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After months of planning and excitement, our in-person team retreat in Portugal came to a screeching halt due to the world-wide pandemic. Rather than abandoning ship entirely though, our team decided to redirect and plan a fully-remote team retreat. Managing this across 10 countries, and 5 time zones - especially with people navigating the extra challenges that COVID-19 has presented (ie. kids and family members at home) - was not an easy task, but one that required a bit of flexibility from all team members.

Throughout the remote retreat, we had a lot of laughs - jokes and memes were made - but we also learned a lot about one another (with 2 new hires joining their first week!) and some of the challenges that other departments at Microverse face. With a bit of input from everyone, we were able to engage in daily team bonding sessions to better connect with our remote colleagues. Team leads also led workshops on topics like giving feedback and revamping our mission and values.

Overall, our remote team retreat was a great success so we wanted to share what we did as a team to make it happen. As our Head of Marketing, I spent the week taking notes and screenshots of our activities in order to put together this post. Throughout it, I've shared the daily activities we participated in, what worked really well, and some key takeaways.

In these uncertain times, a remote retreat is a great way to foster a great team culture, encourage brainstorming and connect with one another. So, we hope you can take our learnings and ideas to help your team plan a remote retreat too!

Remote Retreat Preparation

With just a few weeks of preparation and some teamwork, we were able to have a week-long fully remote team retreat for four hours a day. Sprinkled throughout these four hours was team bonding activities, workshops, games, and stretching activities, just to name a few. Allowing for a half-hour break in the middle, team members in PST tuned in from 7-11:30 am each morning and team members in Europe adjusted their daily schedules to join from 4-8:30 pm. 

The first two hours of each day we planned activities that we strongly encouraged all team members to attend, if possible. The second half of each day was considered ‘nice to have’ activities, that we recommended everyone attend but understood life obligations might take priority (like putting the kids to bed, making/eating dinner with family etc.).

Our amazing Head of Student Success, Lydia, took lead on planning the remote retreat as she was already planning our in-person one. She outlined the retreat schedule to ensure team members could lead activities at times that worked for them. As a team, we took the following steps to accommodate the retreat into our busy schedules:

  1. Lite Mode: We went down to ‘Lite Mode’, which essentially means, ‘performing necessary operations only’.
  2. Adjust Meetings: We adjusted meetings (both internal and external) during the retreat time to another time of the day wherever possible.
  3. Organize Meetings/Activities: We reviewed the retreat schedule Lydia outlined and organized the activities we each were to lead. 

The above preparations definitely helped us be better prepared for retreat and we highly recommend any team attempting a remote retreat does them well in advance. 

As mentioned, Lydia created a retreat schedule composed of 17 activities that were divided into the following categories: 

  1. Get to Know You - 5 activities
  2. Workshops - 6 activities
  3. Fun & Games - 7 activities

This was what our schedule looked like for the week:

Day 1: Monday, March 30

4:00pm-4:30pm - Group Photo
4:30-5:00pm - Get to Know You 1: Meet & Greet New Employees
5:00-6:00pm - Workshop 1: Microverse Values
6:00-6:30 - BREAK
6:30pm-7:15pm - Fun & Games 1: Meme Contest
7:15pm-8:30pm - Get to Know You 2: House tours

Day 2: Tuesday, March 31

4:00pm-4:30pm - Fun & Games 2: Telestrations
4:30pm-6:00pm - Workshop 2: Giving/Receiving Feedback
6:00-6:30 - BREAK
6:30pm-7:15pm - Workshop 3: Get to Know Our Students
7:15pm-8:30pm - Fun & Games 3: Yoga Session

Day 3: Wednesday, April 1

4:00pm-4:30pm - Get to Know You 2: Guess-Who
4:30pm-6:15pm - Workshop 3: Microverse Mission & Vision Workshop
6:15-6:45 - BREAK
6:45pm-7:30pm - Fun & Games 4: Bad Photoshop Contest
8:00-8:30 - Fun & Games 5: Virtual Stretching Session

Day 4: Thursday, April 2

4:00pm-4:30pm - Get to Know You 3: Appreciation Activity
4:30pm-5:30pm - Workshop 4: Automations Best Practices
5:30pm-6:00pm - Workshop 5: Turning Off From Remote Work
6:00-6:30 - BREAK
6:30pm-8:30pm - Fun & Games 6: Online party

Day 5: Friday, April 3

4:00pm-5:00pm - Student Assembly: Deep Focus During Uncertain Times
5:00pm-5:30pm - Buffer and debrief from Student Assembly
5:30-6:00pm - Get to Know You 4: Two Truths & a Lie
6:00-6:30 - BREAK
6:30pm-7:15pm - Workshop 6: Video & Breakout Conversations
7:15pm-8:30pm - Fun & Games 7: Final Celebration

Now that you know what went into the planning, here's what we actually did during our week long, fully remote, team retreat.

