What we learned from our first company retreat

Published 2015-01-13 by

“What happens in Barcelona will definitely not stay in Barcelona.” That’s one way to describe how we felt when, at the end of our company retreat, we looked back on the past week. This was the first time we did “freistil Days” and it had significant impact on how we work as a team.

Getting the band together

Working as a virtual team certainly has a lot of advantages but there are obvious limitations to social interaction when it’s done over digital connections. We felt that we could learn to know each other better meeting in the real world. After reading how other distributed companies like Buffer, Automattic and Zapier found regular team retreats a great boost to coherence and trust within their teams, we decided to try it out ourselves. So we started preparing our very own “freistil Days” and finally boarded our flights on 6 October 2014.

In order to get a bit more Vitamin D, we had chosen sunny Spain as our first destination. Via airbnb, we booked an apartment in El Poblenou, a coastal suburb of Barcelona. The apartment turned out as nicely decorated as it was pictured on the website and offered everything we needed. After arriving, we first went out for groceries and then started preparing our week by moving the TV set to the dining table and connecting it to an Apple TV. Being able to share a big screen proved ideal for group coding and presentations.

Our standard schedule for each day looked like this:

  • 08:00 Breakfast
  • 09:00 Presentation
  • 10:00 Workshop
  • 13:00 Lunch
  • 14:00 Freestyle
  • 16:00 Workshop
  • 18:00 Freestyle
  • 19:00 Dinner
  • 20:00 Freestyle

We’re freistil IT, so “freestyle” had to be built into the schedule. We wanted to make sure we had enough time to take care of daily business and do spontaneous things, with the group or alone. That’s why we put in multiple “freestyle slots” during each day. Additionally, we reserved a day and a half for excursions throughout the city.

Show and tell

The presentation slots in the morning were meant as an opportunity for each team member to talk to a friendly audience. We mainly used these slots to present our personal V2MOM’s. And it turned out that learning more about each coworker’s Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and success Metrics gave us a much better understanding of each person’s position within the company.

In another presentation slot, I went into the details of how my responsibilities are changing with my steady shift from the technology side to the entrepreneurial side of the business.

Team learning

The most important part of our retreat was the workshops. From a long list of topic suggestions, we had picked two related ones: Sharing Chef best practices, and integrating serf into our infrastructure.

Chef is our most important IT tool, it controls every one of the about 400 servers we operate. This makes improving our infrastructure coding skills an obvious goal. We started with discussing the Chef cookbook development workflow and dove into the different cookbook testing tools. As we progressed, we were getting more and more excited to use our new learnings in practice.

So when we found that the existing serf cookbooks didn’t quite meet our newly formed quality standards, we decided to create one ourselves. In order to keep things simple, we started by building basic functionality and adding tests afterwards. Then we got more ambitious and, in true TDD spirit, wrote tests first. The result was a cookbook that will serve us as a reference in terms of code clarity and test coverage.

But I’d paint an incomplete picture if I only mentioned our technological advances. During our work, we had more than one heated discussion. This got us to realise that we tend to hold back much more when we’re talking via webcam, which might in some cases become a breeding ground for dissatisfaction. One of our core values at freistil IT is transparency, so we agreed to be open with each other and not to hold back when ever there is something bothering us.

Business as usual

Although the freistil Days were completely different a setting to our normal work days, we were not living in a bubble. Daily business had to be done, a big part of which is dealing with support requests. In planning our schedule, we had thought that the freestyle slots would be sufficient to take care of the most important stuff. But to pit work duty against spare time isn’t a good idea and turned out to always be a bit of a struggle.

Then there’s also the unexpected stuff. A few days into our company retreat, resolving a severe system outage cost us almost a whole day. And the next morning, another incident made it necessary for us to change our plans again.

All work and no play?

We had reserved ample time to get away from the screen and out of the apartment. A more frequent destination turned out to be the small Italian restaurant down the road that served really great pizza. The Rambla de Poblenou, a restaurant mile, provided us with a huge choice of alternative places to eat. I also found a Starbucks at a nearby shopping mall where I spent some time reading.

Barcelona is known for its architecture, so doing a little sightseeing was a must. Among other things, we took a walk through the Park de la Cuitadella, watched happy people carry their newly released iPhone 6 out of the Apple Store, and had some tasty organic burgers at Kiosko. On the way, we enjoyed the city’s impressive architecture, old and new.

More often than not, we finished our day by going to the beach. To be honest, walking barefoot in the sand while the folks back home were turning on the heating caused me an awkward mix of giddyness and guilt.

What we learned

The most important lesson from our first freistil Days was that meeting in person regularly is important. Spending time with one another allows for different behaviours and dynamics than chatting in a text or video window. We found that it actually didn’t matter as much on which project we worked as that we did it at a shared place. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Our progress as a team came at the expense of our customers as we didn’t spend as much time as usual for responding quickly and elaborately to support requests. Next time, we’ll schedule dedicated time slots for ongoing business in order to avoid dissatisfaction, both on our and our customers’ side. We’ll also make a point of informing customers in advance that we’re going to work under exceptional circumstances for a while.

Here is some feedback from our retrospective:

  • “Even more important than our achievements is what happened between us.”
  • “We need to inform and prepare our customers before we leave for the retreat.”
  • “Next time, let’s use our Twitter account to share updates.”
  • “Having a clear schedule and goals was helpful.”
  • “A week of team experience is much more effective than single-day events like a BBQ.”
  • “It’s been an intensive week, both in terms of productivity and emotions.”

Finally, some practical tips:

  • Chose an apartment with a kitchen over a hotel. Preparing meals is teamwork, too!
  • Bring a 3G hotspot and buy a local SIM card with a data plan so you can share mobile connectivity.
  • Pack an Apple TV or a Chromecast so you can use the big screen TV in the apartment for presentations and group coding.
  • Don’t overschedule. Leave enough flex time for group dynamics to develop.

Our first freistil Days had significant impact on how we function as a team. While we’re very happy about all the advantages we gain from working as a remote team, being able to actually compare how working as a co-located team is different helps us avoid the downsides of the virtual office. That’s why we’re going to make regular freistil Days part of our company culture. From now on, we’ll gather every five months at a different place. I’m already looking forward to March!

Does your company do retreats, too? What’s your experience? What is your most important recommendation? Leave your tips and questions in the comments!