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Lessons Learned from our Winter Company Retreat

We had our first offsite experience in May when we drove to the beautiful Gerês and spent 3 days blowing off steam, having fun and talking lightly about some of our projects.

This time we wanted more. We decided we wanted to spend some time working on something meaningful, that would make a real impact in our daily lives. So we decided to go for a three part program, where we’d have time to: have some fun and practice some sports, discuss our past and our future, and finish off with a hackathon. I’d like to share some thoughts about each of these parts in the hope that it might come in handy when you’re planning your company’s next retreat.

##Choose the place carefully

After deciding what the goals for our retreat would be, we spent a significant amount of time making sure the place we chose allowed us to accomplish all of them. We wanted a quiet space, on a peaceful location, where we could relax and have meaningful, crucial discussions, while still being able to get productive and get some work done on the hackathon.

Douro River banks

We also wanted to cook our own meals, so we needed a well equipped kitchen. We chose this astounding villa at the beautiful Douro river banks. Everything was perfect. A large, open kitchen, a repairing spa room and a breathtaking view.

##Cooking our own meals

Since we began to plan the retreat we knew we wanted to cook our own meals. There are no professional Chefs at Group Buddies but we have some kitchen apprentices that enjoyed preparing their best dishes. There were 2 main arguments that validated this idea: avoid losing time with restaurants (leaving the venue, choosing the restaurant, waiting at the place, etc) and enjoy cooking as a team activity where we collaborated and had a few laughs while fulfilling the rewarding task of feeding our starving team.

Cooking our own meals

The result was fantastic, we couldn’t hope for a better experience. Every meal was delicious and unique, allowing us to keep the momentum, spark some unexpected dynamics and keep everyone involved while discovering some secret skills from our multitalented team.

##For Sports: Do something New

This time we decided to do something that no one in the team had done before but was curious to try. We booked a Golf clinic with an instructor and set a small competition to test our newly acquired skills. It was epic. Getting to hit the ball for the first time was a serious challenge for everyone, but when we started to manage to hit that small thing, the adrenaline pushed for more. Finally, when we got to the competition, Gabriel Poça got the best score, but everyone felt like a winner.

Team playing golf

##Discussing our present and future

We had a well thought-out plan to discuss a series of topics related with the company’s future. The three main points were: vision, values and goals for next year. We had an interesting conversation about our past where we had a detailed, critic view of our highs and lows, we talked about our present and recent achievements and then focused on the future of our company.

Working

We’re a company where everyone is encouraged to speak up and we have a strongly opinionated team, so it can be tricky to handle these discussions and keep everyone on topic. Making sure that we could get excellent outcomes was probably our main encumbrance. In the end we got some very good material, so expect some interesting news from us in the next months.

##Hackathon

When I first shared a questionnaire with the team to gather some feedback on topics for the retreat, one of the suggestions was to spend a day hacking on something that we could ship in the end of the retreat. This gave me opposite feelings. It seemed like an awesome idea to work on something as a team in a different environment, but I wondered if everyone was willing to work during the retreat. Should we focus on having fun and in discussing our progress and plans? Moving further I asked everyone what they thought about the idea of a hackathon and almost everyone thought it was an excellent idea. The more skeptic ones were afraid that we’d end up spending more time discussing business assumptions then actually working on the idea. Eventually we decided to work on an internal tool, something that would improve our daily lives and/or process.

sketch

The whole team came across a bunch of cool ideas that we voted on. Most of the ideas were definitely good and we intend to come back to them in the future, but the winner idea was something to help us improve our internal discussions around certain topics. It was first called twocents, but we later renamed it to Council. Council tries to facilitate our decision making process, by setting an orderly, focused place to discuss topics, while ensuring that precious information is documented for future reference. Everyone is familiar with the problem of discussing things on chats or face-to-face to find out later that no one knows what was decided and how they got to that conclusion. Now, anyone can take a discussion to the Council, debate all the arguments there, extract the pros and cons and then close the discussion, by documenting the outcomes and the main point of views. We know that similar solutions already exist out there, but we definitely wanted to craft this one to perfectly fit our use cases.

###Process for the Hackathon The challenge was to analyse the problem, come up with an efficient solution, then build it and ship it in less than 16h. We started by trying to figure out in what kind of situations we’d benefit from such a tool and what it needed to do to really be helpful in those situations. For that, we worked around the Jobs to be Done framework. The next step was to sketch some flows for the main jobs. After 4 hours we had a clearer vision of what Council would be, so we were ready to start building. We separated the team in two, one to carry on with the design and the other for development, with regular pauses to exchange progresses and to make sure that we were all on the same page. Meanwhile, we did the setup to ship it.

coding

In the end, Council wasn’t polished but it’s first version was up and running. Mission accomplished.

###Council

Council is now a functional internal tool that lives here: council.groupbuddies.com. Our goal is to continue developing it, and grow it as an open source project. If you think Council could come in handy for your team, please drop me a line at roberto@groupbuddies.com or contribute to it on github.

council

##Final Notes We left with a really good feeling, that we were able to craft something quickly and have a great time doing it. We accomplished pretty much every goal we aimed for. The jacuzzi, turkish bath, sauna, the views, even the nice smell will be missed. The discussions will surely bear fruit for the company’s future. Our golf handicap now looks more achievable. We are eager to get back to our office and work on something awesome.

##Quick tips:

  • Pick your spot carefully, make sure it has everything that you need;
  • Cook your own meals;
  • Get a good balance between fun and work;
  • Choose activities that everyone’s excited to take part in;
  • Make sure you finish something and publish it to the world.

Do you have any lessons or tips from your company retreats? If so, let us know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

Roberto Machado

About Roberto Machado

Breathes technology and deeply believes, hence the creation of Subvisual, that it is the medium for a better future. Always has 5 min to listen to you.
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