Scheduled online fun, and other things 2020 has forced us to try

Laura Guzman
Julia Keseru

In-person time–especially at our annual, all-team retreats–is sacred for us at The Engine Room. As an entirely distributed team, we know that at the core of doing good work is trust; and we also know that trust is much easier to establish in person than online. 

Normally at our annual retreats, the whole team comes together in person to talk about our work, collectively set our vision for the future, and more deeply connect with each other as human beings. Throughout the year, we also see each other events, and we hold ‘co-working’ sessions, where groups of us–united by project, geography, or intentionally co-mingled across teams–get together in smaller groups.

This year was, obviously, different. Though we were lucky enough to have had an in-person retreat right at the beginning of the year, after the pandemic hit it quickly became clear to us that, for the time being, we would not be able to rely on building our relationships and our work in person. Attending events, holding co-working sessions and planning a follow up retreat were all on hold. At the same time, we felt the need for this space more than ever, to facilitate personal, non-work-related interactions between team members and reinforce our sense of togetherness.

Translating real-world rituals to online ones

We use organisational rituals, spaces and traditions—like our in person retreat—to learn about each others’ personal context, which is difficult to do when a team does not (or, as is the case for many organisations during this pandemic, cannot) share a physical office space. 

Some of the organisational rituals we have designed and implemented over the last few years include small, online things, like Mattermost channels where we share “tiny victories” and “tiny bummers,” or a weekly email thread to share what we’re working on that week and how we spent our weekend. Other rituals, like the annual in-person retreat, are specifically designed to take place offline. Our online and offline rituals are different from one other, responding to real contextual differences between sharing online and offline space. We took the same contextual approach to planning an online retreat, instead of an in-person one. 

Working with the time(s) we have

In designing our first virtual retreat, we knew from the start that it was important to set expectations around work. In virtual spaces, it’s easier to be tempted to multitask, and harder to ensure that fellow colleagues are taking breaks and not taking too much on. We did not want to layer the retreat on top of a full week of work responsibilities. To make sure this didn’t happen, we let partners know that we were not available for external calls, and planned to keep internal calls that weren’t retreat-related to a minimum (ideally to zero). 

We also knew eight hours of video calls over four days was a recipe for feeling drained, so we planned for the retreat to start and end with half days, with two full days in the middle. 

With these structures in place, we then had to figure out how to bring together team members whose locations spanned across ten time zones. To accommodate this, we split our days into all-team hours, where everyone was online together, and two geography-based slots–one for colleagues in the Americas and another for those in Europe and Africa. 

In the end, though we might have had fewer hours together than in an in-person retreat, this more spacious schedule ensured no one felt burnt out by the end of the week. 

Shared planning to build shared space

We hoped that our agenda would create space both for deep conversation around our work and for moments of joy. To create the agenda, we asked the team to complete a survey about what conversations they hoped to have and what kinds of activities they might enjoy. Julia, our Executive Director, then reviewed the responses and worked with our Team Leads to craft a coherent, balanced set of sessions. Once the overarching structure was set, each session was delegated to a pair or group of three to flesh out and bring to life. We used existing platforms like Skribbl for online pictionary, Kahoot and an open source tool for trivia, and EasyRetro and shared Google docs for brainstorming and note-taking.

Scheduled fun, and other intentional decisions  

During our in-person retreats, “fun” is not something we tend to need to put on the calendar. Though we do intentionally set aside time for at least one all-team activity, we find that ensuring that there is plenty of free time in the schedule gives people the space to choose their fun, whether it’s playing tennis or going for a walk with a colleague, seeking out quiet, solo time, or just sitting and chatting. This year, we did still set aside ample free time–spaces in the agenda without virtual retreat activities or expectations that folks do the work they would on a typical week–but we also explicitly put fun events on the calendar as well. Spontaneous connection and fun are not things that come easily in virtual spaces. 

We played online pictionary, tested our wits in multiple rounds of trivia, learned about each other through games of ‘guess who’, listened to songs together, did yoga, built a mood board of what brought us joy in this tough year and played a few rounds of Among Us. In these spaces, we learned about each others’ drawing skills and levels of competitiveness, but we also came to re-learn that play is an important element of care and community, too. (Especially this year.) Each of these sessions was led by a different set of team members, to help build a shared sense of involvement, care and interest in them. Planning for virtual fun isn’t easy, but it can be done!

Going deeper into not just what we do, but how

During our in-person retreat in February, we looked outwardly, seeking ways to strengthen our work. This time around, we built upon those conversations and the work we’ve done since. We looked at the big picture of the work we do, discussing what it meant to operationalise our new strategy and exploring how each team’s strategy could connect with the strategies of other teams. 

We talked about our individual experiences during this tumultuous year, exploring what the organisation as a whole could do to provide support going forward. We also explored what the current moment can teach us about the needs of the social justice communities we are a part of and those we admire from afar, and about the emerging trends of an increasingly digital world. Altogether, it was a time of both reflection and pause, and one of planning for what we would like to dream up next.

By the end of the week, many of us felt a twinge of that sweet exhaustion we often felt at the end of in-person retreats. In the virtual retreat space, we were able to have conversations that would have been harder to have–or just out of place–in our typical work-filled weeks. We felt a sense of pause, reflection and starting up once again. We even started looking forward to another virtual retreat in the future. And, yes, we had plenty of fun, too.

This year has been everything but ordinary, and the challenges that have been wrought by the global Covid-19 pandemic are myriad. If we can help your organisation as it continues working online or with new technologies as a response to the pandemic, get in touch with us via our Light Touch Support programme.

Image by Prudence Earl via Unsplash.


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