Day 1:

Retreat Kick-off

Our team has recently grown so we kicked-off the retreat with a team Zoom photo of all 22 of us!

Then Microverse CEO, Ariel, suggested we take a photo that looked like we were holding hands, which proved much harder than it sounds to coordinate, as you can tell by the below photo.

After many attempts that mostly looked like we were doing the YMCA, we ended up with the below result - not perfect but coordinating 22 people across screens is not the easiest!

Final Product!

Get to Know You 1: New Employee Meet and Greet

Next up, we had a meet and greet for our 2 new employees that were starting that week. It’s worth noting that at Microverse, we always do a meet and greet with new employees their first week. This week it worked out that both new team members could start the week of the retreat, with one signing in from the US and the other from Croatia. 

During the meet and greet, each team member briefly introduces themselves then asks a question to get to know the other team members but answer their own question first. Then the new employee answers their question and it moves on. We do this so we can learn more about our new team members. For example, I asked, “What is your favorite snack?” and then answered, “Mine is, apples and peanut butter. What about you, Su?”. After we each had a chance to ask a question, we moved on to our first workshop of the retreat.

Workshop 1: Microverse Values

Following the meet and greet, we had a workshop on values, led by Microverse CEO, Ariel. At Microverse, our values are incredibly important to us, so Ariel took this opportunity to ask our growing team for input on our company values. He organized the workshop and used a tool called Mural, plus Zoom’s breakout room feature, to seperate us into groups of 4-5. In these groups, we discussed our values and ideas for revamping them. Each group came up with 6-8 ideas then we all came back together to discuss our findings and share feedback. It was a productive and energizing hour, where every team member got to add their input on Microverse’s values.

Fun & Games 1: Meme Making Contest

After the values workshop, and a 30-minute break, most of the team returned to dive into our first ‘Fun & Games’ activity of the retreat. I was leading this activity and decided to test the Microverse team’s creativity by hosting a ‘Meme Making Contest’. 

After a brief introduction and history of Memes, we used Zoom’s breakout rooms to divide into groups of 4-5. Each group then made 3-5 memes using any images we saw fit (some using team photos!) and this website. The groups uploaded their memes into a folder and after 15 minutes, we returned to our main Zoom room to review the memes together. 

What a treat that was! I highly recommend if you do this activity, to review the results with all team members unmuted so you can hear one another’s live reactions. After reviewing the memes (there were some great Microverse focused memes!) we voted for our favorites through a tool called Slido. Some of our favorite memes are below.

Winner of the meme contest
& the runner-up

Get to Know You 2: House Tours

After meme making came house tours, where team members signed up to give us a virtual tour of their apartments, homes etc. We got to explore the great outdoors (& indoors) of upstate New York, catch sunset from a balcony overlooking the hills of southern Spain, and see the home offices of a few of our team members. It was fun to see what is on the other side of the screen (and learn which team members make their beds!).

We ended day one with a lot of smiles and excitement. Some team members were exhausted from a full day of work and retreat, others were just diving into their workday. 


Day 2

Fun & Games 2: Telestrations

We kicked off day two with a ‘Fun & Games’ activity led by Alvaro from our software development team. He chose to have the team exercise their creativity again, this time through Drawception. Drawception is an online way to play Telestrations and I have to say the team had a lot of fun with this one. After creating an account, each team member offered a ‘prompt’ to draw, then we began drawing with 90 seconds to complete a drawing or a guess. 

It was a bit uncoordinated as people would try to draw something but wouldn’t be able to view the word as others were already drawing or guessing what it was. (Note: we loved this game so much we actually ended up playing it again later in the retreat and got better at coordinating it.) 

