Death Valley, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

Why have a team retreat?

As a follow up from our last blog post on how we embrace a remote working culture, we've also experienced many challenges of working with remote teams, but the most difficult ones so far are:

  1. How to ensure team members from all around the world get to know each other outside work so that they can bond and work better together.
  2. Understand and experience the same culture in our headquarter office as it's hard for us to create a real-time environment where everyone can constantly stay up to date on our mission, value, ethics, expectations, and goals.

The second challenge could almost be addressed by trying our best to communicate our culture through documents, video conferencing, as well as bringing individual members and small groups to our headquarters. But the first challenge is extremely hard to solve because real-time, many to many interactions outside work would require very hardcore coordination among multiple timezones, and there aren't many places we can think of to let the team virtually hang out. Therefore, a retreat where we could invite most of, if not every team member to gather in one spot for an extensive amount of time almost becomes a necessity. Before we plan our retreat, we hoped to accomplish three goals:

  1. To foster serendipitous conversations to get to know each other better.
  2. To discuss and debate company goals and strategies, exchange ideas and tactics, and provide clarity to everyone on the company strategy and where we're heading.
  3. Have fun!
Death Valley, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

Scheduling

We started planning the retreat in late December 2018. To provide enough time for knocking out schedule conflicts, we originally set our retreat starting date to be early February. The first thing we did was offering time options and having our remote team members fill out a Doodle poll.

In retrospect, we would probably plan even earlier, such as 3-6 months beforehand to avoid unexpected events. For instance, two of our China team members' travel visa applications were further reviewed. We got lucky but the visa clearance could have required another 4 weeks to 6 months. We ended up delaying our 6-day retreat plan from early February to early March with people flying in on Monday and flying out on Sunday.

San Jose Museum of Art, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

Itinerary  

We've debated if we should do the retreat in the US or other countries. Given that many of our team members have never been to our US headquarter and it's easier to plan routes in areas we're familiar with, we decided to only explore the West Coast. We looked into national parks and vacation spots. On top of our list were Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, Yosemite, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego. We conducted another team survey to see our team's preference in city-focused tours v.s. nature-focused sightseeing. The team gravitated to nature for the love of landscape photography. We wanted to hit as many spots as possible to provide a diverse experience for the team and came up with a bus tour idea visiting South Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and Yosemite in six days. Before we define the route, we studied the following items:

  1. Bus companies and drivers. There are many touring bus companies that offer drivers and bus on a daily rate. This is likely to be the most expensive part of the trip budget. For our team of 20, we chose a regular coach. There is a limit on how many hours a driver could drive in a day, so we carefully planned our routes to not exceed those hours. If you're planning to host your team on the bus, we highly suggest finding a bus with good charging docks for each seat as well as a good speaker and TV systems if you want to present content to your team.
  2. Weather. We learned there might be some roads closed during winter, and driving or walking in national parks might not be safe under certain weather conditions. We researched out all potential scenarios and Plan Bs if the weather doesn't work for us.  
  3. Food and snack. We made reservations for all group lunch and dinners ahead of time. It could get tricky for restaurants to commit without knowing for sure we will arrive on time. Choosing off hour slots can significantly help. And lastly, we brought a ton of snacks and water on the bus.
  4. Hotel and room shuffling. Similar to food reservation. We booked many double bedrooms as well as a few single bedrooms to accommodate specific needs. Every day we shuffled the rooming list and randomly assigned who you'd be sharing a room with to encourage interactions with different team members.
  5. Budgeting. We developed a budget and stuck to it. Airfare and accommodation costs may fluctuate from time to time so we booked as early as possible to save money. We went 15% under our budget in the end.
  6. Travel insurance and rescue plans. Many companies provide group travel insurance as well as evacuation plans. It's very important to protect the safety of everyone in case emergency.
Bus Ride, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

Events during the retreat.

As what most of the readers would imagine, we wanted the retreat to have a mix of ice-breakers, outdoor activities, brainy discussions, and goofy fun. Here are a few tips of event planning on a bus tour.

  1. All-hands and one-on-one meetings. We learned that doing all-hands meeting is almost impossible on the bus as the vehicle is too long and the TV on the bus doesn't provide really a good quality of presentation. We ended up doing our all-hands company strategy and operational update meetings outside the bus. However, our one-on-one meetings or small group discussions were amazing on the bus. We felt our thoughts and ideas moved faster as we were physically moving on the road. It's also super convenient to move around and sit across the seat to participate either the conversation up to a few rows in front of you or the conversation up to a few rows behind you.
  2. Outdoor activities. Our team organized skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and photowalks during most days of the trip. The main challenge was energy control in the second half of the trip as our team got really tired. For two days we couldn't get up early enough in the morning and our bus driver had to wait for up to an hour to get everyone ready to leave the hotel.
  3. Evening events. We brought full sets of cards and chips to play holdem. A quick warning: playing poker with your colleagues could get super fun, competitive and addictive. In our case, it resulted in less time to sleep those nights.
  4. Impromptu activities. We had Spotify karaoke where everyone will play 15 minutes of their favorite songs in the bus's speaker system. We had many photo editing sessions where our team will edit the same photos and compare the personal choices of edits. We each talked about our favorite cameras and we found two film cameras, two DSLRs, three range finders and a bunch of mirrorless on the bus. One of us brought a printer to print portrait photos secretly taken of each person on the bus and handed out as gifts on the road...
Meeting Room, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

What didn't go as planned?

Overall, the retreat went as planned but there are a few things that could have been better.

  • Allocate enough buffer time. Traveling in a 20+ people group is very different from traveling alone. It often took much longer than we expected while taking actions in a group, such as dining, waking people up in the morning, waiting for bathroom breaks, getting everyone on the bus and making sure no one is left behind. Because of this, we accumulated more and more deviations from the original time itinerary and we had to cancel half of a day worth of activities on the last day.
  • Some could feel really tired or get sick. As many of our team members flew intentional flights and had jet lag, throwing them on the ski might not be a good idea. We had one member who got sick halfway the trip and we didn't bring enough medicine but fortunately found a CVS on the road. In retrospect, we should have separate plans for jet-lagged team members so that we remove their social pressure to hang out or impress others with their snowboarding skills.
  • Internet. For the majority of our trip, we had bad mobile internet and we couldn't play video materials for meetings or chat as we normally would be able to on Slack or messaging apps. This could also be a safety risk during outdoor activities. The best way to avoid this is to lease satellite phones with internet and use them in small groups for communications as well as caching all the meeting materials locally before the trip starts.
  • Visas. This one is out of our control. One of the team members couldn't make it due to visa issues, which was disappointing to the individual as well as to the team. We put this here so we could remind ourselves not to be too optimistic on visas.
DJ on the bus, Polarr Team Retreat 2019

What's next?

Next up would be our next retreat. It seems unlikely that we would be able to do a tour similar to this one when we grow more in headcount, so this might as well be the last bus tour retreat Polarr has. However, we're sure we will keep stepping out of our comfort zone and do something great together. Stay tuned!

Finally, below are a few photos of our trip to share.

Polarr Team in Yosemite, Polarr Team Retreat 2019