It’s been proven that company retreats are a perfect tool for connection and alignment. They’ve been known to help strengthen bonds between co-workers, are a great opportunity for interaction between departments and are generally invaluable when it comes to creating (and deepening) a cohesive and collaborative working environment.
The company-wide gatherings are also a great opportunity for the leadership to simply - listen. Floating in and out of different groups, eating with various groups of people, sitting next to someone you may not have got to know yet and socializing in the evening, provides an amazing opportunity not only to bond everyone together, but listen and learn.
We identified these objectives for our first retreat:
To create opportunities for cross-departmental connection.
To provide a variety of activity options to cater to our diverse team.
To deepen and strengthen existing bonds, and create new ones.
To have some fun.
Having joined Paddle less than a month before the retreat, one of my main focuses has been (and continues to be) creating a positive and fulfilling employee experience for everyone at Paddle.
Securing an environment where people have plenty of opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way, and an opportunity to grow, is high on my agenda. 2018 has been an interesting and exciting year for Paddle - we’ve more than doubled in size and keeping our culture alive whilst we scale, has been in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
This means that, amongst other initiatives, team events - big and small, became more important than ever. And so, on the last day of July, we set off!
Going on an Island: a Cool Concept…
We identified Osea Island as our venue of choice. With the island being a mere 2 hours drive from our London office, it made the most logistical sense; and the fact that we could rent the whole island to ourselves, appealed too. It was important we find a space where we could all relax, bond, connect, and have fun and - as the event was planned for the first week of August, we'd hopefully enjoy some summer fun.
…Which Made Logistics Quite Challenging!
Osea is a small island and due to tide times only reachable by road a few hours a day. So we had to plan carefully, and there was little room for error. After a few weeks of intense preparation, the ‘island team’ set off at 7AM to ensure everything was set up and ready for the majority of arrivals who were due to arrive just before dinner.
There was plenty to get on with - coordinating both catering and production companies, decorating the island with flags, (massive) light up letters spelling Paddle, and last but not least - a giant pink inflatable cat that became Paddle’s symbol in the last few months since our latest branding refresh. The cat would also get a naming ceremony at the event, so this was big.
The team also went around all houses to prep each and every individual room - goody bags containing eye masks, ear plugs, branded sweets, a handy torch and few smaller, branded bits like stickers, badges and keyrings were placed on every bed alongside a rainproof jacket and a t-shirt made specifically for the occasion.
No detail was left unattended - we even designated some team members as coach conductors to ensure everyone boarded on time. While the majority of the team boarded the coaches that afternoon, our island team were not only ready, but had time for a dip in the pool too!
Activities for Everyone
The Pub Quiz
With the majority of attendees arriving to the island late on Tuesday, all we really had time for was to quickly settle in, gather for dinner and have a pub quiz. The weather was lovely so we dined al-fresco and the quiz was held around open fire.
Led by Hugo, our CFO, the questions revolved around Paddle history, info around our sellers and biggest achievements so far, as well as more general quiz trivia such as music and geography questions. The many mosquitos aside, it was a lovely and very relaxed evening and everyone went to bed energized for the day ahead.
It’s important to not over-do it with activities, and let your people have some quiet time. A pub quiz, although a very British tradition, also helps all teams collaborate as some will be able to list 5 languages we use in our codebase, whilst others will know the exact age of your founders when they started out.
The Early Morning Sessions
We’re very lucky at Paddle in that many of our team members freely and often volunteer their time to help others. And so the next morning, some volunteered to head up early morning sessions to set us all up for the day. We had yoga, meditation class and a running club to choose from and it was a great start to a busy day ahead. For those not attending, it was simply straight to breakfast by the pool - which isn’t too shabby either.
Empowering people to lead small activities is great: they come up with interesting things to do which you wouldn’t even have considered, and it’s a lot less “top-down” when the rest of the planning, which due to the logistics involved, has to be relatively directive.
After breakfast by the pool, everyone made their way to the keynote. Christian started Paddle 6 years ago from his teenage bedroom and so we felt it was important for everyone - new joiners and seasoned Paddlers alike - to remind ourselves how far we came in the last few years.
