At the end of September 2014, we took our first Vero team expedition to Malaysia for ten days.
We worked in Kuala Lumpur as a team.
We got our scuba open water certificates on Pulau Tioman.
We kicked some serious ass as a team. As part of this experience, there were a lot of really useful points on what worked well and what didn’t that will guide our next team retreat. Rather than keep what worked and what didn’t work to ourselves, the following is a real playbook you can use to run your own successful company retreat.
The playbook Activities for a retreat with results
Going on retreat isn’t just about fun (though fun is important).
Below I’ve published our schedule along with every activity we completed as a team for you to use as inspiration (or use wholesale if you want to) for your next team retreat.
To ensure we ran a team expedition that has real outputs, putting together a series of strategic activities focused on improving everyone’s work and personal lives was vital.
We conducted nine such activities over the ten days in Malaysia. Designing each activity from scratch, I tried to create a flow from one activity to the next: starting the week by tackling everyone’s frustrations, moving into sharing learnings and finishing the retreat by focusing on the practical things each team member could do to improve their lives and their work.
Activity One Why are we here?
Task: Ask everyone in your team to take 5 minutes and introduce themselves, explaining how they ended up at your company and share one personal and one work goal they want from the team retreat. Set an intention for your time together!
The goal of this activity is to share how your company came to be for those who don’t know, give everyone a chance to share their story and agree on some ideas for a core activity you’ll work on together.
Activity Two The good, the bad and the ugly
Task: As an entire team, or in smaller logical groups (by department, by project team, etc.) take 10 minutes for each team member to write down three things they believe they do well at work, and three things they know they can improve on.
Ask everyone to take another 10 minutes to do the same about everyone in their discussion group.Get each group together and ask them to share their individual three bad points, and then have them ask the group to add any good or bad points they’d like. Have each team member ask for advice on how they can improve on their bad points. Finally, have everyone share their three good points about the person they’re discussing.
End on a positive.
The aim of this activity is to encourage transparency and provide a safe environment for people to air any grievances they have in their day-to-day working teams. Doing this early helps address any frustrations and, by focusing on how to improve and by asking everyone to read out their own bad points first and then moving to the good points, this activity ends up really positive.
Activity Three Not a moment to lose
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Task: Ask everyone on your team to take 10 minutes and write down exactly what they do on a typical working day. Share, as a group, your typical day and highlight which aspects you’d like to improve, both personally and professionally.
For example, perhaps you’d like to make an hour each day to go to the gym. Discuss as a group how you can help each other reach your goals in designing a better lifestyle. This goal should focus both on work (e.g. “I will only check my email in the mornings after 11am”) and on your personal life (e.g. “I will go for a run three times per week”). It helps everyone understand how everyone else operates and what drives them – this gives great perspective.
Activity Four See you in the year 3000
Task: Have everyone spend 10-15 minutes writing down how they envision your company one year, three years and five years from now. Have the team focus on:
- Team structure
- Growth channels
Then discuss everyone’s vision as a team and work out what needs to change in order to reach the goals set out. Ask each team member individually what they feel needs to be focused on or systematized in order to reach the visions they outlined (hint: if the answers are that nothing needs to change, they’re not thinking big enough!)
Activity Five You're the boss
Activity five should, ideally, follow task four straight away (a two hour block in total).
Task: Give everyone five minutes to reflect on the last session and then ask them to spend 10-15 minutes and write down who they’d hire if they had to hire four team members to work with them directly over the next 12 months (it could be more than four, if you’re a lot bigger).
Ask them to then think about how they’d grow your company $XX,000/month in order to hire the four people they want. What marketing or customer success activities would they focus on, and how would those activities generate revenue?
The aim of this is to help your team see how they could personally grow over the next 12 months and get them thinking of ways to achieve these goals which, in turn, help the company succeed as a whole. This was a fun task! Particularly enlightening to see how different everyone’s opinions are.
Activity Six Sharing is caring
Task: Each team member spends 10 minutes teaching the rest of the team about a topic they are familiar with.
