For distributed or remote teams, meeting in person (what we call an “in-person offsite”) is crucial. It helps everyone get to know each other and form the meaningful connections necessary for turning a group of individuals into a cohesive team working toward common goals.
Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings like this have had to be put on hold for everyone’s safety. Everyone at TestBox was hugely disappointed to miss the opportunity for an in-person event. So, we decided to put together a virtual offsite and make it awesome!
Since this was our first time planning a virtual offsite, we spent some time researching what other teams do. Sadly, there weren’t many resources available, which is why we thought we’d share our process and how it all turned out.
We started our planning by making a list of goals. We asked ourselves: What do we hope to achieve by bringing the team together virtually?
Your goals will likely be different, but here’s what was important for our team:
We decided to include the following activities in our schedule:
We deliberately scheduled our more intensive sessions for early in the week while we were all fresh. For meals, we ate together as the entire team, in smaller teams, or other randomly organized groups, such as by time zone. Since we scheduled the fun events in the evenings, we made these optional and invited people to bring a +1.
Here’s the schedule we built:
At TestBox, we’re firm believers in the value of open conversations, so we’ve held a Team Reflections session before. We find this to be a powerful way to get everyone on the same page. It generates a lot of excitement and helps us dream big.
For the offsite, we asked everyone to reflect on the following questions:
We also focused part of the session on vulnerability and sharing our individual professional development goals (we talk more about why this is important in our previous post). The idea of being vulnerable is based on the philosophy shared by Adam Grant in his podcast — Adam suggests that one moment of vulnerability leads to a full year of psychological safety.
Creating a safe environment for a team has to be done through leading by example. Simply asking team members for feedback isn’t enough — leaders have to show that when they receive feedback, they are open to it and won’t become defensive. At our offsite, Sam and Peter shared professional development areas where they have each struggled in the past. They also outlined areas where they want to improve and how the team can support them. This made it safe for everyone in the team to join in and share their own goals and how the team could empower them.
To get people thinking about their professional development goals, we asked these questions:
A gift exchange is always fun! For this event, we assigned everyone a giftee in advance. We asked everyone to put together a gift that represented their location. For instance, being from Canada, my gift included Roots socks, maple syrup tea, and Canadian candy. A team member from North Carolina sent their giftee a Duck Donuts shirt and mug. We encouraged people to buy and pack their gifts by hand for a personal touch. This helped bring a physical element of togetherness to the week.
We held games and challenges throughout the week, including a scavenger hunt, daily mini-challenges, and the hackathon. The overall winner, the person with the most points, received a gift card and the privilege of picking the next type of team swag we should order.
Daily challenges included:
Two examples of our blindfolded self-portrait
An example from our scavenger hunt, where I couldn’t find a cactus so I pretended to be the cactus myself
The team playing hide and seek – Jake was the leader of the round and the rest of the team hid successfully
As a quick aside, we did get mixed feedback on some of the challenges. It turns out that they might have been a bit disruptive to roommates and others at home (oops!) — so, keep this in mind when you’re coming up with ideas for your team.
We thrive on exploring new ideas, so we wanted to give the team a chance to think outside the box and investigate concepts that we haven’t been able to fit onto our regular roadmap. We also wanted to create an opportunity for different folks to work together — sometimes these collaborations can result in unexpectedly wonderful contributions.
We split the team into groups of three (pre-planned so we could balance engineering resources, personalities, time zones, and other considerations). Each group had time to brainstorm ideas, and then the executive team reviewed the ideas to make sure there was no overlap and provided extra input where it made sense. The groups had free rein to build as they needed. We set aside two hours to explore all the hackathon projects before our final presentations so people could brainstorm questions to ask in advance.
One of the things we like about in-person offsites is the opportunity to get out of the office and away from our usual surroundings. We find that it gives us a new perspective and opens us up to thinking about things in new ways.
To do this virtually, we decided to hold our kickoff breakfast/lunch at cafes that were local to each of us. We encouraged everyone to pick a place they were comfortable going to — whether that was indoors at a cafe, on a patio, or in a garden. This also meant we could be mindful of everyone’s COVID-19 restrictions wherever they were. To further simulate a real offsite, we provided a budget for ordering something yummy to eat.
We also played a round of games at local parks. In advance, we asked people to answer a series of cryptic questions, such as:
The blanks became the basis of a scavenger hunt, which had us exploring our local parks looking for those objects. We shared photos of what we found on Slack and voted on the best answers to give points. There were some hilarious photos and tons of laughs, as well as extra steps and fresh air that day!
It doesn’t take much in the way of tools to create a virtual offsite, so don’t worry that you’ll have to amp up your tech stack to make it awesome. Sometimes, simple is best.
Here are the tools we used:
The most important lesson, I think, is to make a real commitment to the event. We made it very clear during the weeks leading up to the event that there was no expectation for anyone to be doing “normal” work. We wanted people to bring their full energy and excitement to the offsite rather than splitting their attention with their usual work. We planned accordingly to account for a week of team downtime.
Other lessons we learned:
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed our virtual offsite and having a chance to get to know the rest of our team better. I think the connections we built will really help us work together more effectively. Hopefully, you’ll find some inspiration here to help you put together one of these events for your distributed or remote team.
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