This is a guest post by Dee Ann Pizzica.
I work at a fully distributed company, and that was the case even before there was a global pandemic. Our team members can’t rely on an office to see each other, so every interaction requires effort and purpose. Sometimes it takes extra work to get people to connect and talk to those outside their immediate teams. Occasionally, it’s even difficult to get individuals who work on the same small team to connect with each other any more than what’s strictly necessary to get the work done.
While you don’t need to be best friends with your co-workers, it often helps to have some relationship with your colleagues and to learn something about their lives. This allows you to build rapport, trust, shared understanding and empathy. In addition, when you enjoy spending time with your colleagues, the experience of working is more pleasurable. With as many hours as we dedicate to our jobs, we deserve every opportunity to have the best possible interactions and to work with people who understand us.
So, how do you bring people together when you’re geographically apart?
An offsite meeting is an occasion to allow distributed team members to gather together, share ideas, and possibly meet in person for the first time. Plus, these events get everyone away from their everyday schedule, provide the perfect opportunity to align on company goals and messaging, and, most importantly, give teams a chance to connect and to play.
This summer our team had planned to travel for a three-day offsite event, but there was no way we could entertain that possibility. However, we also couldn’t allow the event to be canceled; too many team members really needed a break and an opportunity to unwind. We decided to figure out how to host a virtual offsite event. Here’s what we learned, so you can try it too.
It was vital to those of us planning the event that it be personal and fun, in addition to allowing opportunities for team members to connect with each other. We also recognized that people haven’t been able to leave their houses, go on vacation or even work the way they normally would. Everyone in the company was adapting to the situation created by COVID-19, so we wanted to recognize the extra effort that the team was investing in being present in their jobs. Our goal was to make everyone feel special and valued.
The idea started in the leadership team and was then extended to anyone who was interested in joining the planning committee. Unless you would consider hiring a virtual event coordinator, it is helpful to have several planners in order to distribute the work.
Every aspect of the planning needs an assigned champion. Within that group, select one person who will take on the project manager role and keep everyone on track. We gave ourselves two months to plan and had weekly check-ins for discussion and decisions.
Recognizing that our original plan was to get the entire organization together in person, the executive team was already prepared to spend a significant amount of money on this three-day event. Had we met in person, it would have involved flights, hotel stays, meals and activities for everyone on the team. Rather than taking an opportunity to cut all the costs, we settled on a number that was below our original budget but still several hundred dollars per person. We realized we could save money but still cover items like food and gifts, since we would have been responsible for them anyway.
We decided in our initial planning meetings that we wanted to provide all of the following items and experiences:
It was crucial to our planners that this offsite meeting be personalized. We realized that not every person would make all of the same selections, so we created a detailed survey to solicit employee preferences for every aspect of the event.
We wanted everyone to feel special and valued. We also wanted something more than swag this time, and because everyone is working remotely, we chose options we felt could improve their work-from-home lives. The planning committee was unable to settle on the one perfect item that everyone would want, so we chose several.
Options included a bluetooth speaker, an e-reader, and either Google or Apple store credit. Each item’s value was around $200. For more productivity-related options, we considered several items that would directly tie to work and participating in video calls, such as a headset or wireless headphones, a ring light, or a high-quality microphone.
Had we met in person, the company would have covered meals for the duration of the event. As we got into planning our virtual version, we realized we could still offer many of the same food and beverage options, right in employees’ homes.
We found an online coffee and tea vendor within our budget that could ship to each staff member. Each package contained a mix of coffee, tea or both, depending on employee preference indicated in the initial survey.
Our organization has a precedent of purchasing a limited amount of alcohol at in-person events. We opted to include a reimbursable option for employees who wanted to purchase alcohol or any other beverage for our closing happy hour. We made sure to emphasize that the budget could be for any beverage, in order to be as inclusive of our team members’ preferences as possible.
To act as a substitute for catered lunches and dinners, we provided staff members options for local food delivery services or the choice to be reimbursed from local restaurants. For staff members who preferred to prepare their own meals, we offered grocery store gift cards instead. Gift cards were sent to each employee several days prior to the event. We also offered the suggestion that staff could schedule their orders in advance so that they’re not worried about planning meals during a day with a busy schedule.
If all the previous food and drink options weren’t enough, we also put together a snack option. We opted for a company that delivers snack boxes to the US and Canada. We had a choose-your-own or a pre-selected option, with everything shipped directly to each team member. The snacks were a big hit, and it’s something we may continue as an ongoing benefit that we offer to our distributed team.
In order to create an event that would have something for everyone and also let us spread important news about our organization, we needed several different types of events.
These segments allowed company leadership to set forth our goals for the event as well as for our organization. Both of these meetings were pretty typical video calls, with a setup just like our regular staff meetings. Several speakers each had the opportunity to share ideas and to get everyone excited for what is to come, as well as go through logistics.
