Book: No Office » Part 2 - What if there was no office? » Chapter 26 - Reunite the team |

Chapter 26 - Reunite the team

How we plan semi-annual Nozbe Reunions to meet in one physical space.

Why it’s important to get the team together in one physical location

The #NoOffice lifestyle is about having a team spread all over the world while still being able to collaborate effectively despite the distance. It is awesome.

But we are humans. We are social creatures. We want to be able to hang out with our work colleagues. To create common memories. To bond. To connect on a deeper level. This is what a reunion is for. In this chapter, I’ll explain how it’s done.

Before I start, though, I have a few disclaimers:

  1. Pandemic. As I’m writing these words in the beginning of 2021, the global COVID-19 pandemic is still a thing. We’ve got the vaccine at an early roll out stage, so I’m aware of the fact that we probably won’t be able to organize such a reunion this year just yet. And we didn’t have one in 2020. But I’m hopeful. I believe that once we all get vaccinated, we’ll be able to reunite the team in one physical location. Last year, we tested a virtual reunion to compensate, and I’ll share our experience at the end of this chapter.
  2. Team size. We’re 21 team members at this moment. I believe that what I write below scales to a team of around 50 people1, maybe more. If you’re running a bigger distributed team, I’m sure you’d have to adjust some of this stuff. In fact, bigger teams2 at other companies are doing such reunions completely differently.3
  3. How long and how often. We’ve organized 14 reunions like these over the years, and by trying out different things, we settled for this: twice a year and from Monday to Friday. We get a nice dose of socializing, but it’s not overwhelming for anyone. Usually we leave for home at the end of the reunion feeling happy to be back with our families, but still yearning for a little more time together as a team. It’s a mixture of good feelings.

All in all, we treat the reunion of our team as true bonding time. We finally get to meet in-person with the people behind the avatars that we see every day. After months of working alone in our home offices, we really look forward to seeing each other in person. We get to hang out. Play. Talk. Enjoy each others’ company and recharge the batteries for the next months of working together remotely.4

Who attends a reunion of our Nozbe team?

The core team. People who work full time for our company. In the past, we tried different models. A few times we invited our significant others as well. However, some of us have young kids or others don’t have a partner, so it created lots of weird situations and logistical problems. Other times, we invited special guests, but then the focus shifted to them and away from the team.

In the end, we think the core team must be there to truly bond and no one else.

Attendance at the reunion is obligatory. We want the entire team there. Of course, sometimes there are situations when at the last minute someone cannot come or they have to leave earlier for a family emergency. But everyone wants and tries to be there for the entire experience. After all, our families have us at home for the remainder of the year, so they can spare us for five days every six months.

When is a reunion organized? How often?

Twice a year. We avoid summer, as we want our team members to take vacation days then. That’s why we traditionally meet once in late spring and again in early fall. Hotels are widely available and are happy to accommodate a team like ours for a week. With a big group like ours, we usually feel like the place is there just for us.

A reunion lasts a full workweek. We travel to meet on a Monday for a late lunch (around 3 or 4 pm) and we leave after breakfast on Friday. Over the years, we experimented with different schedules. Some reunions lasted until Saturday or even Sunday. It’s proven too long. A full workweek is exactly right.

Location, location, location – where is a reunion organized?

Every time we organize a reunion, the entire team votes on a location. Going off to the Caribbean, Mediterranean or Asia would sound really cool for a reunion, and maybe we’ll do it some time… but as our core team is mainly based in our beautiful country of Poland in Central Europe, we usually choose a place around here as our destination.

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 it. Folks from the south haven’t visited the north and vice versa. 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 trains and highways reaching many parts of Poland, so most of the team can move quickly and arrive at the reunion without a long trek. And members of the team who live abroad can also fly in pretty easily.

What happens at a reunion? What’s the schedule like?

