We believe that company culture isn’t just about what’s being served in the kitchen or how cool your office is — it’s about what you do together on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. That’s why company retreats are important to the culture of UTRUST. They give us the opportunity to identify who we want to be and how we want to accomplish our goals.
As the organizer of our corporate retreats, I wanted to let you in on the process of how we build our culture through what we do. Here’s what our team retreats involved and what it meant to our business on the other end.
On this first retreat back in March 2018, when we were only a team of 10, we defined the vision of our mission as a crypto company. Identifying our vision was important in this ever-changing ecosystem, and so we stated our key values on day one. With exponential growth in mind, however, we knew that these values could change as our team expanded.
On the second day, we had social activities like fraternizing and canyoning. Strong companies are built on strong relationships, and we wanted to make sure we were boosting solid relationships every minute. So, we stepped away from the desk for a moment to let everyone know that relationships are crucial to the UTRUST team. In the end, we saw a major impact on performance and engagement.
From this retreat onwards, our company changed a lot. We needed to tackle some huge challenges at the product level, and at this point our team started to grow and our ecosystem began to develop.
9 months after our initial retreat, our team was totally different. We became a cross-functional staff of 30 employees with 15 percent working remotely. And while we were happy to give our employees the opportunity to work from anywhere, this meant that communication was happening largely in online platforms like Slack. Remote communication tools tend to hide the human face behind typed words, and relationships can also weaken when people don’t see each other for a long time. This is why finding some time to meet during our year is absolutely necessary.
We realized that with our growth, we were a totally different company from the first retreat. Our focus and goals had changed, and our team had expanded. Most importantly, we were no longer a small and new company. We needed to make our remote-friendly company work with the same strong relationships that we started out with.
In early December 2018, we met in Northern Portugal for 3 days with one big purpose: to align and create new strategies to work as a remote-friendly company.
To organize this second retreat, I began by collecting fun facts about each team member and asking them to send me a baby picture. For team sessions I requested input from the team on the most important topics to discuss during the retreat. The most voted was team communication, and it was great to learn that it was just as an important topic to the company as it was for our people.
On the first day, we did some ice-breaking games to bring new members into our established team. We had a blast trying to guess who was who in the baby pictures and added some fun facts to help everyone find out who the baby in the picture was. Later in the day, we divided into small groups to play a “rope knots game”, where employees joined hands and tied themselves into knots. They had to work together in order to free themselves. Activities like this help break through social barriers, but more importantly they demonstrate the power of good communication and teamwork.
On the final day, took a look back on what we had accomplished by identifying UTRUST’s strengths and challenges. We affirmed ourselves as a young and joyful team that was eager to learn and wasn’t afraid to give feedback, and agreed that we needed to improve remote and cross-team communication. This conversation gave us a direction to define strategies and work our weaknesses. We closed day with our CEO letting us in on the next steps for the company and wrapping up the team activities.
Together with the first, this second retreat helped us define who we are and what we want to become. One piece of feedback shared in follow-up identified the fact that the whole team knew each other better. They also stated that they felt more confident to face new challenges and engage with the company.
This kind of feedback is widely reported in Organizational Psychology and Human Resources. Actually, in 2016, Jim Harter from Gallup*, developed a meta-analysis with more than 82 000 teams globally. His research showed that high engagement — defined as having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, and feeling a real contribution consistently — leads to positive outcomes. These include higher productivity, better performance, and increased profitability. This research backed what would soon be our next milestones.
In the first trimester of 2019 alone, our team grew from 30 to 41 people, meanwhile our product was progressing every day. Then, only a few short months later, we launched with our first merchant — S. L. Benfica. As you might imagine, this had a major impact on our team. The excitement meant that we were more engaged than ever. But a new and different challenge came up: we needed to address long-term strategies, define the next goals and continually develop our vision as a crypto payments company.
Our late retreat was held shortly after going live, with a team 4 times bigger than on our first, when UTRUST was still a new company. It was a challenge to develop activities for such a large team. I started out by collecting each group’s goals for the next semester to be presented and discussed at the retreat.
After the kick-off session with our CEO, Nuno Correia, the energy was flowing and we started group dynamics. With the help of our VP Global Partnerships, Sanja Kon, we addressed our superpowers and stated how they can help at UTRUST. This activity was crucial to promote self-awareness and develop a strong sense of ownership for the work.
Next it was time to play a game. Divided randomly into small groups, each group was given a poster board listing the five teams UTRUST divides into: Operations, Finance, Legal & Compliance, Marketing and Product & Business. Each team was then given a bunch of post-its each with a goal. They then had to work together to correctly assign each goal to the correct team, and the group with the most accurate board being the winner. Everyone was then challenged to add new suggestions for each team’s goals.
There were two dimensions to this exercise. On one hand, each and everyone was challenged to brainstorm about the role and goals of each team inside the company, and try to place themselves in other people’s shoes. On the other hand, the randomization of the groups meant most people had to collaborate with others they usually have little interaction with on their daily tasks, allowing for a different exchange of ideas. We finished the day as usual with a debrief and a prep for what was next.
We spent the whole second day out of the hotel to provide our non-Portuguese employees a typical experience along the city of Aveiro, in the center of the country. As proper foodies, we learned to make “ovos moles” (soft eggs), a staple sweet delicacy from this region. Then, we followed with a tour through the most special corners of Aveiro, which ended up being a lot more entertainment than we bargained for.
On the last morning, we caught up on what came out of our discussions and activities. We finished by going out to a cool restaurant for some final facetime before heading out.
Over these 3 days, we developed solid skills and relationships which will continue to improve in the future. Moreover, the UTRUST team got together to explore each other’s work, paving the way for more collaboration, consistency, and engagement.
Our retreats have given our business a huge boost in productivity, creativity, and connectivity. With each step forward, UTRUST grows larger and more complex, but the base of our business remains the same — strong relationships. Retreats help us foster these relationships, no matter if someone is working across the desk or from the other side of the world.
*Harter, J. (2016). Moneyball for business: Employee engagement meta-analysis. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/ businessjournal/191501/moneyball-business-employee-engagement-metaanalysis.aspx