Happy Retreat - a team building journey

Being a remote-centric company, we tremendously enjoy the rare occasions when we have a chance to meet each other in person. We strive to organise Happy Retreats every few months for exactly that purpose. In 2017 we had 2 such opportunities. In June we went to the Sulejów reservoir near Łódź, which is our city of origin and where most of our staff lives (although the geo-diversity is steadily increasing and currently out of 13 Happy Devs just 7 live in Łódź). The second gathering took place in the middle of December in Uniejów, a little town near Łódź that recently has made a name for itself thanks to massive investments in geo-thermal springs. They have built a huge aquapark with outside pools open all year round. There is also a recently renovated castle nearby which we chose as our place to stay for that weekend.

In this post I wanted to share our plans for the weekend, asses each activity and draw some conclusions for the future as well as offer advice for others with regards to organising company retreats.

Given that we all enjoy each other’s company, I cannot really state that location is the most important aspect. We could meet anywhere and have a great time. That said, it is still necessary to make sure the accommodation is to a decent standard and the area which we are visiting facilitates some interesting extracurricular activities. For our trip in June we took advantage of the early summer’s sunny days by swimming in the reservoir and taking a kayak trip down the Pilica river. Even though some of us managed to flip their kayaks everybody had a really great time. For the December’s trip our motivation for choosing Uniejów were the thermal springs. We had daily passes to the aquapark included with our accommodation and we surely made use of them. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me report the events of our retreat chronologically.

Welcome packs, video games, and analog fun

We started the event with a dinner on Friday. We scheduled it late, so that everybody had enough time to get to Uniejów after finishing work. The evening began with a surprise - we handed out welcome packs to everyone which included: branded gadgets (e.g. a buff, keychain, mug, t-shirts and stickers) as well as a book that is the complete guide to praising people (Głaskologia by Miłosz Brzeziński). This book was recommended by the psychologist who conducted our training the next day.

We spent the first evening integrating the whole team. Everybody brought their favouirte beverages and games. We had a Nintendo Switch at our disposal and there were a few rounds played in Street Fighter as well as a few races in Mario Kart, but Fifa 17 was the king on our TV screen with countless matches being played until the early hours in the morning. However, it was the analog games that brought us the most fun from Dobble, which was already tried and tested during our previous meetings, through Innovation, which we only managed to play a few times due to high complexity of the game itself, all the way to Codenames which turned out to be the revelation of the whole retreat. We played literally dozens of games over the whole weekend and found this game a great way to get to know each other better.

Uncovering team dynamics and the four pillars of happiness

On Saturday, right after breakfast, we started a training session with a tailor made program called “Happy Boost”. The first part was focused on learning as much as possible about each member of the team. The facilitator brought Dixit cards and asked everybody to choose a few of them that they find relatable and explain why. Then we used Story Cubes to create crazy and ridiculous tales together. Afterwards, we were given piece of paper with some personal characteristics and we had to find a member of the team that fits each one of them.

Thanks to this game I learned who has a large family, who (apart from me) likes the colour yellow and speaks Spanish or who has a dog. Finally, we prepared our collective CV, entering notable traits and skills of every team member. We were all surprised with the result which clearly demonstrated that we are a well balanced and highly skilled group. This was a great exercise and it left us in a good mood for the rest of the day. We discovered many interesting things about our team mates that morning, for example somebody shared a story of having a wild boar as a pet (which became less surprising when we learned his father was a forest ranger).

After lunch we continued the training session but the focus shifted to boosting our happiness. We learned about the four pillars of happiness - sleep, food, rest and physical activity. We had many interesting discussions about sleep patterns, diets, fasting, exercise routines etc. When the training session ended it was finally time to hit the pools.

We spent most of the time in the outdoor section of the aquapark even though the temperature was just a few degrees above zero. Fortunately the geo-thermal springs were so warm that nobody caught a cold and our visit to the sauna section also helped keep everybody warm. After a few hours we decided to go back to the castle for dinner and started another long night of board games with a touch of Nintendo duels and lots of fun.

This being our second night together we have already worked out some ground rules. We re-arranged the room assignments so that people who shared rooms had similar go-to-sleep times. We also selected the room with the latest go-to-sleep time as the main venue for our festivities. In the future, we will be looking for a dedicated room for board games available for us throughout the night. We also decided to skip room sharing and offer everybody a single room to make sure they feel comfortable and can rest at night if they need to.

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On Sunday we had to leave around noon to make sure everybody arrives home at a reasonable hour. This meant that we only had time for a quick session on internal Happy Team matters. As usual we used this opportunity to gather feedback and discuss our plans for the nearest future. We also analysed our goals for the passing year and checked how many of them were met. Turned out we did quite well with our business and growth goals (number of clients, number of employees etc.) but other plans were a bit too ambitious (e.g. public speaking gigs, blog posts). We also had a look at our budget for 2017, discussed where the money went and where it should go in 2018.

Lessons learned and plans for future Happy Retreats

The main feedback from the team during the whole trip was: we want more retreats! That is why we have another one coming up in April. This time we will go to a different region of Poland, maybe somewhere south, closer to where some of our employees live. The vast majority of our team expressed their interest in having some sort of a group physical activity every time we take a company trip. In December we planned to go skiing, but sadly there was no snow at the time of our retreat. Given that our next gathering is in April it might be a good time for exploring the area with mountain bikes. A quick ride around a nearby forest would definitely be a nice way to spend an afternoon.

We are also determined to reserve a “play room” which we could use in the evenings for board games, Nintendo duels and other entertainment purposes. This way we won’t invade anyone’s privacy in their rooms. We will also make sure everybody gets their own room and can freely choose their sleep time. On every trip we’ve taken so far we found that there is never enough time. Next time we are planning to take the Friday off from client’s work to make sure we have more time to spend with our team mates and more time for fun activities. We will use it to organise another training session, this time the topic chosen is personal finance, in particular some tips and tricks on how to manage our finances given that we all do contract work. On a related note, we have discussed the possibility of travelling abroad, but the collective decision was that it is better to go somewhere in Poland, mostly to save the time needed to get there (we would rather spend this time on site than travelling).

Final thoughts: The balance of remote work and in-person connection

On a final note, remember that company retreats are great for bonding the team, but there is only so many times in the year when you can get everybody together in one place. It is even more important to organise ad-hoc meetings in smaller groups, be it an afternoon dedicated to group work in a coffee shop or a shared breakfast. We also found conferences to be a good pretence for meeting some of our team mates from other parts of the country. Our own meetup group (Dev@LDZ) is also a place where a few Happy Developers can be seen every month. It is crucial for maintaining team morale and job satisfaction that those personal encounters keep happening on a regular basis. After all, as much as the stereotypical dark matter developer would like to deny, we are a social species and working remotely, in our own homes, means we are missing out on daily relationships. This is why we put so much emphasis on socialising in Happy Team.

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