Making lemonade out of lemons: How to host an offsite for a distributed team amidst COVID-19

Sometimes I ask myself, what defines a moment? What happens when the novelty of something that was “new” wears off and becomes customary? Many of us are probably already past the strategy of waiting out the crisis and have lost hope that we will wake up to find out that the last six months were nothing but a bad dream. Perhaps it’s worth dropping the “new” from the “new normal” now?

Atwix is a well distributed company. We have been working remotely for over 5 years now. In this way, we were lucky. We deliberately made this choice before the recent crisis forced our hand. We did this when few were and nobody had to transition. We made the leap after careful discussion and entirely based on a culture steeped in trust and teamwork. Of course the transition was not easy, and if we are being totally frank, it was not entirely smooth. 

We quickly learned that not being in the same office every day required a different approach to work – more discipline, trust, better processes, and smarter tools. Working remote from one another forced us to look differently at our people’s performance. As practice showed, traditional metrics, such as time at the office, were not very relevant. Providing guidance for peers and getting high-quality work done on a tight schedule became criteria that truly mattered. It took time to transform our culture and for this “new” Atwix to no longer be “new”. But we knew why we did it and in the long run the benefits outweighed any short term struggles.

One of the major ‘ahas’ we identified during our first distributed year was the realization that we still required human connection. It turned out that Slack and emails weren’t good substitutes for good old-fashioned time spent together. Being spread out across Atwix offices, home offices, cities and countries, we found ourselves craving shared experiences. 

Out of that realization, we came up with the idea to host a company offsite, which became our yearly offline get-together. For a few days each year we transported everyone to one location, where we would spend a lot of time together doing joint team building activities – be it scaling a mountain, attending a sports games, or just playing a guitar and singing next to a campfire. It worked great. In fact, it was such a hit that over the following years we expanded this annual shared experience to hosting more events each year including Barcamps, Happy Birthday Atwix, Magento Meetups and Contribution Days.

Back in 2017 we even had a couple of Magento employees attend as guests – what a great time we had! Our events proved to be a great bonding experience. For many new employees, it was also the first time they met any of their peers in person.

You probably see where I’m heading with this. Flash forward to this year, we all badly want to spend time together, but how to do it? In June, for Team Atwix it became evident that an offline event was ruled out, so we had to think about alternative ways to connect.

The first question I asked myself was what are the key components of an offsite? Why do we want to do this? Eventually I came down to two primary outcomes. First – we want our colleagues to foster and maintain personal relationships; second – we want to encourage that our team changes scenery, putting everyone in an environment that is far different from their everyday work-in-place setup. 

Effectively, we wanted to accomplish what a normal offsite meet would do – rekindle togetherness and reboot the mind – even if for just a little. So, we determined: why not just focus on those two goals, shed conventional thinking and approaches, and find a way to make it happen?

Having taken a part in Magento Association’s MA Connect event organization, which was produced on the Hopin platform, I realized we could use a little leveraged feature – Networking. Think of it as speed dating. Entering the networking room you are randomly matched with somebody else in that room where you have a certain amount of time to have a video chat.

So we’ve decided to kick-off the year’s offsite with a 90 minute session on Thursday evening, which consisted of a short opening and from there a transition to a Hopin event. For the networking time, we set the maximum meeting time to 12 minutes. This allowed everyone to have a meaningful conversation with about 7 randomly matched colleagues. I must admit, we had a lot of fun. Each meeting was a little adventure, guessing who you’ll be matched with in just a few seconds. Will this be someone you never met or perhaps a team mate you’re working closely with? That tiny notion of tension made the experience exciting.

But that was just the beginning. For the following day, we were all off and everyone had to spend that Friday as a “dream day”. To help a little, we gave everybody a budget they could draw from. They could spend that money in any way they wanted, as long as it helped them have a dream day. All we asked for was sharing some pictures with us.

I was extremely curious about what would appear on our Slack, but frankly speaking, I was not surprised by what I saw. What I really love about Atwix is our diversity. We all are so different in our hobbies and lifestyles, but what unites us is appreciation and acceptance of each other’s characters, unique strong sides, and contributions to our common goals. 

Some on the team decided to do skydiving for the first time in their lives, some took a day trip to unknown places, some did a three-day hike across the mountain range, some played video games all day, and some had a date with their fiance admitting they didn’t have time for that for nearly a year! What was common though – happy smiles on the pictures.

To me the event pivot was a success. We met our goals of connecting in a meaningful, re-charging way. In a post-offsite survey, Atwix people’s average rating of their Offsite/Dream Day experience was 4.61 out of 5, and 91% of 1:1 networking sessions participants thought we should make this networking experience a recurring event. Well, that’s now our plan!

This was our way of making  lemonade out of lemons. In fact, for some of us this lemonade even tasted sweeter than the drink we used to have before. I wonder what are your lemonade recipes this year when it comes to company events? Please share your stories in the comments.