The keynote was a great opportunity to get us all aligned and it served as a great reminder on why we exist in the first place, why our work matters and how we solve the problems for our sellers.
The ‘Working’ Session
After the keynote, we split in groups for ‘working’ sessions. We chose the topic of the sessions to be Values and asked the groups to think about the existing values, discuss how they resonate, and then choose one to either completely scrap (and replace), or focus on a value to improve and build upon.
The groups presented their work at the end of the session and we came away with a confirmation that values are a living, breathing thing which change and adapt as the company grows and expands. We are currently working on how to apply the learnings from the workshop and improve our values so they really and truly do belong to everyone.
Picking a topic that is not too work-related (who wants to discuss our go-to-market strategy when we’re trying to relax for a couple of days?) but is still core to who we are was really useful. Values can be felt as a marketing or HR exercise, but they really help all of us make decisions so they’re critical to nail. Getting everyone to interact with them helped new starters get familiar with them, as well as enabling everyone in general to bring a lot of tweaks and ideas.
The Team Building
Due to the location, we chose the team building activity to be ‘Off The Grid’. The idea being that we (again, split in groups) learn a little about surviving in the ‘wild’ and the tasks involved building bashers and fires, foraging for edible items on the beach, fishing, driving a range rover blindfolded and even winetasting (although we’re still not too sure how this last one helps in the wild to be fair).
We had a lot of fun doing these activities, but encountered an issue when it transpired that one of the activities included fish gutting and rabbit skinning which, for a company with a number of vegans that strives to be as inclusive as possible, was a massive oversight. We simply hadn’t double checked the full details of the only activity ran by a third party.
Luckily, we realised early enough to be able to completely scrap said activity and a valuable lesson was certainly learned for the future - don’t ever skip due diligence and make assumptions when it comes to team socials.
The Paddle Awards
In the evening, we gathered for the awards ceremony - an opportunity to celebrate all the good (and the odd and the quirky) things about the people of Paddle. Hosted by Harrison, Paddle’s co-founder, it was an evening full of laughter and rounded up the day nicely by recognising all the things that make the Paddle team special.
Most of the awards were awarded by popular vote which we’d arranged the week before (ranging from Best New Joiner Presentation, Living the Values, Happiest Face, Most Helpful Paddler and Funniest Moment - we even had an award for Best Dressed) and a couple of special awards we came up with for people who had simply been awesome during key times of the year.
This type of activity really helps shine a light on the people that made it happen, and is a great way to show the tone of voice of the company. Doing it as a very informal event, with lots of funny anecdotes, videos from the best moments of the year, and a popular vote thrown in once again showed any recent joiner that we’re all in it together and no one is taking themselves too seriously just yet.
Five Key Takeaways From our Leadership Team
I asked the rest of our leadership team to see what they took away from the event - this also helps us double down on the most impactful parts of our events for the next one.
"When hiring so quickly and growing so fast both in terms of people & revenue, it was invaluable to have some down time together, take the chance to get to know one another."
"After the trip, the morale was significantly higher, there was visibly much cross-function interaction, and new folk feeling infinitely more comfortable in the workplace."
"The event served as a confirmation that our team are really creative people who come up with good ideas collaboratively - not people you micro-manage.""
"It was priceless to get together in a non-work setting and work together on a topic like values (which is quite ephemeral). We achieved a great mixture of work and play with the emphasis on the latter and getting to know each other better."
And finally, "it was simply great to have 2 days to chat to everyone, independent of team, seniority or anything else."
Will We Do It Again?
In short - yes! Very much so. It’s been a hugely rewarding and energizing couple of days and feedback was largely positive. Everybody left the island really confident we’re going to achieve some great things together in 2018 and beyond.
If there’s any single takeaway for me from the retreat, it is the reminder that we get to work with some truly talented people, who also happen to be good people to boot. We knew this already, but it was nice getting it reaffirmed. So let the planning for Paddle Offsite 2019 (island or not), commence.
Want to see how much fun we had? Here's a video we made whilst on the island.