spelled out for everyone. 

Such a process requires a lot of complex conversation to really understand what matters to everyone, and to align on the values we altogether find the most important.

For this team retreat, we decided to focus on:

  • Defining our core values
  • Aligning on our team culture
  • Teambuilding and give enough opportunity and free time for people to bond
In the process of narrowing down on values that are important to us as a team

4. Facilitation

It is tempting to think that the working sessions of a team retreat are just like any other intra-company meetings and that we’ll get by with the usual level of facilitation done by managers and other team members. So why not just do the same again here?

  • Being a facilitation enthusiast myself, I enjoy designing and facilitating workshops. But the last time I facilitated a team culture workshop was more than 5 years ago. Having someone who is both an experienced facilitator and an expert makes a big difference in the outcomes.
  • Hiring a good facilitator and taking your whole team to a retreat comes with a price tag.  But remember: spending everyone’s time well in a properly facilitated session and leaving with a sense of accomplishment and motivation after 1.5 years of not seeing each other is worthy of your time, effort and money.
  • Don’t mix roles: The role of a facilitator is to create participation while staying neutral. Facilitating a technical planning session as a team member might be okay, but leading the process of define culture and values is nearly impossible to do neutrally as both a participant and a facilitator.
  • Allow everyone to participate fully: Not being the facilitator myself also allowed me to fully participate in the conversation without having to think of group facilitation. I also didn’t feel exhausted by wearing multiple hats, so I still had energy to spend good time with our team members. Win-win!
  • Have a dedicated person controlling the room (live and virtual): When seeing your colleagues, it’s great to be able to spend time with them without needing to control the room and the agenda. Having a dedicated person who watches out for everyone being able to participate and keeps the group on schedule. 

The list could go on, and we were super happy to have a great facilitator running our 2-day team values workshop – credits to Ivana!

We are also grateful for Ivana to bring our attention to positive psychology – we used the first day of our workshop to deep dive into identify our core strengths and highlight the strengths we see in each other too. 

Getting to know your strengths is an important part of positive psychology. Gallup’s research has shown that people who get to practice their strengths on a daily basis are three times more likely to be satisfied with their lives and six times more likely to be engaged at work so it really does pay off to bring your strengths to your awareness.

We used the VIA Character Strengths Survey and Positran’s Strengths Cards for that exploration. Everyone had a chance to get to know their strengths, reflect on how he or she uses them at work/home and understand what advantages they bring to their lives. 

We also got to know each other through learning more about everyone’s strengths and what each member has to bring to the team. Finally, we also collectively reflected on what are the team’s strengths – which need not be the same as the strengths of individuals in the team. The whole dive in this topic left people feeling energized, proud and with lots of good insight. 

Some extra comments from the facilitator’s perspective:

  • Remember to have people moving around as much as possible, have them do work on their feet, ask them to write something down on the flipchart, use energizers frequently so to keep people on the move
  • In a hybrid setting make sure to check often enough with the person joining virtually how they’re doing and whether or not something needs to be changed in the setting so they can participate more easily 
  • Smile and have fun :)

Happily recognising our strengths

For the Values and Culture Definition process, we used the Culture Design Canvas – credits to Gustavo Razzetti for sharing this framework in the SessionLab facilitation library.

Culture Design Canvas #culture #culture change #purpose #team alignment #remote-friendly 

The Culture Design Canvas is a framework for designing the culture of organizations and teams. You can use it to map the current culture, design the future state, and evolve your company culture.

We found it an effective way to structure our thinking and engage productively with what can be an especially complicated process! 

5. Work vs social time

Finding a good balance between work and social time is important – especially when you see your teammates so rarely in person.

When bringing people to a nice location that requires long travel, be sure to allow time and space for them to enjoy it. You want the event to be memorable and fun, as well as productive. You have no reason to pull long working hours and burn everyone out!

Remember that the idle time spent next to the pool chatting, eating, or walking to the beach are often the place to have the conversations that build team bonds.

Lastly, give people private time (enough breaks) to catch up with family left at home. Many of us have partners and small kids at home, and getting away from them for nearly a full week is less difficult if there is ample time to communicate. 

We were also sure to include a completely work free day. This was a great opportunity to just hang out while participating in an activity. We went on a boat trip and explored some of Croatia’s natural beauty together! It was so nice to reflect and spend time together outside of our usual working environments.

 SessionLab on a boat

6. Games to facilitate social interaction

Games and icebreakers were also an important part of building bonds at our company retreat. During working hours, this meant including some energizer games and icebreakers in the agenda to keep things fresh while also ensuring we spent time engaging socially. 

Practical and fun energizer games

Go bananas is a great simple energizer we used twice – once with the phrase Go Bananas and a second time with the Queen song We Will Rock You. Both occasions resulted in high energy and laughter, which was great! Remember that just having fun together and being a little silly can help build bonds between members of your team. 

Go Bananas #hyperisland #energiser 

This fast, physical and loud energizer, has a high level of silliness and quickly charges up a group. The group repeats a simple chant over and over again, getting louder and louder as they go. By the end, the group is shouting and jumping about.

We also found the equilateral triangles collaboration game to be fun, energizing and instructive too. Moving around and using non-verbal communication to complete the game was a great way to generate laughter and bring new flavours into the workshop. 

Equilateral Triangles Collaboration #energiser #warm up 

Equilateral Triangles Collaboration is an excellent conference icebreaker that highlights how large self-organizing groups can successfully collaborate without the need for stringent rules, regulations and leadership.

As an icebreaker in a workshop or conference that has ‘collaboration’ or ‘self-organization’ as a key theme.

The fact it was a beautiful day in the sun didn’t harm things either!

Chasing each other while trying to create equilateral triangles :)

When defining our company purpose, we also played a game where everyone came up with their definition using simple building blocks before explaining it to the group. This was a great way of bringing variety into the workshop and encouraged members of the team to share their creative sides. It was especially nice to see everyone’s different approaches and creations! 

What is our purpose? – Explaining it with play building blocks

Activities outside of working sessions

We also made sure to make time to go out for dinner as a group and learn more about each other in a relaxed atmosphere. It can be easy to take this kind of social interaction for granted and forget to include it in the agenda for your company retreat. Ordering pizzas and crashing around the kitchen table might work for you, but it’s worth remembering the benefits of a lovely sit down meal! 

Charades is a simple and really fun game to play, especially when you add a twist that everyone present can note down words and expressions to act out, and then we all play as a team to guess (except each time the person who submitted it). It gets fun when words from your own team’s subculture or the previous day’s events start appearing and you see your colleagues get extremely creative both in coming up with hard assignments and then acting out those!

We also brought a set of collaborative board games – where you don’t play against each other, but you rather need to win as a team against the game. Magic Maze was a team favorite this time – giving a good boost of energy while we worked together to escape and win :-)

In conclusion

It’s not easy running a great company retreat during a global pandemic. We found that by carefully planning and focusing on what was important to our team, we were able to build team bonds and be productive too. 

We hope that the above is helpful and might inspire you during your next team retreat, whether it’s hybrid, virtual or live! Have any thoughts or want to share what you did at your company retreat? We’d love to hear from you below!

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