All-company meetings in a “No Office” team - a step-by-step guide to a successful meet-up
In my „No Office” company we don’t see each other all that much in person. Yes, we have video meetings, but apart from that, everyone works from the comfort of their home office. That’s why a few years ago we started these annual, and later semi-annual all-company meetings, called “reunions”. We wanted to spend some quality time with each other in person, recharge batteries, get to know the people hidden behind their avatars… and basically connect on a different level. Now, that we did a few of these, and we’ve just had our fall “Nozbe Reunion Wrocław”, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks on how to prepare and run a successful “company reunion/retreat”. Why do we organize it? What do we do? How do we make it a success? Here’s our recipe with all the details:
Why a “Nozbe Reunion”?
Just as I explained above - we don’t have a central office and we’re 25 people in the Nozbe core team. The “why” is pretty obvious - we need to connect on a personal level every now and then… and when you’re working “alone” from home so many months, you are really looking forward to meeting your co-workers!
How often do we organize this?
Twice a year - we always have a spring and a fall reunion. First, we held our meet-ups on an annual basis but later decided it wasn’t enough. Now, that we switched to a semi-annual model, we believe it’s just the right balance of time in the home office vs time with your team.
The choice of spring and fall is deliberate. In summer people want to take vacation time with their families and in winter it’s cold… and usually the fall and spring is a slow time for tourism, so hotels are empty and quiet and can offer us not only great rates but also comfortable stay… and with 25 people coming we’re the major group in the hotel and we feel like the place is “just for us”.
How long does a “Nozbe Reunion” last?
We typically arrive on Monday for a late lunch and leave on Saturday after breakfast. This way we dedicate the entire workweek for a reunion and leave the weekend to relax after an intensive week with the whole team. I’ll dive deeper into our schedule for the reunion a little bit later, so read on.
Who goes to the “Nozbe Reunion”?
We’ve tried several models. When our team was around 10 or so people, we’d also invite significant others but now that we’re more than double that, we realized this model doesn’t scale - and not only because of additional costs and logistics, but also for other reasons.
First off, we have a fairly young team, so not everyone has a significant other… and when they do, some have small children, so it’d be really hard to either take them with or leave them behind… for an entire week.
The second argument is that when you’re on your own there, you kind of have to interact with the rest of the team… and you don’t need to worry about your significant other. You can focus on connecting with the rest of the group. It’s a true team-building moment.
My friend Michael Hyatt disagrees and highlights the importance of bringing the “other half” along, but our experience was different. We feel like we “click” better as a team when we can leave our day-to-day and just focus on our team dynamics for a week. And this is why we’re organizing the reunion in the first place - to consolidate the team and make us a better one for the next months to come!
Apart from the core team we also have regular contractors, like translators and other smaller companies working regularly with us. We don’t invite them to the reunions. Maybe we should revise the policy at some point, but for now, we believe that a reunion should be all about making the core team better.
Where do we organize our “Nozbe Reunion”?
Every time we organize a reunion, we vote on a location… and now, which of these do we take under consideration?
Somewhere not too far away…
Going off to Caribbean or Mediterranean or Asia would sound really cool for a reunion and maybe we’d do it some time… but as our core team is mainly based in our beautiful country of Poland, we usually choose a place in our home country as our destination.
It’s usually Poland… our home country
Poland is a big country with really spectacular places to visit… And because our team is spread all over the place, many people haven’t seen much of our country. Folks from the south haven’t seen much of the north and the other way round. So it’s always interesting to choose a different city for each reunion. And as our country is developing rapidly, each city has changed a lot in the last few years, so even if you visited it when you were younger, now it’s surely different.
Limiting our choice to our country makes the whole logistics easier. We’ve got fast “Pendolino” trains reaching many parts of Poland, so most of the team can move quickly and arrive at the reunion without a long trek.
A side effect of the choice of our home country is the fact that people start discovering it more thanks to our reunions. Instead of thinking about traveling to some far-away countries, we’re suddenly appreciating what we’ve got… and Poland has lots to offer.
Another side-effect is that some people like our destinations so much, that they stay for the weekend there just to explore it even more, and often invite their family to join them. This way after an intensive week away from the family, they get an additional intensive weekend with the family.
