How we planned our last minute virtual offsite

July 3, 2020

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Valeria
Written By
Valeria
Looking to plan a virtual offsite? Discover how we planned our company’s first ever virtual offsite after having to cancel our previous plans because of the pandemic.

 

Background

Our annual offsite is, without a doubt, the most important company-wide event we organize. So far we’ve had two mini offsites, one in Syracuse (2018) with our US-based team members, another in Arequipa, Perú (2018) with our Peruvian team members. On 2019, we had our first company-wide Offsite in Cuzco, Peru (take a look at Oriana Fuentes, our COO’s, blog post on our last Offsite) and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in a company. After four months of planning, we flew 26 of our team members (some from Africa, some from the US, others from around Latin America) to an amazing destination. We stayed on a 5-star hotel in the Sacred Valley of Cuzco, the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel & Wellness Spa

Aside from the sights, tours, and delicious Peruvian food, it was a 5-day event where many members met in person for the first time. We also got to communicate many aspects of the company strategy, product, and agile practices. It was a unique opportunity to have some fun together doing innovative team building activities, sharing spectacular dinners, some good old after-hour mingling, as well as participating as actual work teams through our Hackathon event. In sum, I would say after last year’s offsite, we all became so close from a human perspective, that we said our goodbyes through hugs and “see you next year!”s. I’d say most of us were really excited about 2020’s Offsite.

In this how to guide you'll learn:

 

How the pandemic affected our plans

And then, the Covid-19 pandemic started to develop. We had begun planning our Offsite 2020 back in December 2019. Our team had RSVP'd for March 24, flights had been budgeted, agencies contacted, invited speakers had confirmed their attendance, we were already making reservations with Aranwa again on another location in Peru, and slowly but surely, Oriana (our COO) started tracking the spread of the disease in January 2020. During February we monitored the contagion and started to contact our vendors. The spread hadn’t reached Latin America yet, so reimbursements were not an option at that time. We prepared some contingency plans to fly everyone there and canceled bookings for people coming from countries where Covid-19 was present. And finally, March came and top management decided to postpone the physical event for security reasons. Instead, the decision was made to migrate all speakers to video-conference format, and organize a Virtual Offsite. We had two weeks to rethink and prepare everything.


A pandemic? No problem. We’re a fully remote team anyway.

 

Virtual offsite ideation, planning, and implementation

The first thing we did was, obviously, research. We had never organized any virtual event outside of our regular company-wide calls through Zoom. We found several guides that were key to motivate ourselves into this daunting endeavor. We took a look at this PagerDuty virtual offsite guide and learned about the preparation, scheduling, and collaboration tips for communication tools as well as non-verbal communication reading. We also reviewed the different tools we would be using, different access levels for leaders vs. team members, and the budget for new tools that weren’t part of our culture. After a week of research and constant coordination, our rough initial plan with Top Management was this:

  1. Communicate strategy and vision for the future
  2. We still want to meet. Announce physical offsite on Nov 10-15, 2020, provided the pandemic ends before then.
  3. Talks with speakers (explore Q&A and Poll dynamics using energy from the event, research virtual participation methods)
  4. Define Virtual Offsites as tradition/rituals per quarter if this one worked.
  5. Prepare virtual itinerary and enable open zoom rooms
  6. Virtual Hackathon
  7. Mingling and virtual team icebreakers in smaller rooms
  8. Sorting and group selection according to certain features/traits


After this general brainstorming of what we wanted to achieve, Jon Duckworth (Head of Engineering) and I started researching different communication tools that would help us carry out that general vision for our virtual offsite. We chose:

  1. Zoom for video conferencing (our default tool for video and audio calls)
  2. Twist for asynchronous team engagement and hackathon collaboration
  3. Slack (our usual workplace) to share pics and funny anecdotes


Agenda and activity selection

Since we already had an event planning template with the original agenda, we ended up editing our old one without all the physical activities we had planned (dinners, outdoors, games, etc). We started preparing a Virtual Offsite Handbook that would contain everything people needed to know beforehand:

virtual offsite handbook

 

1. Offsite Objectives

Our Top Management team took this space as an ideal opportunity to communicate our 2020 company strategy in terms of focus and growth.

 

2. Working rules during the event

Since it was the first time we carried out something like this, we thought it was best to be clear about the expectations and guidelines to participate and engage. We tried to make it as human and connected as possible while understanding the limitations of virtuality at the same time. We especially encouraged having breakfast and lunch together, although many team members were on multiple timezones so this wasn’t easy to coordinate. Still, we assigned some zoom rooms led by our leadership team, to try and enjoy meals together.

