4 Reasons to Offer Virtual Team Retreats
For an uber-introverted person like myself, one of the biggest perks of remote work is being able to work from home in solitude. I prefer to say “in solitude” instead of “alone” because my dog and my overactive inner monologue compensate so well for an office full of people that I never feel alone. But for many remote workers, working from home for too many days on end can lead to feelings of isolation. For this reason, and many others, virtual team retreats are a fantastic idea.
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We asked leaders at over 100 remote companies about how they approach virtual team retreats and why they find them beneficial.

Team Bonding

One of the most often cited reasons to offer virtual team retreats is to increase or strengthen the bonds between remote team members. Stack Overflow, for example, holds a yearly team meetup that is designed to bring people together.

“We want it to be a more casual meetup where people can surface concerns openly and get to know their coworkers,” explains David Fullerton, vice president of engineering. “We find a yearly all-team meetup is a good time to have year-in-review discussions about our culture and practices, with less focus on specific current projects. We specifically do not use our yearly meetup to plan an agenda for the year or make big decisions.”

Issue Resolution

On the flip side, some remote companies try to stay away from big idea, “vacations for brainstorming” style retreats, and focus on concrete issues they need to resolve. StudySoup takes this approach during their twice-annual retreats.

“We get everyone in the same room to iron out any outstanding issues,” says Sieva Kozinksy, CEO. “We also do fun activities like hikes, snowball fights and cook team dinners together! It’s an opportunity for natural conversation and synergy to occur which is a bit tough over video chat.”

In-Person Work

One of the most interesting ideas I read from these company interviews came from Authentic Form & Function, where the team actually gets together for a full week every year simply to work together. Yup—not for brainstorming, or conflict resolution, or to build company culture—just to work together in the same space. But they also make room for a bit of fun.

“[It] is a full-week ‘working retreat’ where the entire team gathers in the same space to work a typical business week,” says Chris Arnold, partner. “Sprinkled throughout that week we’re also taking “recess” multiple times to enjoy various activities in that particular city, and make time for team dinners while everyone happens to be in the same place.”

Culture Building

Before writing this, I thought this would be one of the sole reasons remote company leaders scheduled team retreats. But it turns out it’s just one of many excellent reasons to gather teams together in person. Tabitha Colie, director of operations at Seeq, says they’ve evolved its team retreats over time into events focused on building and instilling company culture among team members.

“We are more focused about how we use the time we spend together—it’s now almost exclusively for team and culture-building purposes instead of work time,” explains Colie. “It turns out we work and collaborate very well together already online and don’t need to use our face-to-face time for that.”

Bringing It All Together: Choose Your Own Retreat Adventure

The advice on HOW to hold an in-person meeting for remote teams was quite mixed. Some recommend going to the same location each year, while others prefer a new place to visit. Some say holding it in a remote location (no pun intended) allows people to focus on each other instead of the destination, but others say the location should be an exciting destination that everyone can enjoy together.

Some say to make decisions and set an agenda for your coming year, and others say avoid them entirely. People even disagreed on how to approach feeding your team members: to dine in or out, that is the question.

When it comes to the “why” of in-person retreats for remote teams, on the other hand, our interviewees gave these four purposes over and over again: allowing team members to bond, resolving issues from the last year, doing some in-person work (regular day-to-day work, brainstorming, or a mix), and strengthening the company’s culture.

It appears that, whether or not you take people out to eat or have lunch catered at the hotel, the backbone of any worthwhile virtual team retreat is your “why.”

Readers, why do you hold virtual team retreats (or, why not)? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below!

By Brie Weiler Reynolds | August 16, 2016 

Jane Gonzalez
Associate Editor