The closing was a happy hour where each staff member was invited to share one thing that they enjoyed or learned from the virtual offsite event.
The planning committee found an assortment of fun activities and workshops. We opted to avoid technology themes entirely and instead booked workshops on a variety of interesting topics. We found classes for making coffee, tea, tacos and sandwiches. We also found classes for smartphone photography and a magic show. We hired hosts from around the world to bring us into their homes and shops via Zoom.
It felt wonderful to meet presenters from so many different locations, as well as to support them as their tourism-driven businesses were suffering due to restrictions. The feedback about these events was great as well, as many of our staff were sorely missing the opportunity to travel.
A cautionary note about bringing in outside facilitators is that there is still work for your planning team to do. You should interview each presenter to ensure you have a common understanding of goals and offerings. You’ll want to check that the presenter is a person who will work well for your team culture and personality. You also will still need to manage meeting requests, scheduling and payment for each vendor you book.
We opted to host optional games in the evenings. Games are a great way to get teams thinking and connecting in a way that they don’t always have a chance to do during the regular work day. We created invites for three separate groups to cater to everyone’s interests. This included poker and computer gaming, as well as a group for some fun tester games.
Tester games are mind-exercising games enjoyed by testers and engineers alike. They also offer the added benefit of teaching or enhancing valuable skills. Some great tester games that have online options are SET Fluxx https://www.looneylabs.com/games/fluxx and Codenames. SET builds your ability to spot patterns. Fluxx puts you in a situation with ever-changing rules. Codenames forces teams to think very specifically about language and interpretation in order to win.
When you have a normal offsite meeting, everyone is already away from home. It proves more difficult to hold everyone’s attention when they’re still surrounded by all the stress and distractions of normal life. With three full days of events and everyone connecting from home, it proved important to produce a clear schedule that the entire team had access to well in advance of the event. Each event was tagged as required or optional in order for team members to make arrangements to be fully present.
One of our goals was something for everyone. We have staff all across the US and Canada, but also in the UK, the Philippines and Japan. The bulk of the events were optimized for North America because that’s where the bulk of the team is located, but we still needed to schedule workshops so that our other staff could participate. We also ensured that some US staff would attend early or late events in order to interact with the team members outside North America.
Be careful not to overschedule. It is tempting to want to pack the day with a ton of activities, especially if they are fun. But when you book events that run back to back, you risk throwing off the entire schedule if any event runs long.
We made the mistake of booking events one after the other, or only leaving 10- to 15-minute breaks. We learned afterward that staff had wished that there was a little bit more downtime in order to fully process some of the events and think through what they learned.
Many of our staff are at home with families, sharing space all the time. We wanted to create an inclusive environment where at least a portion of the events were family-friendly. We had kids in cooking classes, the magic show and game nights, and we invited partners to trivia.
We were delighted to find that there are a number of companies that facilitate escape room games online. Many of these companies are willing and able to cater to larger groups. This allowed us to structure fun and competitive team-building activities that everyone could get involved in, with a bonus of outsourcing the work of planning the details.
It can be difficult to get each person on the team to participate in a discussion in a large group, so we created space for smaller getting-to-know-you sessions. We selected groups of no more than five people, and we put together people who don’t regularly work together. Each group had a designated facilitator and online tool with games and questions. Although we chose a tool to prompt questions, a good list of icebreaker questions provided to the facilitator could easily suffice.
We wanted to start off each morning of the event with some kind of fitness offering. For us, that meant Zumba, because we have a staff member who is passionate about it. We also hired a yoga teacher who offered an online class. We have found that there are many fitness instructors with different areas of focus who will teach online courses.
As with any new adventure, it is important to get feedback. We sought feedback in a number of ways. After a couple days’ break, we scheduled another happy hour to allow team members to talk about the sessions they most enjoyed or found the most valuable. We also sent out a detailed survey to ask specific questions about each event. Managers spoke with staff in their one-on-ones as well as in smaller team meetings. We looked for what we did well and what we could improve.
The planning committee met the week after to first do a retrospective on our own experiences as both planners and attendees. Then we also went through all of the feedback submitted by the team to make decisions about the ongoing strategy.
More companies than ever before have a fully remote workforce and constraints that restrict travel. Meanwhile, many of us are craving a human connection now more than ever. Many of our teams are working harder and longer hours in distracted conditions and feeling less productive in their work.
It’s critical to offer teams a chance to spend time together and optimize for the current opportunities. If you have a voice in leadership, consider a virtual offsite event. Your team will be better for it.
Dee Ann is a passionate and curious software tester. She has over 15 years of experience in support of small and enterprise-scale custom mobile and web applications with highly complex business logic for clients across a wide variety of industries. Dee Ann is currently working as the Director of Engineering at BRD where she collaborates with a talented team on a cryptocurrency wallet app for iOS & Android.
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