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“We’re in this together” — Evolution of virtual retreats at Frontastic
In times of a pandemic, we believe it isn’t responsible to meet in person as a remote native company. That’s why our retreats — the more informal meetings — also take place online. Our learning curve is steep, to put it positively: our virtual meetings are getting better and better each time. Our most recent meeting even led us to consider whether this form could possibly replace some of the physical meetings — but more on that later.
Since our team is completely distributed in Europe (we’ve never had an office), you’d think that the pandemic restrictions wouldn’t affect us. In terms of day-to-day operations, this is true. But a remote native company also likes to meet in person: to get to know each other, to work together intensively on creative topics, or simply to have fun together.
Virtual retreats are about the latter: having fun together. Fun isn’t an objective in itself here. It’s rather the colloquial description of what’s an essential factor for the success of fully distributed teams: social bonding.
Development of the virtual retreats
While our first virtual retreat in September still had a very strong workshop character, our December retreat focused on collaboration, team success, and networking.
The highlight of the winter retreat was the “wintertime song contest challenge.” Small, randomly selected teams had 3 weeks to produce a short video that would be judged by the other teams – in the style of the European Song Contest. The content of the video had to be a song that was appropriate for the time of year. The criteria for judging were originality, virtuosity, and commitment. It wasn’t said to sing or produce a song. You were asked to be creative…
The range of results was really impressive, and we discovered completely new talents in our colleagues. But, it was also the cooperation in the teams that helped many gain completely new experiences (the cooperation didn’t work so well in every team to be open and transparent here. But many were able to learn from this).
A milestone in terms of virtual events at Frontastic
For our spring 2021 virtual retreat, we resorted to entirely new means. Tried-and-true things like the pub quiz were further improved, and the clear focus on having fun together helped us put together an even better program.
“We’re in this together” but “diversity rules”
According to our values, the retreat is a mandatory program (and working time) for everyone (because we’re in this together) but, we tried very hard to set up a program that all personality types can enjoy (because diversity rules).
We have replaced the classic ice breaker session with Pheel Fresh. A beatboxer and rapper duo greeted each employee personally with a short line of appreciation. It took a while for everyone to understand that this rap was actually about them, every single one of them, and it was obvious from their faces how impressed they were: from incredulous astonishment to fascinated attention, to emotional enthusiasm, it was all there.
Of course, we provided Pheel Fresh with the relevant information beforehand. Partly this came from our very intensive Cheers/Kudos culture in Slack (employees appreciate each other for special achievements based on our values), partly the texts were written by the Leadership guild.
Next, we had the joint lunch (all employees were invited to order a meal using their company credit card). What was new here was that we had invited a DJ to provide some background music. And not with just any background music, but with the music that our employees had named as their favorite songs in one of the regular Slack trivia questions. The DJ lived up to his name, Adam Fabulous, as he was brilliant at responding to the chat in his moderation and song selection. Personally, I liked this much better than just watching (and listening) to my colleagues eat. Through the chat, you still had the feeling of experiencing something together and certainly, people who otherwise don’t speak up dared to do so — and there we are again with our values: diversity rules.
There’s a beatboxer in everyone
The crowning glory of the lunch break was a small beatboxing workshop. We were impressed by what talents were among us!
Save the world
Next up, randomly assigned teams were tasked with nothing less than saving their own lives and the lives of humanity — escape rooms. These were great examples of how you can survive a crisis through clever adaptation: as a team, you controlled an employee of the escape room. They showed the team what they were seeing using a Steadicam and the teams controlled them — as an avatar, so to speak — by their instructions in a joint Zoom meeting. Of course, you didn’t have the ambiance and smell of a classic escape room but, the experience was very close to that of a “real” escape room. And the teams had an additional challenge: they had to agree on a command for the avatar and communicate it clearly — not always that easy in the excitement.
After a short break, we returned to the topic of appreciation and honoring our joint successes. Through a mix of video sequences, live interviews, and video messages from the Leadership team, we put the spotlight on past successes, our values, and the question of why we do this together — in other words, our corporate purpose. Great stuff!
Off to the (virtual) pub
Towards the late afternoon, we met in our virtual pub for the pub quiz (part of our virtual office in gather.town). In newly diced teams, we went into the competition with a very different and broadly spread set of questions. What was new this time was that we also interspersed internal company questions and that we had an external moderator. Adam (the DJ) did an excellent job again. In particular, the resolution, which he accompanied with exciting illustrations and examples, was a highlight for everyone.
Disco, gambling, or rather just chatting?
The evening ended with a colorful offering of disco, playing together, and just chatting and drinking at the bar. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Except that it all took place in a virtual space.
The feedback we received from the team was outstanding. Of course, such a virtual retreat can’t replace meeting (and celebrating) in person. But we came close, I would say. “We’ve made an impact” — you could also say, coming back to our values.
Our thoughts are going so far as we want to offer this form of meeting beyond the pandemic, as it fits very well to the life situation of a relevant number of employees. Many of our colleagues have families, and the classic 5-day retreat once a year is accordingly associated with a great deal of organization. So we’re considering reducing the mandatory part to 3 days and instead prefer to focus on these virtual retreats and offer them every quarter. Of course, this will also help to integrate new employees into the culture much better — who otherwise would have to wait 11 months for the annual retreat in the worst case.
In summary, in keeping with our thirst for learning value, I’m happy with this realization and, at the same time, very excited about the next step on our learning curve.
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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In times of a pandemic, we believe it isn't responsible to meet in person as a remote native company. That's why our retreats – the more informal meetings – also take place online. Our learning curve is steep, to put it positively: our virtual meetings are getting better and better each time. Read more.
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