What’s the schedule for a “Nozbe Reunion”?
As I already wrote, after trying different things, we settled for an entire workweek and it goes like this:
We dedicate Monday morning to travel to our reunion destination and meet around 3 pm for a late lunch in the hotel.
After the lunch, there’s my presentation. As the CEO of the company, I’m doing a “state of the union” presentation where I basically summarize what happened in the last half a year, talk about our future, the direction of the company and what we’re expecting to achieve and talk about at this reunion.
In the evening, we usually had a celebratory dinner, but we’re changing it for the next reunion for a lighter dinner with snacks and beer. The thing is, that after a later lunch at 3 pm, at 7 pm we’re not that hungry yet, so it’s better to have some easy food accompanied by a good beverage.
Tuesday to Friday
Our schedule for the rest of the week looks very similar:
8-9 in the morning is breakfast time.
9-1 pm is about presentations, discussions and alternatively some team-building attractions.
At 1 pm we usually have a nice lunch in the hotel.
2-3 pm is “alone time” - a week with the entire team can be demanding so it’s time for each of us to relax, maybe have a nap or siesta… or whatever
3-7 pm is another “presentations” time - we gather in the conference room and keep talking about things, brainstorming and sharing ideas…
7 pm is dinner time and after that, we usually go out for a drink and have some “team integration” games or other group activities - something to glue our team together.
Time to say goodbye. After the breakfast, everyone leaves for home. Depending on connections some people leave earlier than this… and as mentioned before, others are waiting for their families to join them for the weekend.
Important notes on the schedule:
Here are a few tips and tricks we’ve learned over our last reunions to make the schedule really fit our needs and goals and create a great ambience:
- Schedule alone time - make sure people can retreat a little and not interact with each other all of the time.
- Plan presentations before the reunion - it’s important to have all the presentations lined up before we leave for the reunion… and that people prepare them before as well - this way we can spread them evenly all over the week for maximum team engagement.
- Allow for not only company-related presentations but also passion-related - our team consists of 25 people from 25 different places with 25 different stories - we realized that we also need presentations about different passions - this way we can learn a lot new from each other!
- Schedule discussions one day in advance - apart from scheduling presentations, we should be also scheduling discussions so that people can prepare mentally for each and every day. It’s always a good productivity practice to prepare each day the day before… and we should be doing that also on a reunion.
- Add margin - some time for 1-1 talks and group work - we’ve learned this the hard way - don’t try to squeeze every minute out of the reunion - give people room to breathe and an hour or 30 minutes here and there for 1-1 talks or spontaneous discussions in smaller groups.
- Put and modify schedule as a project in Nozbe - again a good practice - put the schedule and update it in a shared project with the entire team. This way you’re avoiding all the questions like: “what do we do now?”, “when do we do this or that?”
- Leave some time for support - we always announce on our blog that we’re going to have a reunion and we explain to our Nozbe customers that in that week, they’ll have to wait a little longer for our response… but anyway there should be time for the support team to catch up on emails.
- Organize sports/integration before - as we’re a group of 25, we have to organize everything earlier to make sure the venues that offer activities are ready for us. One additional tip - make sure not to schedule physically demanding things for Friday - we’re all very tired by then! On our last reunion we were driving go-carts on a Friday and it was really hard…
Food - what do we eat? Where?
Just like with everything, food has to be organized well in advance and again, after many trials and errors I think we’ve come up with a great system:
Breakfast and lunch in the hotel
Both breakfast and lunch always take place in the hotel. This way our day is very predictable and we don’t waste time “searching for food”. We come down for breakfast in the morning and later after the initial batch of discussions and presentations in the conference room we’re just coming down the hotel restaurant and lunch is served.
This reduces our commute time and preparation time for these two meals. Especially that we’ve got lunch menu for the entire week prepared and agreed upon ahead of time before the reunion.
One final note is that on our last reunion we made a mistake of allowing dessert at lunch. This is not a good idea. First off, the lunch takes more time with a dessert and second… it just adds calories to our meal. So skip the dessert!
