What our retreat to Colombia taught us about culture

Latif Nanji
May 16, 2019 · 10 min read

We took the team to Colombia for a chance to strengthen our values. We achieved that — and so much more

The Roadmunk team hard at work in Colombia

In March 2019, right when the stubborn Canadian winter was in full swing, the Roadmunk team got on multiple connecting flights and embedded itself deep into the sunny Andean mountains of Medellin, Colombia for two weeks. The big goal for this trip? To strengthen Roadmunk’s values of starting with empathy, building with balance, and having fun together.

But first, I’ll rewind a little bit to why it all really started.

Roadmunk has two offices in two separate cities: one in Toronto, Ontario, and one in Kitchener, Ontario. It’s hard to bring these offices together for a significant period of time during the year, but we try our best.

The blueprint for the trip to Colombia, then, was this:

  1. Bring these two growing offices together in a sunny country.
  2. Create the perfect environment for Roadmunkers to share meaningful, unique experiences together.
  3. Use those experiences to create a precedent for future work interactions and collaboration once everyone gets back to Toronto and Kitchener.
  4. Drink a ton of freshly-plucked-out-of-the-earth Colombian coffee and freshly squeezed tropical juice.
  5. Watch #culturemagic happen as we nurture the values that Roadmunk was built on.

This might sound like hyperbole, but the results were truly unlike anything we could have planned using spreadsheets, shared docs, confluence pages and slack channels. People organically planned all sorts of activities, new work initiatives were born, and many were inspired to add new wellness activities to their routines once they returned to Canada.

You might be asking: “Is this really how it all started? What about planning? How did you get nearly 40 people from Canada to Colombia? How did you know it would be alright? What about safety and health and productivity?”

Hold on to your seats. We have answers.

Some of the views captured by the team

The planning stage: An exercise in empathy

Humblebrag alert: This wasn’t the first time we took the team on a retreat to Latin America. Previously, we’d been to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so we already knew that the next retreat would take place in an equally warm, sunny and, most importantly, affordable country. On top of that, I’d already visited the place where we’d be staying; a “digital nomad hotel” called Selina that specifically caters to travelling professionals.

So the main priority after picking the country and the hotel was to ensure there were no barriers for Roadmunkers to come along (unless, of course, they had commitments, pets and families that kept them from going). For starters, we made sure there were no technical barriers by checking the internet connection, that the working spaces were, well, working, and by ordering any special equipment anyone might need.

In terms of the cost, Roadmunk covered the accommodation, most meals, shuttles to and from the airport, and a few team dinners to some of the best restaurants Medellin has to offer. The only thing left for people to cover was the airfare and any after-work adventures.

Selina proved to be an exceptional working space. The staff was attentive and accommodating, and the facilities were beautifully decorated, creating a fresh, vibrant vibe unlike any other hotel in the world. It also offered spaces like a movie room where some Roadmunkers would watch movies and play video games. Selina also had free daily events taking place in-house: coffee workshops, salsa classes, Colombian cocktail classes, pub crawls and group trips to local events like carnivals and food festivals.

Part of eliminating barriers included making the most relevant logistical information available to everyone before going to Colombia. We did this by creating a centralized hub populated with everything people needed to know, therefore saving everyone time on research and reducing the amount of anxiety around the unknown.

On top of that, our planning team left no stones unturned. If anyone needed help checking in, making sense of the local transportation, finding an ATM or a supermarket, or arranging special meal requests, we had the Slack channels in place to assist with that.

Making it easy for Roadmunkers to come also included giving everyone flexibility around how long and when they wanted to stay in Medellin. You can only do one-week because you have a family/dogs/cats/a busy schedule outside of work? Sounds good! All we ask is that you make the most out of the experience.

For those who had to stay behind, our Social Committee planned two days of sister office bonding. The Toronto office travelled to Kitchener and stayed there for two days. While in Kitchener, people participated in a design ideation workshop, a “speed dating” exercise for asking rapid-fire questions about each other, and a night of bowling, pizza and chicken wings.

Planning the Colombia trip around our values of empathy meant covering the perspectives of everyone involved: this included those travelling to Colombia — or anywhere in South America — for the first time, seasoned travellers, those staying behind in Canada, those with a multitude of hesitations and concerns, and everyone in between.

This trip really showed me that Roadmunk fosters the culture it claims to have. I was able to see that Roadmunk’s values are centred around people and empathy. As a first time traveller to South America, I thought I’d be nervous or lost, but every minute of the trip was fantastic. It was invaluable to be able to share something like that with my fellow team members.

-Brandon Mubarak, Web Applications Developer

Building health-work balance

But what’s the point of going on a retreat to South America when we could have done that anywhere in Canada?

It’s simple enough. When you mix the ingredients of vitamin D, a teaser of the summer to come, and the dopamine release that comes with working in a new, beautiful, comfortable environment free of the usual hang-ups and commitments back home, the positives in two parts:

  • A refreshed approach to the work you do every day,
  • A chance to reflect on the way you balance that work with the rest of your life.

