Together Apart - Lullabot’s Virtual Team Retreat

Smoke Tree Ranch

Lullabot’s annual team retreats are one of our favorite times of the year. We get together to work on the company and refresh our relationships with one another. The energy generated by these retreats helps carry us through the rest of the year.

Enter 2020. Enter COVID-19.

Due to the scheduling and planning required for an in-person retreat, and how long we needed to let the venue know in advance, half-way through 2020, our leadership made the tough decision to cancel 2021’s in-person retreat. Too many unknowns introduced too much risk.

Instead, we had a virtual retreat. It was not a replacement for our in-person time together, but it served as an important stop-gap until we can finally see each other face to face. 

Some of the structure needed to change, however.

Together Apart in stylistic fonts

Dealing with Time Zones

When we are all together, we are all in the same time zone. This is easy to take for granted. Our team is spread out over the globe, so for a virtual retreat, we had to schedule activities that didn’t force people to sit at their computers long past their bedtime. Or force them to wake up before the sun had begun to shine in their hemisphere.

We schedule two types of activities: required and optional.

Required activities happened between 11 AM and 3 PM Eastern time. These were things like our Town Hall, ESOP deep dive, Department Q&A, Ignite talks, and work BoFs (Birds of a Feather gatherings). We expected everyone to attend these.

Optional activities ran from 9 AM to 10:45 AM Eastern time, and then 3 PM to 5 PM Eastern time. These included things like fun BoFs (less work-related), home scavenger hunts, and other ways where we could spend some virtual time together.

Less Passive Participation

During our in-person retreats, each department gives a presentation about the state of that department, along with goals for the upcoming year. Our CEO also gives a “state of the state” presentation that provides a big picture of the entire company.

Sitting in front of your computer for hours of presentations isn’t an attractive prospect, and the time zone differences limited our time together. To make the most of this limited time, department and company updates were written out and posted for our team to read.

We then spent the scheduled time in discussion, with questions and answers. This felt more fruitful than having one person talking for 45 minutes while everyone else sat mute.

Home Scavenger Hunts

April Sides hosted several rounds of Home Scavenger Hunts. Anyone could participate. Participants were shown a slide and had one minute to find a qualifying item in their home and bring it back to their computer. Items were both common and not-so-common household objects, and each object could qualify for only one description. Family members could participate.

Home Scavenger Hunt Clue - Tool - 1 Point

Some of the other descriptions:

  • Hat
  • Movie
  • Fragrant
  • Sock with hole
  • 15+ years old

The home scavenger hunt was so much fun. And I really love how it doesn't matter how quickly we rush to get the item as long as it is before the timer ends finally. I think it makes it really more inclusive to play!!!!!

Cathey Theys

These are representative of some of the hauls people collected for the competition: 

Scavenger hunt haul - household objects on a table
Scavenger hunt haul - household objects in front of a computer monitor

The 16-Bit Smoke Tree Ranch

Spontaneous conversations are one of the main values of our retreat. Being together allows serendipity to work its magic. This is an unpredictable, intangible benefit that is hard to measure. It would also be impossible to replicate in a virtual environment.

Or would it be impossible?

Sally Young put together a 16-bit representation of Smoke Tree Ranch, our normal retreat venue,  using Work Adventure. It replicated all of the hotspots of the premises, from the dining hall to the pool. You could wander around the map, and if you bumped into someone, it started an instant webrtc chat and you could have a one-to-one conversation.

Several areas, like individual tables or the fire pit, had their own dedicated Jitsi rooms where you could participate in larger gatherings.

Work Adventure - Sprint room at smoke tree ranch
Work Adventure - Lounge at smoke tree ranch

 Some other highlights:

  • Each Lullabot has their own cabin they could decorate
  • Some tables had games. For example, if you walked up to one table, Jitsi would open on one side, and an instance of Scribble.rs would open on the other. Perfect for Pictionary.
  • NPCs (non-player characters) around the ranch would pop up a memory of a past retreat when you talked to them.
  • A sprint room that streamed music from soma.fm. Audio and video chats were disabled so that you could hang out without distraction.

Together Apart - Not Forgotten

The virtual retreat allowed us to re-connect and have fun together while we focused on our goals for the upcoming year. We celebrated successes. We expressed gratitude. We reminded ourselves of the humans behind the screens.

It was a bittersweet reunion, because it reminded us all of everything we had missed. But it was welcome and needed, nonetheless.

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Matt Robison

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Matt has been working with Drupal since 2008. He loves spending his time reading, writing, playing with his three kids, and eating lots of ice cream.

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