Afterwards, we reviewed all the finished drawings and how they ended up based on the initial prompts. They were some really funny results, one of our favorites was that the prompt, “Crying Clown”, ended up with the below drawing and guess of, “Mexican Burger”.

From 'crying clown' to 'mexican burger'


Workshop 2: Giving and Receiving Feedback

After our fun and games, we dove into our second workshop, Giving and Receiving Feedback. It began with a presentation led by Israel, from our Curriculum team, and Willow, from our Student Success team and was followed by an activity to apply our learnings. 

They got creative with the images in the presentation!

In the activity, we all role-played a situation where we were either a team member or student giving feedback to a student. This role-playing helped us better connect with the daily work of our Student Success team and our students, enabling us to step into the ‘virtual shoes’ of others. It was an hour and a half workshop that was quite productive and wrapped up in time for our 30-minute break.


Workshop 3: Get to Know Our Students

After the break, Gaby, our Head of Admissions, hosted an activity for our team members to get to know some of our Microverse students. Through this activity, the team gained a better understanding of what our Admissions team does. We were able to again put ourselves in the shoes of a different team, ask questions, and add feedback and ideas for improving parts of the Admissions process. 

Note: Many of our team members commented on how much they enjoyed putting themselves into other team’s shoes through the above two workshops and we now intend to incorporate this more regularly into our schedules. 

Fun & Games 3: Relaxing Yoga Sessions

Next up, Emily, from the Curriculum and Learning team, led a team yoga session with some meditation. She demonstrated poses and talked us through the session, and even surprised us with her ukulele playing while we meditated!

The team ended the day slightly behind schedule but feeling relaxed following the yoga session. Movement is essential, especially considering the amount of time we all spend at our desks, so if your team spends a lot of time at their desks too, we highly recommend incorporating this in your remote retreat.

Day 3

Get to Know You 3: Guess Who

Day three began with an activity from Willow, from our Student Success team, leading a game of ‘Guess Who’. In advance, she requested each team member send 5 facts to her and she anonymized them and had us all vote, using Slido again, for who we thought the facts represented. It was a great way to get to know each other better and resulted in a few funny facts and stories being told. This activity went well over the half-hour (so we’d recommend more than 30 mins for teams of 20+) and the remainder of our retreat schedule this day had to be adjusted.

Workshop 4: Microverse’s Mission and Vision 

Next up, Ariel led a Mission and Vision Workshop where we reviewed our current mission and vision as well as how to use the Mission & Vision canvas from Digitalya in Mural. Then we used breakout rooms and the canvas to brainstorm more ideas in groups. After, the team came together and we presented our ideas and each gave feedback on our thoughts. This feedback was given in the form of, “I wish / I hope / I wonder” and was a great way to get individual inputs on what we had discussed and our company direction.  

Fun & Games 4: Bad Photoshop Contest

The next activity was a ‘bad photoshop contest’ hosted by Jennifer, from our Career Services team. In advance of the activity, she had everyone upload images of themselves and she uploaded a folder of images of Lisbon, Portugal (that’s where our retreat was supposed to be). Then we broke into teams and used the tool Photo Scissors, to create quick photoshopped images. After, we reviewed all the images together, and in Microverse’s friendly competitive spirit, voted on our favorites.

Fun & Games 5: Virtual Stretching Session

To close out day three, we did a team stretching session led by Maciej from our Software Development team. Again, we ended the day slightly behind schedule but feeling relaxed due to the stretching session. 


Day 4

Get to Know You 4: Sharing Appreciation

Day four started with a team building activity, led by Sher from our Admissions team. The activity was meant to foster appreciation and show gratitude for one another. You do this by sharing something that brought you joy, inspired you to do something, and sharing appreciation for other team members. This activity took much longer than 30 minutes for a team our size so we’d recommend allotting more time or having team members write these in advance.

Workshop 5: Automations Best Practices

Next up, Riley, Head of Career Services, led a workshop on best practices for creating automations. As an ex-Amazon developer and the team automation wizard, Riley reviewed some of the No Code solutions and automations we use at Microverse before explaining how to use and build them. At Microverse, we love using No Code solutions and being resourceful. Although we’re a coding school, we’ve built a lot of our processes without code and love getting creative with No Code tools. 

