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Your Company’s Retreat is Cancelled — Now What?

In March 2020, the Shield team watched (alongside the rest of the world) as countries began shutting down borders, initiating quarantine orders and calling back overseas travellers. 

With our annual retreat set to take place the following month in tropical Bali, it became quite clear we’d have to postpone and eventually cancel. 

Similar stories have come out from many distributed international teams like HelpScout, AgoraPulse, Poll everywhere and Microverse

“At the end of March and beginning of April was going to be our first official team retreat in Lisbon,” says Head of Marketing at Microverse, Meesen Brown.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

And, while of course cancelled travel plans aren’t the worst outcome of this pandemic it definitely changed the course of how 2020 looked for remote teams. Instead of having some in-person fun with our normally distributed teams, meeting new team members for the first time and working through some meaningful discussions, we’ve grappled with how to bring our retreat events online. 

A virtual retreat is definitely a different experience. It takes a different sort of planning and commitment, it requires different activities to ensure everyone feels connected, and there are undoubtedly different barriers to overcome, like time zones and Zoom fatigue. But we’ve found that it’s not impossible. 

In this article, we hear from both the Head of Marketing at Microverse, Meesen Brown and Shield’s own Head of HR Stella Huang on what they’ve learned from planning virtual retreats and how you can integrate them into your team schedule. 

Figure out your why for the retreat

When deciding whether to take your retreat online or just wait out the year, it’s important to figure out what you were hoping to gain from the experience. 

If your priorities were heavily contingent on the specific location you were hoping to visit, there’s not too much you can do. But if it was more about deepening relationships, celebrating successes and working through company changes or initiatives, there is still plenty you can do in an online space. 

“No matter what, we wanted to prioritise getting together and connecting,” Meesen says. “Whether that happened in person or not, we just wanted that to happen.”

By figuring out your main priority, it will help you figure out an action plan. 

Do you want to give your team a break from work? 

Do you want to get to know your team better? 

Do you want to roll out new initiatives and have discussions around the future? 

Do you want to spend time together in a non-work capacity? 

The answers to these kinds of questions will help you prioritise what to include in your sessions and how much time you’ll need to commit. 

Decide on a schedule

If you’ve already alerted your clients that you’ll be off for a week or responding in a limited capacity, it makes sense to use the week you have already set aside for their retreat, and simply run sessions via Zoom rather than hotel conference rooms. 

“Initially the plan for the in-person retreat was that we would work mornings and then we would have the afternoons set aside for activities, and we would all go into what we call ‘lite mode’,” Meesen says. 

For the virtual retreat, they tried to emulate that with half days (morning or afternoon depending on the time zone), and running group calls for the remainder of the day.

“But five straight days of four-hour Zoom calls on top of any other meetings we had in a day? We realised it was a lot.”

To combat this Zoom fatigue, Microverse made some sessions opt-out. 

“We had this almost mandatory time where we did more crucial learning activities, and we really wanted to see everyone involved and then the last hour and a half was like if you have to leave to put the kids to bed or you have a meeting you can’t move then it’s ok to miss,” Meesen says. 

“It was a nice balance.” 

However, it was still one of the points they would revise for their next virtual retreat. 

“In future, we would either have a smaller portion of the day for retreat activities or have maybe a three-day retreat instead.”

Shield decided to try another method and space out our sessions and instead run two per month over a longer period. 

“Keeping someone engaged and focussed over video is a lot harder than having their focus in person,” Stella says. 

“The plan is for the last two weeks of each month to have one session blocked out each week of no more than an hour,” Stella says. 

While this, of course, takes away from the intensity of meeting for a week in person. We felt this catered to our current times a little better.

“We would have had three hours each morning together on the retreat, and when you break that up into hour blocks it’s going to take three weeks to get to one day’s worth of time,” Stella admits. “But I think that’s kind of nice too. It’s something to look forward to — oh cool I have an hour ‘off’ next week to play games with my colleagues and get to know them a little better which I think is a good thing.”

It ups the contact time over a more extended period of time, which is something we’ve found more necessary as we all face this pandemic together. 

Should you plan something entirely new or try to reuse in-person plans?

For both Microverse and Shield, the answer is a bit of both. 

“A lot of the team building activities were already planned,” Meesen says. “And, pretty much all of those we were able to transition online.” 

Pick virtual friendly activities

As a company that essentially offers virtual learning, taking workshops and presentations online wasn’t too tricky. However, it’s not exactly the same for the more fun focussed portion of the retreat.

