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Remote work with a difference: Ski-and-work — A field report
Henning Emmrich in a (self-) interview about a special way of remote work.
Ski-and-work in a sentence, what is it?
Skiing in the morning, working in the afternoon, then cooking together, discussing and having fun afterward.
How did the idea come about?
The origin was actually a bike-and-work I did a few years ago. I was on my own and I set off with my bike and tent, looked for a bench in between, chewed on a problem and when I couldn’t get any further, I swung on my bike and rode on for a while. After some time I automatically found the solution, looked for a bench again and continued working.
Later, after the founding of Frontastic, I took the idea further, and with my Co-founder Thomas we did the first ski-and-work.
To be honest, I have to say that as a Senior Founder, half-day skiing suits me well with regard to my physical condition. After all, we averaged over 20 km skiing every day. That’s quite respectable, I think. And the muscular ache was kept within limits.
But this time there were more of you, right?
Yes, there were 10 of us altogether. Six employees of Frontastic, 2 of them with their partners and their toddlers.
Was it your idea to integrate families from the beginning?
No, I’m sorry, I must honestly say that I don’t. It only gradually became apparent that we had 3 employees with small children in the team, who could only come along on the condition that their partner and child would also come along.
Of course, we knew that this would change the nature of the event and we also had many question marks: How would the composition of the very mixed group itself but also the mixing of family, work, and sport work out?
And how was that, did it work out without any problems?
One of our core values at Frontastic is learning. Well, and so it was here. What we have learned is that the event for families basically works very well. In our case, it would have been very helpful, for example, if we had at least 2 living rooms: 1 for the families and 1 for work. But for me it’s always exciting how to deal with such situations: On the one hand in communication and on the other hand in finding solutions. Both are essential skills for a company. I think we have solved everything very well. Both parties took very good care of each other. For example, we sometimes went to a café to work or the families used the planned group times to go on excursions or walks.
The families had to accept restrictions, since they had to balance sport and work, but also family time. But from the beginning, there was a commitment that family time shouldn’t be at the expense of working hours. That was important, of course, because it was a company event.
Now let’s take it 1 step at a time: where did you go, where did you stay, and how did you plan your journey?
When selecting the skiing area, the possibility of arriving by train was a major factor. Skiing is ecologically difficult to represent but we wanted to have at least 1 ecologically sensible way to get there. Moreover, time spent on the train is much more productive.
As an accommodation, it should be a mountain chalet with self-catering. Not just because it’s cheaper but above all, it promotes team spirit.
We ended up in a beautiful, large wooden chalet with 5 bedrooms in the Zillertal.
So let me get this straight. You were completely self-catering?
That’s right. We actually didn’t go out to dinner or get pizza delivered once. At lunch, we went to the ski hut but in the evenings, we always cooked together.
The cooking worked out great, I mostly cooked some old Tyrolean specialties that I spontaneously came up with. And there were always colleagues who helped me with the chopping.
Anyone who has ever made such trips in larger groups knows how important it is to find volunteers for all tasks. Because even the dishwasher has to be filled up and, above all, also emptied. That worked surprisingly well for us. With the number of people, I would’ve expected at least some hard feelings.
And you all brought the groceries on foot?
In fact, we didn’t all come by train. So the shopping was a little more pleasant. But even without the car, it would’ve worked: supermarkets today also offer delivery services.
Can you tell me specifically what your daily routine was like?
As we were very lucky with the weather, it looked the same almost every day: mostly it was Thomas or me who made the 1st coffee at about 6 AM. Until 7 AM we had a 1st session to work off the daily business — because it doesn’t stop of course.
Everybody gathered for breakfast until about 7:15 AM and at 8 AM we started on the slopes. 8 AM — that sounds pretty incredible, huh? But it actually worked every day.
The advantage is that A) you have a lot of the day and B) the slopes are in pristine condition.
Around 11:30 AM we had a break and whoever wanted to, had an early lunch at the hut or just had a drink. Afterward, we did some skiing and at 2 PM we were mostly back in the valley and ready for work.
We defined a list of points that we wanted to work on during ski-and-work in advance. Depending on the topic, different people were required. Accordingly, different groups were formed in the afternoons to deal either with these topics or with day-to-day business.
From about 6 PM we turned to cooking together and from about 8 PM we finally slipped over to the evening discussions. These were also extremely valuable and important. Partly because we even managed to crack topics in the evening on which we only chewed around unsuccessfully during the day.
Between 10 and 11 PM everybody went to bed — the next day we started early again.
That sounds rather exhausting, doesn’t it?
Yeah, when we got back home after the 8 days, we were all pretty exhausted. When you think about the program, it’s no wonder. But we had a lot of fun and are very proud of what we achieved.
In your opinion, what are the essential basic conditions for such an event, like the combination of spare time and work, to be successful?
A very important point is that there’s a common understanding in advance. How much time is spent on spare time and how much on work. But also a concrete picture of the daily routine helps to avoid frustration later on.
Such events are always an opportunity to create something new and great. Of course, you can also cooperate excellently, but that’s not where the greatest potential lies.
Therefore, the second essential point is that one succeeds in reducing the daily business as much as possible. Especially external, fixed appointments quickly disrupt the overall workflow. I don’t know how to explain it exactly: if things go well, you manage to get all participants into a flow. If individual team members are under pressure from external deadlines, it can be very disruptive.
How did you arrange the financial and holiday expenses?
The company paid for the travel and accommodation costs. The employees paid for their own meals and the costs of leisure activities. Since everyone — on a voluntary basis, of course — also worked at weekends, and all in all, we didn’t work so much less per day than normal, we said that employees had to invest a maximum of 1 day’s vacation.
When I look at how much we achieved during the week, on the one hand in terms of content, but above all in terms of getting to know each other personally and team building, it was an incredibly efficient event. I really appreciate that employees are willing to invest a week for the company. But maybe some people didn’t realize in advance how hard it would be.
You’re now a few more employees and plan to grow further. How does the whole thing scale?
This is indeed not an easy question. The ski-and-work was not an official retreat, participation was purely voluntary. Work results only had the status of interim results and were only decided upon afterward, online with all stakeholders. As a remote company, we’re used to acting in this way. The exception was when all the necessary people were already present at ski-and-work.
Accordingly, the idea can be thought further and one can imagine that there are many such smaller events spread over the year. This would have the advantage that not only ski enthusiasts would be addressed.
Since we’re 100% remote, we have naturally included the cost of such a thing in the budget. As an ordinary company, we would’ve already spent a lot of money on office rent and above all — as a rapidly growing company — a lot of time looking for new, larger office space.
But a ski event can also grow: there are larger mountain chalets and as well as chalet villages. It would be a pity if we had to go to a hotel sometime. From my point of view, self-catering in the sense of self-organization and communication is an essential element.
Disclaimer: I did this interview with myself on a walk-and-write (or better Dictate) of about 1 hour
Disclaimer: Ski-and-work took place in February 2020. Only about 10 days after our return did we learn that Tyrol in Austria has also been declared a risk area by the RKI. We’re all symptom-free and as a remote company, we hopefully didn’t contribute to a spread. After the recommendation became known, we went into domestic quarantine for the rest of the time.
Henning is a Software Expert with strong enterprise skills. He’s worked in many management positions like Product Management, Marketing, Business Development, and Digitalization. He’s one of the Co-founders of Frontastic and works as Integrator and COO.
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