Lessons from a Remote Company's Virtual Retreat

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Woman working on her computer with a beach background

Each year, DockYard flies all employees to a company retreat. These retreats provide an opportunity to bond with colleagues and have fun. Typically, we have a morning meeting on the first full day after everyone arrives, and a voluntary team dinner, but otherwise, the time is unscheduled. This leaves employees plenty of time to do whatever they choose. This year, we had to push our retreat out twice before realizing that getting together in person just wasn’t in the cards. Not wanting to skip the retreat experience, we realized that we needed to do something our company was already well-versed in, make it virtual!

The Details

We compiled a small group of employees to plan and organize the brand new, fully-remote retreat. This helped us gain a number of perspectives on unique activities and how to implement them. A virtual event meant we were tasked with the experience whereas previously the resort was the experience and team members made their own plans.

With employees in 5 different time zones across the US and Europe, scheduling was a bit difficult. One of our employees pitched in (vital to virtual event success) and put a simple spreadsheet together with each time zone at the top to find the 5 hours we had overlapping among the team. From there, we planned all the events. Some events required pre-registration, and others were open for whoever wanted to participate. This encouraged flexibility for our working parents and busy teams.

Virtual Team Effort

We were fortunate to be able to lean on our employee’s talents to make the remote retreat a success. Some team members led a cooking and baking session, others gathered to share their love of crafting, and still more bonded over board games. If crafting or gaming wasn’t preferable, we even offered a meditation group for those needing some zen time. The entire company laughed, played, and spent quality time together from the safety of their homes—a huge success!

To keep all of the tracks and pre-work organized, we created a Google Site to manage everything. This allowed us to have a single source of information for our employees. Each event had a page with links to any necessary information including the Google Meet link. There was an FAQ section as well that we updated in real-time as questions come in that we hadn’t anticipated. This made the entire retreat flow nicely as it was an open way of communicating and fast-tracking awesome ideas.

But First, Communication

For our in-person retreat, we always began with a company stand-up. Keeping this tradition was a small way of showing employees consistency and commitment to highlighting their work at the end of the year. This segued into a Town Hall to discuss any questions or concerns from the team. Again, this gave employees a chance to share ideas, shout-outs, or general questions; leading to a transparent and fun event. Afterward, we had a meal break and broke out into the smaller, employee-chosen sessions.

All of the company meetings and instructional sessions were recorded so others could watch later if they were unable to attend or wanted to review the information again. This was something employees noted as helpful and we highly suggest implementing it for your next virtual event. Over-communicating, especially when yarn-made llamas are concerned, is definitely a good thing.

Of course, no retreat is complete without a little company swag - typically a t-shirt - designed by our extraordinarily talented in-house Designers. This year’s retreat was different so we created fun, unique swag to reflect that. We then shipped it to each employee’s home along with a craft kit of their chosen group session, ahead of time. And in lieu of resort meals, we provided a stipend as well as any ingredients needed for the baking or cooking sessions.

Gather Your Laptops, It’s Team Time

Who wouldn’t prefer to meet in person? Especially when in years past this meant waving from a beach chair in the Bahamas. However, we pivot as a company daily, so moving our retreat online was no different.

Our team prioritized providing time, both structured and unstructured to emphasize self-care and teammate bonding time. Whether baking bread, constructing felt succulents or cooking vegan spaghetti bolognese, there was something for everyone. It was a brand new way for teammates to showcase their hidden talents and show another side of themselves.

Overall, the time spent in smaller groups was incredibly beneficial for getting to know one another on a deeper level while trying something new. The team had a lot of fun and is looking forward to continuing smaller-scale, one-day versions of employee-bonding activities on a quarterly basis.

Top Tips for Planning Your Virtual Event

  • You need more time than you think - if an event is blocked for an hour, give a ½ hour gap before the next event. We found that our events bled over and we’d have to jump off a call to make it to the next one. Even if they ended on time, everyone would appreciate a break.

  • Google Sites (or similar) is a great resource - it had all of our information in one place. A dedicated Slack channel is also important not only for coordination, but also to see the creations stemming from our crafting, baking, or cooking sessions.

  • Be ready to pivot. Our Town Hall went over and we decided to use the Workshop time (to discuss what came out of the Town Hall) as an overflow Town Hall.

  • Do not jam-pack the day with events. Part of the beauty of a retreat is relaxation. We provided content for the 5 hours of overlap and left it at that. Before/after that time wasn’t scheduled but we found employees created their own virtual “happy hours”.

  • Over-Communicate. There were individuals that weren’t sure what was an acceptable use of the time would be. I think we assumed people realized that any non-scheduled time was time for them to do what they wanted to do. Also, aside from the company meetings, all other events were voluntary and I feel we should have made sure that was clear.

  • It takes a village. Had I been left to my own devices I’m sure there would have been huge misses in engagement and enjoyment. Find a small group of people to come up with ideas and lean on them to assist with the planning process.

At the end of the day, I believe we managed to pull off a long-distance retreat that felt close. Hopefully next year we can see each other in person but until then, we think we’ve cracked the code on fun, inclusive, and unique virtual team-building events.

DockYard is a digital product consultancy specializing in user-centered web application design and development. Our collaborative team of product strategists help clients to better understand the people they serve. We use future-forward technology and design thinking to transform those insights into impactful, inclusive, and reliable web experiences. DockYard provides professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full-stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. From ideation to delivery, we empower ambitious product teams to build for the future.