Dinner outside if possible
Dinner is a different story - we prefer to go out for the dinner and explore some cool local restaurants. Again, as a big group, we’re reserving everything before and we’re trying to choose the best and most memorable restaurants around. We ask some local people for advice and check Yelp ratings to make sure we choose some nice places.
We have another tradition in our team that we have to always have a nice sushi dinner on our reunion. Everyone on our team loves sushi and at least in Poland it’s something we normally don’t do often, so it’s always a treat. It’s a pretty expensive treat but it’s well worth it.
Hotel - what makes our stay great?
Here’s how we go about choosing a hotel for our reunion. First off, we:
Negotiate a rate with a few hotels in the same vicinity
Yes, we ask a few hotels in the area for their rates, explain what we need and get detailed quotes. This way we can compare the prices and, based on hotel ratings and opinions on the internet, figure out the best value for money.
Location, location, location
As with everything, location is key. If we’re in the city center, we want to be in the most centric hotel… but preferably in a quieter area to be able to sleep at night. It’s hard to strike a balance here but we try.
Conference room as big as possible
This is key. We spend most of our time in the conference room and we’ve had them big and small over the years… and it’s obvious that bigger is definitely better. In a spacious conference room the discussions are easier, we can talk 1-1 or in smaller groups… it’s just more comfortable for all of us.
Room standard doesn’t really matter
As long as we get decent and clean rooms, their standard doesn’t matter all that much. We’ve had fancier hotel rooms and standard ones… and we figured we don’t need much of luxury because we only go to our hotel rooms when we go to sleep - we spend most of our time outside of them!
Allow for margin - if somebody doesn’t like the room, change it
We need to make sure the hotel has a few spare rooms and is not booked solid when we’re coming. This way, if one of the rooms assigned to our team is too small or has some problems, the hotel is flexible enough to change it for something better.
Get rooms for 2 - this way people are more integrated.
As we want to solidify our team as much as possible, we prefer to have 2-person rooms so that people from the team can get to know each other even better. Of course we keep it gender specific.
Plan a reunion way in advance
Announce the dates quickly
Right after our last reunion is done, we already schedule the dates of the next one and make them non-negotiable. This way nobody from our team can say that they’ve got something else coming up. This also prevents potential collisions with vacation time.
After recent reunions we’re trying to adapt a tick-tock schedule, meaning to spend one reunion in the center of an interesting city… and another in nature, in a hotel away from everything else. This way we get to have two totally different experiences.
We’ll see how this goes. This also makes the decision for the hotel in the middle of nowhere more complicated as it has to offer enough attractions for us not to get us too bored. Our next reunion in Spring is scheduled to happen in such a place. I’ll report back later how the experience went.
Finances - the company pays for everything
That’s the secret. We set apart a separate budget for each reunion so that the company can pay for it all - the accommodation, the food, the drinks, the travel, everything. The employees can basically arrive at the reunion without cash as everything will be paid for.
Again, just like we have a separate budget for charity, we also have a separate one for reunions. This way when the reunion time comes, we have the means to pay for all this at once, without worrying about cash flow problems.
Gadgets - additional gifts for the team
For every reunion, we’re preparing gadgets for the team with our company logo on it. It’s become our tradition that we also have a specially designed t-shirt as a souvenir from each reunion.
Apart from the t-shirt, we try to get something special for the team and previously we offered gadgets like:
- Power bank to charge our mobile phones
- Travel bottle with water filter
- Travel coffee mug
- Traditional tea mug
- and many different things…
Many companies offer gadgets with company logos on them but recently we decided to approach this the other way round - to find a product we like and try to buy it in bulk and add the company logo later. This way we make sure we don’t get a cheap knock-off but a real quality product as a gadget for the team.
Here’s our team photo from our last reunion - as you can see we had special red t-shirts with a unique design commemorating the city of Wrocław where we stayed.
The pro tip here is to schedule the company photo on Tuesday, when all the t-shirts are clean and we’re all pretty rested.
This is how we get our reunions done!
As you can see, each reunion is a logistical challenge but it’s well worth it. And there is a certain art and science to making it a success. Hope you enjoyed our take-aways from organizing reunions and consider some of these things when getting your team ready for a retreat or reunion.
And to sum it up, here are a few clips from our past reunions: