Retreats are the secret sauce of distributed teams

Matheus Riolfi
Feb 19, 2019 · 7 min read
Running for the dream

Last month we traveled to Tunisia for the fourth Tint Retreat, the largest and the best so far! As a distributed team, we get together every 2–3 months to discuss major topics of the company, to plan the months ahead, and to have fun together.

Building a distributed team has been an amazing feeling — having the freedom to work from wherever we want, living the #futureofwork. We are amongst the pioneers in this new way of organizing, so we need to figure out a lot of things as we go. Hence, we’re committed to sharing our experiences and hopefully helping the larger movement.

This last retreat, I entered the arrivals lobby at the airport and saw my coworkers face to face. I was thrilled to see them in person, one of them for the first time, after a couple months of seeing them on a computer screen. I asked myself: if this personal interaction feels so good, how are we going to make it as a distributed team? Why don’t we just have an office?

The answer for us, as I’ll show in this blog post, is the Tint Retreat.

Why retreats

We are a team of 5 working from 5 different cities, in the US and in France. We knew this would be the case from day one, as we wanted to live on different continents for personal reasons while continuing to work together. This early clarity made all the difference, as we designed Tint’s processes and culture with the distributed team in mind.

There is a lot of great online content on how to run distributed teams so I won’t cover it here. Here are a few sources if you are interested in learning more:

One drawback of distributed teams is that in-person interactions are important to create bonds between team members and to ensure effective communication. It’s easier to convey complicated ideas and have long discussions when everybody is in the same room and can chit chat around the infamous watercooler.

However, most companies ignore the cost side of the equation: office rent, inability to accommodate different work styles, long commutes, distractions… I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Retreats provide the best of the two worlds and allow distributed teams to be effective. That’s why we made them a major part of our culture.

The goal of this blog post is to show how our retreats work.

The structure

Over the course of a few retreats, we created a simple playbook. First, we define a date that works for everybody. One week has been the ideal duration as it provides 5–6 solid days of work and 1–2 of fun, and doesn’t require us to stay away from home for too long. Also, the retreat is so intense that we’re all exhausted at the end of it, so spending more time won’t be as productive.

Second, we brainstorm locations on Slack and create a shortlist. We estimate costs of transportation, accommodation (Airbnb), and food/activities. The goal was to maximize productivity/fun while minimizing cost.

We found that it’s best to stay in a house that is isolated during the first 4–5 days, so we can remove any possible distraction and focus on work. It’s amazing how a lot of the key insights come from “casual” conversations over beers at night.

Then, we normally move a urban place close to nice bars and restaurants where we can have fun and learn more about our host city/country.

This time around, Tunis/Tunisia was the unanimous choice. It’s off the beaten path, it was cheaper due to lower local and flight costs, and one of our team members is a local. The perfect choice!

The location poll

Finally, we define the agenda. Our goal is to prioritize strategic discussions such as the mission/vision and the product roadmap during the retreat to take advantage of the time together. We discuss these topics in details and make the plans that we then execute in the weeks between retreats.

Our retreats work like quarterly planning for office-based companies. We learned that this separation between strategic discussions/planning and execution works well. As a startup, we need to balance between discussions and execution, and leaving the former to the retreats help us put our heads down and execute well.

Tint Retreat Tunisia: case in point

We spent the weekdays in a gorgeous house in Raf Raf, a coastal city, and the weekend in an apartment in Carthage, suburbs of Tunis. Both places were affordable/comfortable and provided great views of the Mediterranean Sea.

We started the retreat by reviewing 2018, from inception to our first anniversary. It was encouraging to see how much we’d accomplished in such a short period of time: what started as one idea had transformed into a 5-person startup and a product that helps clients use external data in their models. We reflected on the main learnings from last year and used them as the foundation for the 2019 planning.

After this, we discussed our mission, vision, and values and sought to find alignment. We encourage distributed teams to pay special attention to these topics, as they are core to building a coherent culture.

Our conference room

We closed with a discussion of our 2019 plan. We talked about how we can deliver ongoing value to our clients, product roadmap, and go-to-market/sales, Tint’s positioning, fundraising, and team.

After 2 days of discussions, we hosted a hackathon to tackle the key open questions we had on the product roadmap. We worked on a fresh perspective of the Tint app to reflect what we’d learned in the past months and on an alternative feature selection processes that could perform better than the current one. It was great to get our hands dirty and to transform the high-level ideas we discussed in something concrete.

External conference room

We drove to Tunis on Friday — our teammmate Chedly’s father allowed us to use his office space for the day. It turned out, to everyone’s surprise and delight, that the office was actually located at the Kobbet Ennhas Palace. We enjoyed the amazing hospitality of Chedly’s family, had a guided tour, and ate the most delicious meal of the trip. We worked from there with an additional boost to our creativity and problem-solving skills.

Tint office@Kobbet Ennhas Palace in Tunis

Team building

Work hard, play hard is a cliché, but applicable to our retreats. Doing fun things together builds the camaraderie and trust that are critical for teamwork. From cooking together to enjoying local delights like maklub and ojja at our favorite restaurant, these times were invaluable to get to know each other better. We spent time in a place called Café de la Jeunesse, a unique establishment that offered a glimpse of Tunisia’s favorite pastime: get together with friends, play cards, drink tea, and smoke shishas.

Conclusion

Retreats are a great way to address some of the need for in-person interactions, as a few intense days replace the daily office routine. They are a crucial component of our culture and should be considered by any distributed company.

During our time in Tunisia, we know more of one another, had fun, and aligned on the plan going forward. Now, we are back in our cities executing on the plans we made. We return to our Zoom video calls and Slack messages energized and knowing we made a ton of progress while having an experience we’ll never forget.

Do you remember the last time you had a remarkable experience in your office job? I bet you don’t. It doesn’t have to be this way, join us in the #futureofwork!

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