Whisk’s Company Retreat: The Glue That Keeps a Remote Team Firing for the Rest of the Year
It was a sunny Saturday in a city of pastel-coloured buildings, cobblestone streets, pastel de nata (a dessert you can’t get enough of), and Ponte 25 de Abril, when Whisk team members slowly started to arrive from different parts of the world to the 4th Whisk retreat. The retreat was scheduled for October 8-12 and Lisbon was the city that won the company-wide survey for the most-wanted location this year.
Why Company Retreat?
“How lovely for you all to have a nice team holiday!” you might be thinking, but as Nick Holzherr says, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“A good retreat is the glue that keeps a remote team firing for the rest of the year. It’s the glue that holds us together, the annual oil change that keeps the machine ticking smoothly when poor wifi connections and difficult conversations get in the way.”
As a remote team, Whisk’s team are used to working from our homes, coffee shops, offices, at the airport, and wherever else we can plug in a laptop. Though working remotely might not be for everyone, we’ve found it to be a fantastic way to find, hire and keep super-talented people, keep costs down and offer almost around the clock support for our global clients.
Without daily commutes and office distractions, remote working drives far higher productivity than traditional organisational models.
Year round, Whisk coordinates with the highly efficient meetings:
- Daily stand up meetings
- Weekly Roadmap to set priority projects
- Bi-weekly retrospective to review the wins and fails
- Quarterly OKR setting and review
- And constant comms through Flowdock, Google Docs and Google Hangouts
But, despite all the advantages of remote working, we still find that our team gets stronger when we meet in person. Just seeing what someone really looks like compared to their hangout profile picture is a revelation!
That’s why after successful retreats in Budapest, and then Prague, and then Madrid, we are certain that the retreat has become a crucial part of Whisk’s culture.
Because of that, every 6-12 months, Whisk flies the whole team out to a retreat location, pays for flights, Airbnbs, food and drink to have everyone live, work, and spend time with each other. The goal is to work on building relationships and collaborations that will continue long after switching back to remote working.
The first day in Lisbon
So, it’s Monday morning 8.30-ish, and groups of us are leaving our Airbnbs to meet in Impact Hub to get down to a full day of work.
We bumped into each other right outside and shook hands, vaguely recognizing each other from Google Hangouts profile pictures. Though many of the team had met before, the team is twice as big as it was last year and many of the team members still haven’t had a chance to meet in person.
The day starts with Nick, our CEO, walking us through the overview of the retreat, what to expect, and the team developer challenge for the week and how delivering the challenge will accelerate roadmap priorities.
Then we all enjoy Nick and Whisk’s exciting and hilarious history including Nick’s coffee startup, being a finalist on the Apprentice and much more (that’s worth a video in itself).
We all introduce ourselves to the team and share a fun fact about us. We learn how many places the team members have lived around the world and where they live now. That we could form a Whisk ukulele orchestra, and that the biggest concern is getting poisoned by food while on retreat, which puts a lot of pressure on Marc and Stuart who’ve been crazy enough to volunteer to buy lunch and book restaurants for dinner.
It’s a good laugh and we all go to work on projects in groups – the tech team get to work on their retreat project, the data team pick up a big client project and commercial get down with project management to work through getting faster and smoother project delivery.
How did we choose the location?
Choosing the location for the retreat is always a team decision. Everyone is welcome to propose a location and then the voting part begins. We use Google Forms to vote on the location the team members find is the most interesting.
Since we live in different parts of the world, choosing a location that suits everyone, sometimes can be a challenge. Even though Thailand was in the mix this year, the team narrowly voted against it. Long journeys, tricky visas for a short week of meetings plus managing jet lag at a busy time of year helped Lisbon win out – maybe next time.
How did we plan the trip?
Google Docs is our good friend when planning the retreat. We use it to store all the information about where we’re staying, who’s sharing apartments with whom, and we make sure we all have access to everyone’s contact information, so we can easily keep in touch. We also created a group on Telegram to help us communicate while in Lisbon.
In the organizational doc, we plan in mini-sessions and 121s throughout the week as well. The fun part of all of us working together from one place is that we can have plenty of face to face meetings to move some ideas and projects forward.
Where we stayed?
We stayed in Airbnbs conveniently set around LX Factory neighbourhood, close to Impact Hub Lisbon where we worked. Impact Hub was a great place to work from, the team from Impact Hub were very friendly and helpful and we all got to meet each other and share a meal on Tuesday as part of their traditional community lunch.
What we did?
When you have a week in a city, you want to feel like you’ve really experienced the place. We always cram in a lot of non-work activities and it also helps build the team – especially for members travelling with a partner.
- We went to dinners and tried some of the scrumptious local food every night
- We visited Time Out Food Market in Lisbon, which is the large food hall with 24 restaurants to choose from; and needless to say it took a long time to choose just one meal for dinner.
- We played Durak, a card game from Russia (even though some of the team members still don’t know how to play it, but we’re told that it’s so easy that children in Russia learn how to play it even before they’re 5-years old)
- We rode Lime scooters: a bumpy ride but what a hoot. It seems Lisbon is not the best place for riding scooters with its cobblestone streets, but, it was great fun for all.
- We walked around the city for two hours with a guide called Chico and learned some unconventional stories about Lisbon history.
- We went to listen to fado on a Thursday night in a cosy, local restaurant. Part of the team was not sure whether they’ll like it, but we were all pleasantly surprised and had an awesome night.
What happens after the retreat?
Once the retreat is over we like to get the feedback from the team. We send out a survey to learn more about what were the favourite things for each one of us, things we haven’t enjoyed, what could be better next time, and give a score of 1-10 as our overall feeling about the retreat. Finally, we share our preferences as to when and where the next retreat should take place.
There is still a sense that in a genuinely remote business we should be able to find ways to work well without having to meet face to face. But, so far we haven’t found anything nearly as effective.