Retreat with purpose: why we send our employees on “Wintercamp”

We’re a company that values small teams, close collaboration, and insights that inspire us to become better. We’re also a company that started out in 2007 as a small start-up based in Stockholm, and through a rapid period of growth, we now have self-sufficient offices in Chicago, New York, and London in addition.

As we grow, the skills of our employees are evolving and diversifying — there’s more to share and even more to celebrate. But with over 100 employees across the world and counting, we noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to connect in meaningful ways — ways that reinforce our community and contribute to the improvement of Nansen as a whole.


Identity Crisis

Forging an organizational identity is no easy feat. It’s painfully similar to, at an early stage of your life, trying to establish your identity or a general sense of who you are. It involves confusion, experimentation, and a lot of trial and error. But after some time, a general consensus is formed that feels “just right”; there is no longer internal conflict and no unexpected outbursts. As a fully-formed individual you come to a level of acceptance, in part because you know who you are, but largely because you became who you wanted to become.

This is true for young organizations. An identity is not created overnight — it involves a long (ideally strategic) process of forging a vision, a culture, and an image. This process urges the answering of three key questions: “Who are we?”, “What do others say about us?”, and “Who do we want to be in the future, and how will we be known?”

This third question was of high importance to us at this stage of our growth. We were happy with who we were. We were happy with what our clients and stakeholders said about us. But we needed to keep track of who we were becoming as an organization, as a culture, and how this could be kept intact alongside our rapid business growth.

Thinking big, acting small

To achieve this, employees need to be united in a way that encourages connection and innovation. It could be developers in different offices learning from each other’s expertise, or groups realizing ways to work internationally that can be more productive. It could just be a group of people sharing what they are passionate about, becoming inspired by each other and feeling a sense of belonging at Nansen. We wanted to keep our employees connected so that we can all benefit from each other.

A year ago, Creative Directors Andreas Carlsson and Justin Dauer decided that something needed to be done to address this. It was a critical time at Nansen — we were going through a swift transition between a close-knit agency to an international company. We prioritized maintaining this sense of community, with the goal of keeping the close-knit feel despite our growing business.

Simple Solutions

This was the kind of reasoning that led to the concept of Wintercamp. Andreas and Justin believed that Wintercamp could become a physical representation of all that we stand for.

The model of Wintercamp is a simple one — we select a beautiful and isolated location in the countryside, away from the noise and distractions of the city. We choose broad themes to be addressed over the 4–5 days of the camp, and along with selecting a few key people to run the themes. Applications to attend the camp are completely open. We make sure that there is a wide mix of people, representing all offices, skill sets, experience levels, both new employees and those who have been with us from the start. It enables employees from different offices to put faces to names; humanizing the interactions of our global employees.

Justin Dauer, one of the founders of Wintercamp, commented, “In practice, Wintercamp is the physical embodiment of Nansen culture. Time set aside to invest in our passions as a global team; time for inspiration and collaboration, devoid of implied organizational hierarchies; and time in a place that is at the deepest level, a true representation of who we are.”

It’s a retreat with purpose, bringing people away from their desks and connecting them in a way that feels symbolic but still engages them in business-related problems. It forces everyone to step back and consider the bigger picture of what we do and why we do it.

Outcomes

Being able to justify outcomes against costs is important, even if the symbolic value can be difficult to measure. But since the model that we created is based on both connecting employees and simply “getting things done”, the measurable output spoke for itself. For example, at the most recent Wintercamp, the teams managed to make significant headway in creating a new nansen.com, a new app, and several client-facing tools that assist in product development.

Henrik Kraft, Senior Vice President of Nansen Inc. said, “I have been very impressed with the initiative that Justin and Andreas took in getting the Wintercamps started, and I fully support the concept. It’s great that employees come together and run this independently, generating amazing outcomes both in the work produced, and in the strengthened relationships across offices. Wintercamp is a fundamental part of what makes Nansen unique.”

For the investment made, this output alone made a justifiable return. That is without even taking into account the invaluable benefits we sought to achieve from the start. Feedback from Wintercampers invariably supports our original goals — they felt more connected with their global counterparts and mobilized to work with them in the future.

Perhaps the least measurable but the most valuable outcome is the general sense of team spirit and united-ness that embeds itself in our Wintercamps. It reaffirms the values we stand for, the passions we share, and stands as a strong reminder that we all carry a singular goal at Nansen; providing the best value and customer experience to clients and end users.

This is who we are, and this is what we stand for.