Lullabot's 2017 Annual Retreat

by Matt Westgate

Many companies have corporate retreats where the whole team gets together to celebrate their success and spend time thinking about how to improve their work. We’re no different. Almost every year since 2006 we’ve brought our geo-distributed team together to spend a week “working on how we work” while bonding with our peers. In 2017, 52 employees from Lullabot and Lullabot Education flew to Palm Springs, CA for a week of rest, relaxation and vision work at our beloved Smoke Tree Ranch. We’ve been at Smoke Tree before.

Smoke Tree Ranch Dining Hall

If you don’t see your co-workers every day, a company retreat is more akin to a family reunion. You’re not sick of Bob who would otherwise bring tuna salad sandwiches for lunch or Mary who never refills the coffee pot when it’s empty or Phil who plays his polka music too loud. Our team genuinely wants to get to know each other and form bonds outside of work. It lifts our spirits and allows us to cultivate gratitude and celebrate success in person.

“As a new employee, this has been my first retreat. I have liked the openness about the state of the company, the free time activities, the beautiful place (of course!), but, without a doubt, what I will keep for me as the best take away from the retreat is the people—this is a great company, because it's made of great people.” —Ezequiel Vázquez
Horseback riding at the ranch

We start planning the company retreat three months in advance. At first, the planning group consisted of our event coordinator Haley Scarpino, our human resources team, the admin team and the directors. On our first call we reviewed our notes from the previous retreat to recap what worked and didn’t work, then we each talked about what we wanted to get out of the upcoming retreat. In preparation for the kick-off call, I had already brainstormed new ideas and intentions I was eager to share. My vision for the retreat was to reduce the sit-and-listen presentations and replace that time with collaborative workshopping as a company. The other big areas of consensus from that kickoff meeting were:

  • Protect the unstructured “fun and relaxation” time. Free time is critical for the team to recharge during the retreat.
  • Cultivate gratitude.
  • Feel connected.

By the time we finished the planning for the retreat, we had almost 20 of 54 Lullabots owning an activity or overseeing some aspect of the retreat. I'm so grateful for how the team stepped up this year to pull off a successful event. I should also mention we go back to the same place each year which eases the stress on our event coordinator and our team. Using the same venue means our team knows what to pack, what to expect, and what fun activities they can do next year that they didn’t get time to do this year. Using the same venue allows us to focus on event curation rather than logistics planning and exception handling.

Esther, Mateu and Juampy talking

At the end of our weekly planning sessions our daily schedule looked like this:

  • 9-10 a.m.: Announcements and Presentations.
  • 10-12 a.m.: Team Workshops. This year we advanced our open books philosophy, having the team build revenue forecasts for the year in small groups and estimate the percentage of each expense category using rolls of pennies. We prioritized our company values and wrote headlines for the company we want to be five years from now. We also threw in a couple of strategy workshops we do with our clients so the team can experience those as-a-client.
  • 12 a.m.-1 p.m.: Lunch.
  • 1-3 p.m.: Freetime. Self-organizing volleyball, golf, horseshoes, horseback riding, soccer, and hanging out by the pool or simply taking a nap. We used Slack to organize free time, and it worked quite well.
  • 3-5 p.m.: Self-organizing groups. Using Trello, a team member would list a topic they wanted to talk about for an hour. Anything goes. We had conversations on home improvement, personal core values, career advancement, knitting, our website, work-life balance, and so on. The sessions with the highest votes were curated and added to the agenda.
  • 5-6 p.m.: Circles. We break into small groups and share our feelings and experiences from the day. It’s a judgment-free way to process the day while connecting to a small group of peers that remains the same throughout the retreat.
  • 6:30-7:30 p.m.: Dinner.
  • 7:30-10 p.m.: Evening activities. Each night has an event planned. From the ever popular lightning talks and keynote karaoke to a talent show, storytelling, to our very relaxed outdoor dinner and bonfire on the last night. We also had an awards show for the best posts on our private social company network, Yammer. Yes, there were trophies.
Yammer award recipients
“I loved the focus on finances and how the business works, and how to keep it not just sustainable but also growing in a way that continues to underline our core values. I came away with something I didn't think possible—an even greater respect for our leadership, and a renewed confidence that I'm in the right place.” —Greg Dunlap

There’s one more event not listed on here which was new this year: community service time. We took an afternoon to deviate from the schedule to build bicycles for ten kids at the Boys & Girls Club Palm Springs. The bikes came from Palm Springs Cyclery with a considerable discount. It was a fun way to share the afternoon and do something together we usually don’t get to do. Speaking for myself, it was a personal highlight of the retreat.

Lullabot community service: bicycle building

To be candid, the whole experience is surreal—like a week-long dream. The crisp desert air in the morning, the cactus flowers in full bloom and 70-90 degree Fahrenheit weather in the afternoon against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Did I mention being surrounded by people you want to be around? This team. This incredibly talented, smart, hard-working, and passionate team is the real reason an event like this becomes meaningful.

“I found it inspiring that Lullabot is planning five, and even ten, years down the road. Our continued product diversification provides opportunities for growth and learning. Lullabot has been a great "job" for years, but now I'm starting to see it as a career instead.” —Nathan Haug

Many of us will no doubt see each other before the next company retreat, whether it’s at a client onsite, a departmental retreat, or a conference. And when we do, those same feelings of seeing a friend you haven’t hung out with in awhile will most likely be there.

And perhaps you’ll be there as well? We seldom hire, but we’re always looking for smart, talented people to join our team. Our hiring process is slow, but start the conversations with us now if you’d like to work at Lullabot. We take care of our employees and work every day to earn their trust. We ask that in return, you share your passion, creativity and initiative with us.

Photos by Greg Dunlap

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