Before breaking us into groups, Riley clearly outlined the four best practices of creating automations. We then got to put our learnings to work in a quick No Code Hackathon within breakout groups of 4-5. Each group had 25 minutes to come up with an idea for an automation, document it and build it. The least experienced with automations person in the group was encouraged to be the driver, with others coaching and helping along. All teams used Integromat to build our Hackathon automations, and while this was a great activity, 25 minutes was not enough time for us to complete them. When time was up, the team regrouped to discuss our findings, what we built, what we documented and how far we got on our new automations. This led to us running a bit over time, so we pushed our schedule back and squeezed in a late break before the next workshop.

Workshop 6: Brainstorming -- ‘How to Turn-off from Remote Work’

After the break, Anne-Lore from our Operations team, led a brainstorming workshop on turning off from remote work. She began by reviewing what it means to really disconnect and why it’s so important. Being a team that is always remote, and given the current quarantine situation, this was a great, timely workshop. 

We again used Zoom’s breakout room feature to group off and discuss; ways we individually disconnect from work, what Microverse does to help employees turn off, and what we as a team and company can do better. After our smaller discussions, we regrouped to share our findings and feedback.

Fun & Games 6: Virtual Game Session

Since our schedule went a bit over from earlier activities, we wrapped up day four with a casual online party where those that could attend played virtual games. It was Juanjo, our COO’s birthday this day, so we had a virtual party & spelt out Happy Bday across our screens.

Happy B-day JJ!!

We then played a dancing game with him and his kids partook too! Afterwards, the team members that could attend took the opportunity to play Drawception again as we all so enjoyed it the first time.


Day 5

The last day of our retreat started an hour later so the whole team could join our monthly Microverse Student Assembly. 

Get to Know You 5: Two Truths and a Lie

After the assembly, we dove into our final get to know you activity, led by our Product Lead, Marta. She collected 3 truths and 1 lie from each team member before the activity, then used a tool called Kahoot to play trivia and guess which was the lie. It was another great way to learn more about each other.

Workshop 6: Breakout Discussion After Video Watching

After the break, Maria from Career Services, led an activity that began with watching a TED talk called, Forget the Pecking Order. We then broke into groups to discuss the video and used a number of questions about our past experiences as prompts for our discussion. It led to some insightful conversations and feedback from the team.

Fun & Games 7: Final Celebration

Finally, we wrapped up our week long remote retreat while playing trivia and listening to our team-sourced Spotify playlist. The trivia contained 50 questions about our many learnings from the retreat, both new facts about team members and workshop learnings alike. It was fun and casual and ended with one more team photo, albeit missing quite a few team members. Ariel again wanted to get creative, so we ended up with the below…

Another of Ariel's photo ideas!

 

And some great close-ups of our faces…

Our Remote Retreat Learnings

All-in-all, it was a fantastic week of learnings, fun and team bonding. That said, no first attempt is perfect, and in fact no retreat will be perfect, even with practice. We did learn a lot though and these are some of our key takeaways.

  1. Although our team really enjoyed the retreat, the majority felt it was great for a few days but a bit overwhelming for an entire week. Four hours of video calls a day for a full week, on top of other meetings team members have, is likely too much Zoom time. In the future, we will probably hold a shorter remote team retreat for 2-3 days or have it for less hours per day.
  2. Breakout rooms in Zoom are great, but require whoever is leading the activity to have ‘Host’ access which can get a bit confusing. Additionally, you can either choose for Zoom to create these at random or manually set the rooms, so to ensure all team members get to connect with each other, you have to be intentional about your breakout room groups. 
  3. Staying on time is hard for all teams, it’s especially hard when you’re having lots of fun and forget about the time. It is important to ensure things run smoothly though and that people get time for their much-needed breaks. In the future, we would have a better understanding of how much time is needed for activities and take that into consideration when creating the schedule. We’d also recommend scheduling in what we can ‘bio-breaks’ to get water, use the washroom, etc. after each session.

We hope that this was helpful. As a team we’re always iterating and learning and this was a great learning experience for the whole Microverse team. If you have any questions, as always feel free to reach out on Twitter, @arielcamus and @microverseinc, we’d love to hear your remote retreat stories!

If you're interested in learning more about Microverse, the online school for remote software developers around the world click here.

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