“The games and activities part was all adhoc because we were like, ‘well, what are some fun team building activities that we can do online?'” she says.

In-person games are generally quite physical, and it can be difficult to translate that energy into a virtual space. 

They settled on games like meme-making, bad photoshop contests and yoga and stretching sessions. 

“It was kind of a merge of definitive things we had planned, things we had to adapt to and things that probably would have ended up happening but we just had to integrate it virtually.”

For Shield, the program has for the most part been completely re-written to cater to our new virtual experience. 

“We got inspiration from all the activities that have been happening online, that people have been doing with their families during coronavirus times,” Stella recalls. 

“For example, trivia that was probably the easiest one to do — it was something that my group of friends most weekends for almost two months.” 

She even stole some of their questions! 

Use technology but keep it simple

By taking the retreat online, you’ll, of course, have to utilise technology to stay in touch. 

When doing something new like a full week of company-wide sessions, it’s a good idea to rely on programs that are already familiar to your team. 

For most teams, using programs like Zoom, slack channels or other software like Donut or Zapier should all be fairly standard particularly if you’re remote. So, you’ll likely have enough variety to make it work. 

“We wanted to make sure that we made use of the things that people already have without making it too complicated,” Stella says. She recalls a trivia session where we used our smartphones to log in and submit questions, while we also used our computers for our Zoom call, and the host shared the answers on their screen. 

“Even that was more complicated than I thought it would be and took a while to get sorted,” she says. 

She wanted to steer clear of downloading apps and extras to make everything as easy and accessible as possible. 

But that isn’t to say the sessions can’t also be a learning experience. 

“One of the things we’re trying to do is get people used to all the functionalities of the apps that we already use,” Stella says. “We’ve been using Zoom breakout rooms for games and activities because eventually, we want to use that to our advantage when we discuss more difficult topics.”

By getting people used to new features in low stakes, sessions make it more seamless later, when it’s more important to get things right.

Manage between time zones

Time zone management will be different for everyone and largely depends on where your team lives. If you’re managing two time zones, it’s still relatively easy to manage to get together with some adjustments to the regular 9 – 5. You’ll still need to be mindful of people’s responsibilities at different times in their day, though. Particularly parents needing to cook dinner for their children or drop them at school or daycare in the morning. 

“We’re pretty lucky,” Meesen says. “With the exception of one person who did stay up very late to come, which was very lovely, we fit pretty well into the hours that we were already accustomed to.”

In contrast, the Shield team sits across three distinct time zones — EMEA, APAC and the Americas. 

For the retreat sessions so far, each time zone has been split into 3 competing teams — A, B and C. With the points from each round adding up together. So, the team A from each zone are part of one larger team as was team B and so on. 

“It’s very hard to meet people in the complete opposite end of your time zone,” Stella says. 

Which was, of course, one of the major drawcards of meeting in-person. 

“It was good that we had three really clear cut time zones,” Stella says. “But in saying that the way that our teams are structured, you still have more teams in certain areas. For example, APAC region is filled with finance people, not very many GM people or IM people. The opposite is true for EMEA and America. Though they do have a bit more of a mix with people in tech, people in marketing, and GM and Implementation.”

This structure makes it very easy for teams to work together, but makes inter-team connection quite difficult. 

“The virtual sessions have ended up more about deepening relationships we already had rather than developing new ones,” Stella admits.

Understand the limitations and benefits of a virtual retreat

I think there’s always going to be a little bit of a gap there just because it’s different when you are in person. It’s challenging to achieve that sort of atmosphere of being in someone’s presence,” Stella says. “But we can get pretty close doing it virtually.” 

Meesen agrees. 

“We didn’t know how possible or how easy this was going to be, but we did learn you can do A LOT virtually,” she says. “I do think the idea of a team retreat in person was really fun for people so I think we’ll still want to do it when we can.” 

She even says that the virtual retreat is better in some ways as it means everyone can attend. 

“Every single person joined in for at least a part of it,” she says. 

It’s also somewhat easier and cheaper to organise too, meaning you can have them more often. 

“We did talk about doing another mini version of this retreat or implementing some of the workshops into a more regular schedule,” Meesen says. 

“I think doing it at least every six months is something that we want to prioritise.”

But even without the organised sessions, Meesen has noticed more impromptu team connections crop up since the retreat perhaps because it’s easier to transition a week of intense online connection to a regular remote work schedule than in-person to online. 

Of course, nothing beats the real thing, and we’re all extremely hopeful for next year. But while we wait, virtual retreats are certainly the next best thing. 

– Bree Caggiati

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