Bypassing everyday time-sucking activities like commuting and cooking meals also opens up a time window for self-improvement. The trip to Colombia eliminated the usual shoving your way out of a packed streetcar during rush hour, ordering food from Uber Eats then feeling guilty about not cooking, and skipping yoga or workouts because getting to your local gym sometimes just feels like too much.

The only thing Roadmunkers had to do every day was wake up, take an elevator downstairs and eat the provided meals at the scheduled time. Teams were also inspired to sign up for local gym memberships, take yoga classes every morning at Selina, go for jogs in the lovely neighbourhood of El Poblado, and pool + spa days.

Having that layer of “adulting noise” removed from their day-to-day, and being able to experience the benefits of adding more wellness activities to their routine, inspired some people to get back in the groove of self-care and #healthyliving once they returned to Canada.

A few team members doing morning yoga (by Yoga Lab Medellin)

One of the benefits I got from this trip was the chance to think about my work-life balance. In Colombia, we were going to the gym together, waking up with the sun, having balanced meals three times a day. It helped me remember how important that is, and what a life with the perfect balance looks like. It was lovely!

-Alexandra Mierzwa, Operations Manager

For some, working in Colombia had some unintended positive effects on their actual work. In my case, I spent most of my time having meetings with every single team member in Colombia. I wanted to hear about their goals, challenges and any feedback they had for me as a culture leader, the company and the way things are going for them professionally. I was able to take the feedback that came from those conversations, reflect on it, then act on it across the board once I got back to Toronto.

Others found themselves organizing ways they could improve the company culture back home. One of our test specialists in Kitchener made a strong connection with one of our Customer Experience team members in Toronto. They got into the weeds of what they do, the pain points of their jobs, they shared their wins and tried to figure out if there was a way they could support each other.

They came up with a cross-collaboration initiative for when they got back to Toronto: job shadowing — a type of peer mentoring where Roadmunkers could sit with each other for a day and watch what they do, learn about their day-to-day and how it fits in the broader context of the organization and across teams.

Some team members — like people working on highly output-dependent jobs like content creation and design — reported breakthroughs in problems they’d been stuck with for weeks.

Fun together

Here at Roadmunk, we value the importance of forming meaningful relationships with the people you work with every day. One way we foster this is by organizing monthly social events, Friday get-togethers, and weekly lunch-and-learns. But these are all organized activities that not everyone might be on board with every time they happen.

The retreat in Colombia offered an environment where things could happen organically. Roadmunk only planned a handful of team dinners, but the rest of the time, Roadmunkers were on their own. By opening up the field for people to get creative with what they do, how they do it, when and with whom, people had an easier time creating bonds with people they usually wouldn’t work with.

These best part? These activities weren’t just any pub night or bowling tournament. Remember how some Roadmunkers were in Colombia? An entirely new country with new food, new places and new faces to explore? Our team certainly didn’t forget. As soon as the clock stroke 5, or the weekends rolled around, groups of Roadmunkers would plan all sorts of outings.

Some of the highlights included:

  • A few teams took day trips to Guatape, a small town where they climbed 700 steps to the top of an ancient and mysterious inselberg (where they were promised the “best view in the world” at the top)
  • Another team visited the lush coffee fields of Antioquia (Colombia’s “Coffee Belt”), where they learned how the beans are grown, harvested and roasted by a local family-owned farm
  • A few other teams rode cable cars to the top of the mountains that surround Medellin and watched the sun set over the city.
  • Some took weekend trips to beach towns like Santa Marta and Cartagena
  • Others were interested in the local history, so they took barrio transformation tours where they learned how the city has changed over the past few years
  • And a lucky handful got to see Colombia’s biggest musical act J Balvin make a surprise appearance at La Solar music festival.
Roadmunkers #DoingItForTheGram

Experiencing these beautiful towns, learning together and having fun exploring culturally-rich, historically significant places as a group gave everyone a chance to add depth to their relationships with each other.

I was definitely a bit nervous about going to Colombia, as it was my first week at the company. Upon arrival, everyone was extremely welcoming, friendly, and included me in group excursions around Medellin, which was really nice! After my first full day in Colombia going to Guatape with a few colleagues, my nervousness ebbed and I wasn’t so intimidated by the week anymore.

Liz Papierz, Events Manager

To wrap things up: Fun is hard

In order to pull off a trip like this, we needed to have a strong vision. More importantly, we needed to have a strong belief in our core values. We had both, and so, launching that ship across such a vast, unpredictable ocean like an overseas retreat, was never fraught with fear or anxiety.

That’s not to say we didn’t learn a lot of hard lessons for the next trip.

We did a survey to gather people’s feedback and found that there were common concerns across the board that we intend to work on for the next retreat. For example, giving people more time in advance to plan and prepare (we only gave people a couple of months to accept or decline), planning more team-building activities, and finding ways to give back to the local communities we stay in, were some of the common concerns expressed by a few team members.

Doing something radically unique takes a lot of hard work. For this trip, we wanted to do something that loudly said: “We care about these core values and we want to raise the bar by a lot doing something big like a trip to another country.”

I might be biased, but I have a feeling we did that and so much more.

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