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Team Retreats at Chorus One

Brian Crain
Brian Crain
2 min read

We're about to start our 13th Chorus One team retreat. Team retreats have been an important part of our culture and how we work together since the beginning. The first one was in April 2018, when Meher and I traveled to Egypt, where the first engineer we hired lived. Since then, we have been to 7 different countries, have done a few retreats fully remote due to covid and are now doing hybrid remote-in-person retreats.

We do our retreats every three months and they generally last about a week. We try to arrive the weekend before, do some activities and relax over the weekend and then spend a week working together. We don't do any external meetings, nor the usual recurring meetings, but spend the full week working together outside the usual rhythm.

Pretty early in our journey, at the end of 2018, we adopted OKRs as a framework to clarify our projects, plans and goals. We score the OKRs of the previous quarter and at the end of the retreat come out with the OKRs for the next quarter. Getting to a set of clear OKRs at the end of the week helps to focus on a clear objective.

One of my favorite parts is a feedback session at the start. We have a google doc with about ten questions like Am I happy? What do I like about my work?, What am I struggling with?, What should the company do better? Everyone copies that document, answers the questions and then shares what they wrote. We still go through everybody, though we are near the scaling limit there. Yet, it's very helpful for everyone to get a sense of how people are doing and what they are thinking. This session also surfaces issues that we try to address in the retreat week.

A big challenge has been the change from purely in-person retreats. Until January 2020, in all of our retreats we had everyone there in person. We would prepare very little beforehand. We would start on Monday morning with a whiteboard and come up with the agenda on the fly. It felt very relaxed and creative. We would go off on lots of tangents.

But then we grew as a company and had to switch to do the whole retreat on zoom when corona came. The same approach didn't work any more. We started to schedule sessions beforehand and had a rigid timetable. We compressed the sessions in a ~4 hour daily window. Partially, this was because people would get exhausted after more than four hours of zoom calls. Partially, it was because we have people across a pretty big timezone range.

Early this year, we started doing retreats in person again. Still, we always had some people who couldn't make it and had to participate remotely. We are still learning how to do these hybrid retreats effectively. It's a difficult balance between allowing for the unstructured, in-person interactions that was originally a core part of the retreats and making sure remote participants can still join in.

I'm a big fan of team retreats and think any distributed team would benefit from them.