Here is a typical schedule of our reunion:

  1. Monday – Arrival
    • Everyone travels to the reunion hotel.
    • 3pm – Lunch. After that, everyone settles into their hotel rooms.
    • 5-7pm – Welcome. First meeting in the conference room where I hold my “state of the union” keynote.
    • 7pm – Dinner. We usually go out and enjoy dinner in the city with drinks and games.
  2. Tuesday to Thursday – Three full days
    • 8-9am – Breakfast. We wake up bright and early.
    • 9am-1pm – Work-like activities. We meet in our conference room to have some presentations, brainstorming sessions, chats in groups… or any other work-like activity.
    • 1pm-2pm – Lunch at the hotel.
    • 2pm-3pm – Siesta. Alone time for everyone to disconnect and relax after an intensive morning.
    • 3pm-6pm - Bonding time. We try to organize some cool activities like bowling, go-karting, laser-tagging, sight-seeing, hiking or anything else that’s leisurely and fun.
    • 6pmor7pm - Dinner. Eating out in a different restaurant every night is awesome!
    • 7pm-midnight - Drinks, socializing, hanging out, karaoke, or whatever else we feel like doing.
  3. Friday - Time to say good-bye
    • 8am – breakfast and farewells.

That’s it. This is our basic schedule for the week. It’s a pretty simple, tried-and-true framework we’ve established over the years that helps us get the right balance of work and play.

Lodging and dining – where do we stay and eat?

The logistics of a reunion are always tricky, so it’s important to have them sorted in advance. To get the hotel just right and know where and what people will eat and drink.

Hotel – what makes our stay great?

After we’ve chosen the target location for our reunion, we proceed to negotiate rates with a few hotels in the same vicinity. We send them our headcount and requirements and iron out the details. This way, we can compare the prices and, based on hotel ratings and opinions on the internet, figure out the best value for money.

As a task-oriented company, we create a shared project for our next reunion and add each potential hotel as a task. We add all hotel details, their website, the quote for our reunion and any other relevant information as comments to each hotel’s task. Later, we let the team review it and vote for their favorite hotel. In the end, once we have all the opinions and votes, our leadership team makes the final decision.

Here’s what we really think is important when choosing a hotel for a team reunion:

  • Location is crucial. If we’re in the city center, we want to be in the most centric hotel. This way, we can walk to the most attractions instead of needing to organize transport. On the other hand, we still aim for a quieter area to be able to sleep at night. It’s hard to strike a balance here, but we try.
  • Conference room must be big! We spend most mornings and late evenings 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 one-on-one or in smaller groups… it’s just more comfortable for all of us. It’s also a bonus if a conference room is a little far away from other guests’ rooms so that us being noisy doesn’t affect others. We try to negotiate with hotels to have the conference room open to our team 24/7, which enables late-night games and other team-bonding fun.
  • Room standards must be decent. A room doesn’t have to be fancy. Ultimately, we won’t be spending much time in our rooms anyway. With a team of our size, we usually opt for twin rooms so that people would be with someone else from the team and wouldn’t feel isolated. However, after the pandemic, I think we’ll revise this policy and just go for individual rooms.

Also, we like to shake things up! Recently we’ve been adapting a tick-tock schedule. We plan 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. However, the hotel away from the city should have some kind of spa and other attractions like bowling, a pool table, ping pong, or something similar so that we don’t get bored when the weather is not ideal.

Food – where to eat?

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. This way our day is very predictable and we don’t waste time “searching for food.” This reduces our commute time and preparation time for these two meals.
  • Dinner outside of the hotel, if possible. We prefer to go out for dinner and explore some cool local restaurants. It’s always a great part of a memorable evening.

A few tips regarding food when it comes to a group like ours:

  • Breakfast ideally should be a self-serve buffet. This means everyone can come down at any time they want and eat whatever they feel like.
  • The lunch menu for the entire week must be agreed upon ahead of time before the reunion. We want to accommodate for the meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans among us.
  • No desserts after lunch. It adds unnecessary time and calories to the meal and makes us feel really lazy afterwards.
  • Make coffee breaks in the conference room light – more water; less juice; herbal, green and black tea; fruit and small biscuits.
  • For dinner, check for truly the best and most memorable restaurants around. It’s useful to check Yelp ratings and ask locals before. As a big group, we have to make a reservation in advance anyway, so it’s good to do some research.
  • It’s good to develop some team-specific traditions on reunions. For example, we like to have sushi once for dinner, so we’re always on a lookout for a good Japanese restaurant. Everyone on our team loves sushi!
  • We try to organize the entire evenings out – not just dinners, but also some attractions and games.

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 taken care of. During the year, we put aside a monthly sum for our reunion budget. 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 prepare 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. Previously, we’ve gifted:

– a travel bottle with water filter – a travel coffee mug – a traditional tea mug – a power bank to charge mobile phones – 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 gift for the team.

