Managing Remote Company Retreats | Pre-Planning & Onsite Tips

Remote or distributed team models work great for many organizations, and have become more commonplace in recent years - particularly within the tech sector. Allowing employees from around the world to contribute in a virtual environment offers companies as well as employees several advantages and benefits that has allowed this concept to thrive. However, when it comes to building a strong culture and developing rapport within the team, there is still no substitute for the type of face-to-face interactions that come with an all-hands company retreat or work-week.

Moniker has found through years of experience that remote company retreats often require special considerations in the planning and execution to ensure a successful outcome, making sure the unique characteristics of a geographically and culturally diverse team are factored in properly. Here are a few tips to get you started!

Why are Remote Company Retreats Valuable?

While the internet and software has made working remote easier than ever, there is simply no replacement for getting the team together in one location, and working towards a goal while sharing a few laughs together in person. Things like culture, company values, and camaraderie are at the core of what makes good companies great, and can be more efficiently developed in person rather than a Slack channel or a video screen. GoogleHangouts and Zoom video conferencing are great for day to day details or client calls, but in-person group meetings can get a team on track fast - not to mention the time spent together outside the meeting room afterwards. Company retreats make this happen.

Getting to know each team member in a non-workplace environment is not only valuable to building those connections and trust, it can also be fun, and this can have positive ripple effects on your team moving forward. Below we'll share some tips from our experience planning retreats over the past few years.

Things like culture, company values, and camaraderie are at the core of what makes good companies great, and can be more efficiently developed in person on a retreat or offsite

Where Should Our Retreat be Held?

This is an important question that is impossible to answer without factoring in the specific details of a company such as their budget and geographic distribution. We can however give you some things to consider:

  • Find "Middle Earth" - Take stock of where your company's people are coming from and try hone in on destinations that are accessible or middle-ground for most. If your organization skews to having more people coming from a certain region, consider moving the marker closer to them - you will save a lot of people's time (and money) doing so.
  • Stay Close to Airport - Once you land, make sure it's easy to get there! Think MAX two hours or less from a major airport - nobody wants to go on a road-trip after landing from an overnight transatlantic flight!
  • Go Remote - Try to avoid staying in urban centres or cities - people will feel the urge to go off exploring, defeating the purpose of bringing everyone together. Instead, find properties outside the city to encourage people to stay on-site and spend time together throughout the week.
  • Watch the FX - While Iceland and Switzerland are beautiful, the local currency and prices can be a killer to most budgets. Instead, try to take advantage of favourable currency valuations to leverage your spend in countries where you'll get the most value for your company's currency.
  • Don't Hesitate to Go off the Board - Sure, Tuscany and Costa Rica seem great locations to host your retreat. But you're not the only one who feels that way. Try looking at lesser known destinations where you'll have more options for accommodations in peak season, or can take advantage of a lower tourism demand to stretch your budget. Puglia can be a perfect substitute for the rolling hills of Tuscany, and up and coming Colombia boasts everything nearby Costa Rica has to offer at a fraction of the price.

How Long Should They Last?

The duration of a retreat will vary depending on what the team wants to get done but first and foremost the organization must be respectful of the individual’s time, particularly those with families or young children at home. For this reason, we recommend avoiding overlapping into weekends when possible and steering clear of major holidays or religious dates. Also worth considering, with the entire team on the retreat not much may be getting done in the office so it's best to get to the point! This must be balanced with the fact that it takes longer for some than others who are coming in from farther away, and adjusting to the local timezone or schedule will be different for each individual.

After planning these types of trips for years our team has found that the most efficient trips are usually around 5 days in length. This allows for the first day to be allocated to scattered arrivals, with not much in the way of structure or planned content outside of a Welcome Reception in the evening. This also gives everyone the whole day to get to the destination, ample time in the afternoon to catch up with colleagues (or catch a quick nap!), but still brings everyone together with an anchored group event for dinner.

The next 3 days should be focused on work and strategy, and ideally follow a similarly structured schedule to the company's average work-day, kicking things off with work sessions after breakfast, breaking often, and wrapping up in the mid-afternoon on days where no offsite excursions or teambuilding activities are planned. The final day (or one wedged within the week) should be left open - with either unstructured leisure time or planned optional activities for smaller groups to explore the local culture or give employees the opportunity to hang out, relax, or try some activities together.