 

3. Day-by-day agenda

We set a fixed time zone to allot times for each item (Peru Local Time GMT -5). We made sure people outside of that time zone could still participate through Twist asynchronously if they for some reason were unable to attend to calls, we recorded and shared all the talks and speaker conferences, and we tried to make them feel as welcome and comfortable as possible with participation. Some were already too late for some events (team members in Pakistan or Kenya, for example). We were flexible and inclusive with them.

virtual offsite itinerary

4. Dedicated fun time: the 7 Wonders League

First, I decided to reach out to our gamer community. Emptor has many video gamers as well as board gamers. Edgar Marca (Software Engineer III) and Juan Pablo González (Operations Manager) were key to help me set this portion of our virtual offsite agenda. We went for a quick and easy platform to set up a Board Game League: Board Game Arena. In it, you can find millions of board games, and it has a relatively easy way for players to invite other users to their virtual tables to play. You can specify the game, duration, rounds, and other types of mechanics. We chose 7 Wonders - for its strategic composition and focus on  team building.

 

5. Our speakers and their bios

We invited two of our primary investors - and they shared amazing lessons from their professional experience both as investors and as employees in big, successful companies. They spoke about general important factors for growth, success, and scale and shared their hopes and vision for Emptor’s future market in the current market.

We also had the privilege and honor to listen to:

    • Juan Pablo Buritica (VP of Engineering, LatAm at Stripe)
    • Katie Womersley (Director of Engineering at Buffer)
      Co-authors of The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, as well as incredibly talented senior engineers with tons of experience both in remote work/distributed team collaboration and in amazing engineering companies. This year’s speakers were incredible and we’re so thankful for their participation.

Hackathon guidelines, teams, and scoring system

 

startup hackathon

Finally, a big section of our offsites is always the Hackathon. The Hackathon has become a must-have trend for most engineering companies, since it’s a format of computer software programming competitions to develop functioning software in a delimited time-frame, using innovative and creative solutions to a specific problem or challenge.

If you want to know more about Hackathons, check this awesome blog post by Julian Eberling from LEAD Innovation Management.  However, at Emptor, we also have a strong corporate branch. So the format for our Hackathon tackles problems from a multi-disciplinary approach that combines all functions of the organization (HR, Sales, PMO, Finance, Management, Legal, Operations, etc).

Take a look at this year’s challenge:

We sorted everyone into teams of 5 people, and assigned them Zoom rooms, as well as Twist channels to coordinate all their activities. We gave them a day and a half to complete the challenge. On each team we assigned members of different organizations: Engineers, financial analysts, project managers, legal associates, HR analysts, etc. This was so that they could self organize and take over these roles:
Each team did amazing work, they were all able to develop a Demo with a front end for different applications of the Emptor product, they all chose interesting countries to run the scenario and the whole dynamic was incredibly fulfilling from a team-building standpoint. Most teams shared meals together, and those who had members on different time zones were able to assign work and progress without much coordination.

Overall, even though it was a bit disruptive of usual schedules for work-life balance, it was an amazing competition that brought everyone together regardless of their actual professions or titles at the company.

 

How did we measure success?
virtual offsite

We closed off with appreciation for being remote during these difficult times. It was definitely a challenge to reorganize an event in two weeks, but most participants were grateful for the opportunity to take a break from work and come together for interesting conferences, some clarity over the company’s strategy and vision for 2020, and have fun innovating potential products at the hackathon. We had so much fun with the 7 Wonders tournament, despite all the mishaps setting up the tables to play. Top Management ran a survey a couple of days after the Offsite and this is some of the feedback we got to the question “What are 3 things you learned this week?”:

Anonymous
"Collaboration amongst is an important element of building an awesome team. Effective communication in a distributed team yields a near full trust battery. Diversity and inclusivity is a culture owned by every team member and not the company."

 

Anonymous

"The importance of effective communication, collaboration and what goes on behind the scenes for the engineering team."

 

Anonymous
"I learned how important are different areas at Emptor and how we depend on each other. Also how important is to ask for an opinion of our work to the team leader to strengthen our weak points and improve our work. Finally but not less important, learned how to play 7 wonders."

 

To recap, here’s what you can do:

  • Define your offsite goals and select the right activities to achieve them.
  • Research and compare the different tools that you will be using for each activity.
  • Define an agenda and distribute it to all team members so that they can organize their schedules ahead of time.
  • Always be clear with the participants about what you are trying to achieve with each activity.
  • In other to improve you will need to measure the success of your offsite, gathering honest feedback is a great way to know what you can improve for your next event.

 

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