Reunion tips and tricks – how we make sure it’s successful

As you can see above, the plan is pretty simple, but it’s the details that make it successful. Here’s what we’ve learned over the years:

  • Team photo! Now that we’re in the same physical space, it’s great to commemorate this by having a photo together. We usually take it on Tuesday morning. Timing is key, as only then are all the t-shirts new and we’re still well-rested.
  • Schedule alone time. After half a year of working from home, meeting so many people at once can be overwhelming. Make sure people can retreat a little and are not forced to 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 allows us to spread them evenly throughout the week for maximum team engagement. Also, don’t do only company-related presentations, but include passion-related presentations – each team consists of different people from different places, and this gives us a chance to learn about each other!
  • Schedule discussions one day in advance. Apart from presentations, we should also be scheduling discussions so that people can prepare mentally for each and every day.
  • Add margin. It’s good practice not to squeeze every minute out of the reunion – give people room to breathe,30 minutes or an hour here and there for one-on-one talks or spontaneous discussions in smaller groups.
  • Put and modify the schedule in a shared calendar. The agenda must be visible to everyone on the team in a shared calendar. This prevents questions like “What do we do now?” or “When do we do this or that?”
  • Leave some time for urgent customer support issues. We always announce on our blog that we’re going to have a reunion and we explain to our Nozbe customers that, during this week, they’ll have to wait a little longer for our response… but there still should be time for the support team to catch up on emails.
  • Organize sports/integration way in advance. We organize everything earlier to make sure the venues that offer activities are ready for a big group like ours. We also make sure not to schedule physically demanding activities for Thursday – we’re all very tired by then!
  • Attractions should be good for both women and men. We’re a diverse team, so it’s important to offer attractions for everyone. Also, if there is a possibility, a bonfire with music, sausages and beer does the job, so it’s worth trying to organize one.

Virtual reunion – what to do when there’s a worldwide pandemic

At the beginning of 2020, we were already pretty advanced as far as the spring reunion is concerned, but then the lockdown happened and we just cancelled the reunion. In the fall, we decided to try a virtual one5.

It wasn’t the same experience as meeting in the same physical location, but it was something. It was a week where we didn’t work much but focused on hanging out instead. Here are some key differences and highlights:

  • Our agenda was much more relaxed, and we spent time in smaller groups. We tried not to schedule too much stuff and hang out in smaller virtual groups. We would shake things up by randomly dividing our virtual rooms into smaller rooms.
  • Many more gadgets than usual. Instead of spending money on the lodging and food, we spent it on gadgets and gifts. It was a logistical challenge to ensure people received everything on time. We shipped several packages to team members, and for most of them, opening these was a total surprise each time.
  • Virtual cooking classes. We shipped sushi sets and shared shopping lists with people so that we could cook stuff together. We even prepared true homemade sushi and prepared both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks together.
  • Lots of online games. We played “Among Us” and other online games together. A lot. Sometimes until very late at night.

In the end, it was all about just giving our team a slower week where everyone could focus on getting to know other team members without worrying about work that needed to be done. The virtual reunion went better than I expected, but it doesn’t really compare to the true team retreat in one physical space.

One thing: organize a regular team meeting at least once a year!

A true #NoOffice team needs to meet up from time to time. After all, we are just humans who like to meet other people and connect with them on a deeper level than an exchange of comments or chats via a computer terminal. That’s why it’s important to organize such retreats with care and lots of preparation. To treat them like an event worth remembering. This brings the entire team together – to feel as one.

  1. To really feel how much we are enjoying such reunions, make sure to check out some of the episodes of “The Podcast”, that were recorded while we were together. Especially these episodes: NoOffice.Link/p91 (how we do reunions), NoOffice.Link/p116 (improvements to reunions), NoOffice.Link/p141 (how we use Nozbe to get it all done), NoOffice.Link/p162 (how we pack for reunions), NoOffice.Link/p183, (how we launch a new app) and NoOffice.Link/p195 (how we plan gadgets for reunions). 

  2. Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, the makers of Wordpress had a great podcast episode how in their 1000+ people team they’re organizing a reunion: NoOffice.Link/distributed 

  3. Listen to this episode of Rework podcast, where they compare reunions of companies like Basecamp and Buffer: NoOffice.Link/rework 

  4. This chapter is a rewrite of an early version of my blog post about Nozbe reunions, which you can find here: 

  5. Check out the details of our virtual reunion here: NoOffice.Link/virtual 

Next: Chapter 27 - Socialize

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