This is a sample 5 day itinerary that we have found the most effective for our remote clients who keep work as the focus of their retreat. 1 day allocated to travel, 3 (full) days of work, and 1 day set aside for “fun” activities or leisure time and team bonding. This won’t keep mom or dad away from the family for too long but also isolates the team long enough to really dig in and make meaningful connections with each other. Anything less can feel rushed, and anything more can drag on or begin to interfere with personal commitments, so stick to 5!

Other Tips Unique to Remote Teams:

  • Avoid too much on the first day - people will be jetlagged and appreciate some unstructured time to catch up on sleep without FOMO
  • Make sure the location fits the company’s culture. If the business is creative or fun, find a destination or a property that suits in terms of the common spaces and surrounding ammenities. If your company culture skews towards more serious, consider 'conference' hotels or those within the umbrellas of the major hotel brands, where late-night pool parties won't be a thing.
  • Plan in Advance. We recommend minimum 6 months to ensure you're getting the most options in terms of availability for properties in your destination, and airfares. Being spread out means you likely won't be able to take advantage of group-blocks on airfare (10+ seats), so get ahead of the ball by booking flights early.
  • Inquire about boosting the Wifi. Remote teams tend to use more bandwidth than normal groups streaming content or doing video calls. Avoid frustration and talk to the host property in advance about temporarily boosting the bandwidth or signal during your groups stay.
  • Lay down the Law on Languages - Set ground rules on what languages you want people to converse or work in. While the Madrid team might be thrilled to talk Messi vs. Maradona with the crew from Argentina in their native language, it may be isolating or exclude others. We recommend asking the group to keep in the language you normally work in while hanging out in common areas, and especially during work sessions, to avoid any issues and encourage everyone's participation.
  • Clarify Expectations around On-Site Conduct and Alcohol. Also address the fact that different cultures have different concepts about personal space and humour. Avoid any awkward misunderstandings by setting the stage early for what is acceptable and unacceptable, especially considering the majority of the team is used to working from home and not interacting in person.
  • (Let) E.T. Phone Home - Leave plenty of leisure time throughout the day to allow employees to call home to various time zones. That means longer than typical coffee breaks in the morning (enough to pop back to the room for a quick skype session) and an extra hour or two before dinner for storytime when the kids are being put to bed.
  • Bring Lots of Games & Icebreakers - Leaving a few boardgames, Jenga sets, or bringing in a ping pong table can encourage shy people to step out of their shell and invite others to play a game. It's a lot easier for introverts to interact when there's a medium they can use than engaging someone they might not yet be comfortable with in a conversation head-on.

How Much Should the Trip Cost?

This is another question we will have a tough time answering. When deciding what to spend, a good rule of thumb we have found effective is the "Rule of Thirds". Take a budget, and divide it into 3 - 1/3rd should be earmarked for travel, 1/3rd for accommodations, and 1/3rd for meals and activities. That should give you a good starting point of how far you can travel on a budget, and how many nights you can stay.

For example, with a budget of US$2,500 per head, you should feel comfortable considering destinations that average around $800 for the flights (leaving a bit for transfers to/from the airport). From there, if you want 5 days - that means looking at properties around $165/night for accommodation, and allocating $165/day for meals and activities. Expand or shrink the length of your retreat accordingly.

Other factors worth considering:

  • The trip can be a business expense for tax purposes in most cases, if you can prove a sufficient amount of time was dedicated to work sessions and meetings.
  • Doubling people up can stretch your accommodation budget a long way, however some people might resent being forced to share a room -you decide what's best for your team, but don't hesitate to poll the group for feedback before making a decision.
  • Most European destinations include breakfast in their rate ("European Plan"), while most North American destinations do not. Taxes & other service fees are also generally included in the price in Europe, but not as common elsewhere.

Business.com published that, “Retreats can benefit any business. The truth is that they're not just good for your employees, but they're also good for the company.” For more information on this please click here.