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I Met My Co-Workers for the First Time On a 5-day Retreat in Thailand — Here’s What I Learnt

During the last week of March this year, our company Shield GEO met in a Phuket resort for five days of working, eating and learning together. As a global company with workers across the US, Europe, Asia and Australia this was the first time, in Shield’s four-year history, that we would all be in the same place at the same time.

Our founders Tim and Duncan had always wanted to put on a retreat as soon as it was financially viable.

“As soon as the time was right, it was top of Tim’s list of things to do for the company,” says Stella, our HR Manager who spent months putting the trip together.

I started at Shield in January with no knowledge of the upcoming retreat. I first heard about the forthcoming trip via Stella a few days after my start date. In one email, she welcomed me onboard and asked me to send through some potential flight options.

A retreat happening so soon after starting with a new company felt both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.

I loved the fact I had accepted a position with a company who would do something like this for their team but, as a somewhat shy person, I also felt slightly apprehensive about going overseas with a group of people I hadn’t yet met.

Dewa Resort, Phuket.

Thankfully over the few months before setting off, I met the Sydney team, worked on a few company-wide projects, wrote up profiles of some employees and participated in a daily video chat for remote workers in the Asia timezone. This, coupled with my day-to-day interaction with my manager Sujay and the rest of the marketing team helped me to get to know some of my colleagues, and I could relax knowing they weren’t unapproachable or unwelcoming but interesting people I was looking forward to spending time with.

There were two new additions to our team after me who also joined us in Phuket which I thought was both brave on their part and incredibly accommodating from Shield.

Although I missed out on part of the lead-up, the reveal and the building excitement over the upcoming trip– something I’m sure is a big part of the overall bonding experience, it was lovely to join in for the final few months. Most video conferences were ended with an excited, “See you soon!”, “See you in Thailand!” or “Can’t wait to meet you!” and emails had a similar buzz with countdowns pinged across continents.

Our first night together

Upon reflection, I feel like these shared experiences were a huge part of the retreat, expanding its impact from five days together to months of anticipation beforehand and countless memories to reminisce after.

Flying from Australia to Thailand isn’t too bad, as far as international flights go (from Australia, at least). I boarded my flight around 7am armed with snacks, headphones and a good book and landed that evening having not touched my book but eaten all of my snacks. Shout out to Singapore Airlines for a great film selection, I guess.

With a busy month prior, and the planning component of the trip taken care of, I didn’t give too much thought about the fact I would actually be in Thailand. Most of my thoughts were consumed with meeting everyone and making sure the broken-up week wouldn’t impact my to-do list too much. So, it wasn’t until I was winding through the streets of Phuket on my way to our resort that I was suddenly hit with the realisation. I’d been to Thailand a few years ago and loved the vibrancy, people and food. Seeing it again triggered a flood of memories, and I felt incredibly grateful to be there.

Nice and sunny, just moments before the tropical storm hit us

The resort was a short drive from the airport with attentive staff, winding paths through tropical gardens, and a big enticing pool after a full day spent flying. My room had a huge king bed, amazing shower (which I proceeded to use at least three times a day to combat the extreme humidity), and a sweet little balcony. The rooms were big enough to work in without feeling claustrophobic, and had desks which helped. Nice work, Stella!

Our retreat covered five days, Sunday a day for travel and recovery, Monday to Wednesday planned conference meetings, activities and work and Thursday to head home. Many of the longer travellers from the US or Europe opted to extend the trip arriving early or leaving later to make the most of their many, many hours flying. Once again, reminding me how great it is to work for a company who promotes truly flexible working conditions.

We ate all our meals together in one snaking line which would often require pulling together the bulk of the restaurant’s tables. A group of 26 is certainly significant, but it was always well received. Often, smaller groups would emerge once we’d seated to share meals banquet style. Here, we discovered the foodie sisters Kim and Jessica and their knack for selecting the best items on the menu. Meal times were also where we got to know each other by asking about families and passions and laughing at stories between bites of noodles, curries and whole-baked fish.

Street food at a night market on our last night in Phuket

Maybe the most memorable meal was a lunch on the beach which coincided with a massive tropical storm. We huddled around tables in groups of five or six as our generous hosts set up umbrellas to shield us from the bulk of the rain.  We had street dogs joining us for shelter, big fat raindrops landing in our food and incredible views of the beach transformed by the weather. The walk back to the hotel was just as eventful with many of us misjudging a break in the rain for the storm finishing. A complete soaking, lots of laughing and drowned rat selfies ensued.

The only other contender was the final evening spent sharing street food in a night market in Phuket village. We all pulled up chairs, shared our finds among everyone and kept going back for more. People tried eating crickets and grubs and other Thai delights all washed down with a Singha beer. This was the best meal of the trip except for the unfortunate after effects of horrible food poisoning that affected half the group. Unlucky.

Our HR Consultant Stella leading a session on Trust

The morning conference portions were actually some of my favourite parts of the trip. We covered a lot in three mornings, and it felt very unifying for a team that had never officially met. The first day introduced each of the teams and their role in the overall company. This was super helpful as it gave faces to names, and as a new member of the Shield team, took my understanding of the Shield product to the next level.

“I think that was helpful for everyone that’s been here [for a while] because things have changed so much between the roles and within the roles that I don’t think everyone was aware of what the other teams do,” Stella says.

“It was also good for new people to understand how the machine works.”

Time for some games

Tim, Duncan and Stella also rolled out our company values with interactive components. We received training for giving and receiving feedback and had a particularly moving session on privilege led by Asia.

Morning sessions were followed by long lunches and then free time for activities and catching up on work.

Most of the team got the opportunity for at least one massage, hit the beach or pool and took a trip to Phuket village.

In the afternoons, groups met up in hotel rooms, poolside or at the restaurant to work through tasks alongside each other – an experience many of the Shield team go without when working entirely from home.

Working next to each other, a first for many of us

Working in the same location as my colleagues allowed me to have meetings and interviews face-to-face. This included an interview with Eliz for an upcoming story while walking along the beach and a one-on-one meeting with Sujay at the breakfast table.

As I’m sure was the intention, this experience helped me bond with my colleagues, many of which I’d never met before. It made me feel a part of this team despite living and working in a city without anyone else from Shield. It also increased my investment in the company. My work with Shield no longer lives in a tiny space on my computer during work hours but has contributed to real life experiences that have taken me to amazing places I have loved.

– Bree Caggiati 2019

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