Thematic company retreat 2022
The Thematic team has always been spread out geographically. The company started in New Zealand, but then we moved it to the US. For a while we had two remote offices, one in San Francisco and one in Auckland. But once Covid hit, like many small companies, we went fully remote. The need to bring the team together for in-person time has always been there. Before Covid, we met in Hawaii…
This time, we met in New Zealand. It was so amazing that we have been buzzing from the experience for weeks!
In this post, I’ll share why and how we did it, how it went and what we would do differently next time.
Why we run company retreats
If you ask any experienced business owner, it’s all about people. We are social creatures and when we work together, marvellous things happen. (Don’t believe this? Listen to Bill Clinton interviewing Roman Mars from 99% Invisible!)
When people get together, great things happen. They get to know each other as people, as individuals. They find things in common and truly connect.
We also took time to hold important discussions face-to-face discussion and tackle some hairy problems.
Finally, it was a great opportunity to celebrate our wins and get excited about the future.
How we ran our retreat: the logistics
There are many ways to organize a retreat. In our case, everyone chipped in! Our team is at 20 now, so it's manageable.
- We agreed on a date six months in advance by creating a spreadsheet where people could indicate their availability.
- Two to three months before the retreat we split into teams, mixing people who don't interact much.
- These teams were responsible for organizing the schedule: one for work and one for fun activities. One person created a meal roster, and assigned groups of three to each meal. They could choose what they cooked.
- Whoever wasn’t cooking helped clean up on different days.
Food ended up being a huge highlight of the retreat, with several people saying that they never knew vegetable meals could be so great.
At the retreat, everyone joined a shared WhatsApp group for notifications.
Location and transport
The NZ location was perfect. Local people could fly into Hamilton, and international travellers could fly into Auckland. Raglan is about a two hour drive from the airport, so feels very remote and quintessentially Kiwi.
Both for this retreat and our previous one we rented a 12-person van and had a couple of cars. It was useful to keep them for short trips.
It goes without saying that the retreat itself was during work hours and counted as work.
In Hawaii we rented an AirBnB. In NZ, we went to the Institute of Awesome in Raglan. They had individual rooms, where we housed groups of two people. There were shared bathrooms and cooking facilities. One person shared:
“To me, a HUGE part of the humanizing element of the retreat was the "roughing it" part of the trip. We cooked meals together, had our own space, ate at the same table, ...we never would have gotten that in a resort/hotel setting.”
We’ve read other people’s retreat write ups and knew that it’s important not to overdo work activities.
So, we only scheduled two hours per day, shown here in blue:
During these slots, we held these sessions:
- Product roadmap. Our Director of Product presented what we are working on and then we split into groups to dig deeper into some of the items
- Company values. Our Head of Product Marketing presented a values refresh and explained how they weave into the work marketing and sales do at Thematic.
- We split into team groups to do retrospectives on collaboration: Marketing and Sales, Product and Customer Success.
- We had a cross-team discussion of a big hairy problem and were able to solve it quickly.
- Those who did not join the big hairy problem discussion hosted an unconference to discuss topics like “Thematic for Evil (what to watch out for)” or “What if Thematic had a Podcast”.
On the first night we had a White Elephant session, which is like Secret Santa, except you can steal someone else’s gift.
We also planned fun activities that were low cost and accessible, such as a walk to the Bridal Veils waterfall and building a bivouac shelter in the forest.
The bivouac shelter challenge was great. We paired up in teams and had to build a shelter from bamboo poles, ropes and tarpaulin. Each shelter was then tested by having a bucket of water thrown on top of it.
The highlight for everyone was a sunset boat cruise with a fish and chips meal.
In the evenings, we played billiards and listened to music. There were two guitars, some talented singers and some even some rappers.
On way back, the bus stopped by the Waingaro Hot Springs, which is another kiwi classic!
How it went: team feedback
Unprompted, a team member shared this:
"Thank you to every single person in Raglan for a wonderful retreat away with Thematic. I've stopped on my way home to grab a bite to eat, and am marvelling at what an awesome group of individuals and team I work with. I loved getting to know each of you, whether it was to build connections or to deepen connections. Thanks Alyona and Nathan for making it happen, and for choosing a spot where we could really get away. I look forward to staying connected."
We also reached out to people for feedback with a simple form. As usual with feedback, gathering open-ended responses and analyzing them is always worth the time and effort!
Here are the common themes in what people shared:
What did you personally get the most value from?
- Connecting with team members, bonding
- Building relationships and getting to know others as people
- Building understanding, empathy and trust
- Building connections across departments
- Collaborating on key product and strategy issues
- Focusing on company’s goals and values, sense of direction
- Getting motivation
How do you think the retreat benefited Thematic?
- Improved company culture and morale
- Improved cross-team collaboration and alignment
- Accelerated problem solving
- Great brainstorming and ideas we can immediately action
- Streamlines processes
- Improved work effectiveness
When we asked people about what they’d keep the same at the next retreat, they highlighted the remote environment of the retreat location, the balance of work/team activities, and making food together.
What we will do differently next time
Two of our team members couldn’t make it due to difficulties with visas. New Zealand only reopened visitor visas in August, and we missed out on bringing really everyone together.
While people praised our schedule, we should have dedicated work slots so that people can catch up on work during the day. This isn’t critical for everyone. But when customer success have to help out customers urgently, we don’t want them to feel like they are missing out.
Several people asked for one more day to allow for individual teams to work in person together. So a full week, including traveling, probably would have been spot on.