The other week Desana went on our first off-site. Elsewhere we’ve written about how important we think off-sites are to our company culture. But here’s what we actually got up to and, crucially, what we learnt from it for future events - which you may find helpful if you are planning your own event.
And yes, I appreciate it does sound a bit like I am writing a report on a school trip. But the whole experience did have a bit of a school vibe, from giggling over room allocations to late night PJ parties.
We arrived at Birch on Wednesday. The place was absolutely gorgeous, an old country house converted into something very like a millennial escape. There were a host of activities on site - you could do everything from baking some bread to lounging by the lido.
It was the sort of place where instead of a flatscreen TV you enter your room to be met by the sounds of BBC London playing on a vintage-style radio.
We had a picnic in the grounds under what may or may not have been an old oak tree (I don’t really know my trees but it sounds good), before some of the team checked out the lido.
Dinner that night was in the tipi (think: luxury tent with proper bar and a table laid with settings that wouldn’t look out of place on a #weddinginspo pinterest board). After a company update from the founders, covering everything from (top secret) plans to new hires, we feasted on various barbequed delights before rounding off the evening by toasting marshmallows over a fire pit.
The following day we had a morning yoga session, led by the multi-talented Stefi. Despite being pitched at a beginner level, it was a definite challenge for most of us and the after effects were felt for several days to come - every time I go to stand up, my stomach muscles rebel on me and I find myself scrambling around like a tortoise stuck on its back.
After a breezy outdoor lunch that really showed the limits of holidaying in England, we had a terrazzo coaster making workshop with Rubino Wilson Studios. The whole thing involved lots of satisfying stirring, pouring, shaking and snapping. Best of all, it was (almost) impossible to go wrong and still came out looking splendid.
That night we had a “dress to impress” dinner, where people showed up in everything from kilts to sparkly flapper dresses. The highlight was undoubtedly the performance of a 20-verse poem about the Desana team (if you don’t know, we do weekly poems. It’s a whole thing…)
The folks at Birch kindly set us up with our private party room (perhaps in an attempt to control the chaos) where we played one very competitive game of Articulate and an even more aggressive game of musical chairs. Gratifyingly, Articulate ended in a draw, meaning everyone was a winner (Birch isn’t the only millennial here).
The last day the team rose bleary-eyed (apart from a few keen beans up doing crow pose by the pool). There were staggered goodbyes, reminiscences over the last few days and promises to meet again soon.
And here’s what we learnt for the future
Make sure everyone can participate
Our terrazzo making workshop turned out to be a brilliant team activity since it required almost no artistic ability whatsoever: it was a series of simple steps that didn’t need agility with a paintbrush or dexterity with a potters’ wheel.
We’d definitely encourage other companies to think about this sort of thing when running an off-site - and not just when it comes to the limits of people’s artistic skills. Giving your team the opportunity to jump out a helicopter, paraglide to a high peak and ski down its snowy inclines may be amazing, but as a company activity it's not the most inclusive of differing abilities.
Encourage people from different teams to mingle
Be mindful of the fact that some people may not know each other as well as others, particularly if they haven’t been in the company as long. Try to come up with ways to encourage interaction beyond their normal circle of colleagues: maybe you have a seating plan for dinner one night or a scavenger hunt which requires you to work with different teammates.
Remember to leave some wiggle room
This is just a good principle for any event. Throughout our retreat we were constantly pushing back meals as activities overran. That’s not a problem when you are still a (relatively) small team but the bigger you grow, the more of an issue that becomes - partly because you have more people who may miss the memo and partly because more people equals more overrunning.
Calculate how much wiggle room you need. Then add to it. If you keep to time, that’s great and leaves time for unstructured activities (particularly at a place like Birch with so much going on). If not, at least you’ve stopped anyone getting hangry.
Make time for pictures
We completely forgot to take formal team pictures, apart from one shot of us standing on a Georgian staircase in our fancy clothes (great if we’re all auditioning for ITV’s next period drama; less useful for posting on our website). If you are a remote-first team this is particularly important: having photos of the whole team, different departments and individuals will come in super handy for all sorts of marketing purposes at a later date.
Don’t forget how important this is
An off-site may seem like a bit of a jolly on the company’s dollar but it’s a crucial way to build relationships and strengthen connections, especially for remote teams. Make sure to make time for this time away from the world and don’t get distracted by the breakneck pace of the typical startup. This time is important and your team will appreciate the investment in their time and relationships.
And with that - roll on the Christmas party!
If you fancy the sound of Desana, don’t forget we’re hiring! Check out our vacancies.