For example, our CTO, James, explained the principles behind email deliverability and our marketing manager, Jimmy, explained the principles of SEO. The aim of this task is to have everyone educate the rest of the team about what they work on and give them ideas how they can help.
Activity Seven What matters most
Task: Everyone on the team takes 30 minutes to write down three to five core values for the company. The focus is not on buzzwords like ‘Innovation’ but core, human principles. We asked everyone to write down one to two sentences per core principle, describing how this principle manifests at Vero and what it should truly represent.
As a team, we then spoke about the principles and found common ground between everyone’s suggestions. We then wrote down the values we all agreed on.
This task helps bring the team together and, if you’re a young company, define an initial set of values. Values are so important in life: they allow you to make decisions faster and consistently. All you need to do is ask “does this fit with our values?”. If the answer is yes, then you know you’ll be happy with the decision in the future, regardless of what happens.
Activity Eight Lightening talks
Task: Everyone on the team presents to everyone else something they’ve been working on recently. For example, perhaps someone has gotten into meditation, perhaps someone has learnt to program NodeJS, perhaps someone on the team has been traveling every weekend.
The goal is to share something you’re doing to improve your life and share the lessons you’ve learned, and how these lessons might be implemented by others on the team (if they want to). It’s about sharing fun, passionate ideas. People with passion are the best kind of people – encourage passion!
On the Vero retreat we shared a ton of great stories, from focusing on happiness, to doing yoga to playing team sports and implementing game-like ideas for tasks at work. All of the things we shared gave everyone genuine ideas they could try when they got home in order to bring new aspects into their lives and expand their worldview.
Activity Nine The three most important questions
Task: Taken from the wonderful Vishen and the folks at Mindvalley, everyone on the team took seven minutes to listen and complete the Three Most Important Questions exercise:Everyone shared the outcomes of this process (on paper) with everyone else. It was awesome to see what everyone wants to achieve personally and professionally.
This is a fantastic task to round out the retreat as everyone ends on a really positive note and can use the outputs from previous exercises to set fantastic goals for themselves, plus it’s nice to end on a positive note!
The structure A format that works
One thing I learnt from running the expedition was what an ideal format for a retreat might look like, based on success and failures. Here is the exact schedule we followed:Open in Google Sheets
The most surprisingly lesson: people wanted more time to work when they’re together!
Though we had around one and a half full days of strategic sessions and another three days working, everyone would have been happy to work long into the night together for five solid days. Something about being away and in a happy place meant people were keen to work.
I’d recommend a few key points. The two biggest takeaways were:
1. Work together for four to five full days on a common project at the start of the retreat. By getting everyone in one place in the same room, discussing the big picture and working extremely focused on a single core task allows you to achieve a lot. Everyone on the will be extremely inspired to achieve the common goal.
2. Spend the last two days and two nights having an amazing time. If you can do something together that everyone can take away, you’re even further ahead. Doing scuba together was a great experience for us: everyone pushed their comfort zone, had to rely on each other and had a lot of fun BUT, what’s even better, is that everyone now has their open water certification and can dive on their own, or together, anywhere in the world.
That’s a killer takeaway for the company and everyone as individuals.This is something we want to keep alive at Vero on future expeditions: what can we learn together for the good of everyone as an individual that also bonds us as a company.
Are you crazy? Why you should run such a gratuitous team retreat
Work is a huge part of most people’s lives.
For myself, the work I do each day is not ‘work’ at all, simply because I enjoy every day, face challenges with a positive attitude and have intertwined work with my life such that I get value and enjoyment from the hours I’m in the office and the hours I’m not.
One of my key goals as the CEO and founder of a company is to create a workplace where people actually want to work, just like I do. So far, so good!
A huge part of this is working with people who love learning new things and who focus on being positive, yet another core part is providing a workplace that is challenging, interesting and exciting. A team expedition to a foreign country, expanding everyone’s horizons and challenging their visions of the future – for the company and as individuals – really helps set the tone for what we want to achieve as a company: exploring new territory, achieving huge goals and having fun as a team at the same time. Our time in Malaysia was absolutely worth it and we can’t wait to do it again next time.