Despite having doubled in size since our last one, this year’s Memory meet-up was an absolute corker. All 42 Memory employees — from India to Canada — descended on Portugal’s vibrant capital for an annual week of bonding, problem solving and merry making. We’ve previously written about just how important annual company retreats are for remote companies, but it takes serious planning and forethought to really make the most of them. As our third meet-up, we really benefitted from the wisdom of the previous two — and we’d love to share our best ideas and learnings with you.
Obviously, budget is a huge factor when deciding where to hold your meet-up, and you’ll want to pick somewhere that makes the most sense for the majority of your employees. Since most Memory employees work in Europe, it sadly doesn’t make sense to fly everyone to the Americas. But wherever you choose, resist the temptation to just fly people to where most of your employees are actually located. Last year, we held our meet-up from our Memory HQ in Oslo. It was obviously hugely important for people to get to know where Memory got started, but since most of our remote workers come to Oslo anyway for their first week of onboarding, this year we wanted to do something different — so we headed to Lisbon! By gathering everyone somewhere neutral, everybody has to quit their normal routines and responsibilities, and be fully present for the whole week together. As an added bonus, we enabled a lot of people to explore a city they’d never visited before. Just make sure you leave enough time for visa processing!
At Memory, we’re huge fans of getting every employee to introduce themselves in a way that actually means something to them. We use the format of “The story of me” — a short five-minute presentation where you can talk about anything you care about. It’s daunting and intentionally unstructured, but everyone does it — even Mathias. But it’s not designed to embarrass. The whole point is to let everyone get comfortable speaking to their new colleagues, expressing their individual personality and giving insight into what matters to them. The whole group immediately gets to know more about new colleagues, with a ton of ready-made material to approach them with. It’s a sure-fire relationship starter. We tried to schedule as many of these into the start of the week to ensure people could kick-start conversations quickly and easily. And we make sure they’re all filmed, so new employees can retroactively see presentations for the whole team.
Mention “icebreaker” and then listen carefully — you may be able to actually hear the oily smack of eyeballs rolling in sockets. But last week, we learned that they don’t actually have to suck. Nor do they have to be unimaginative! In fact, icebreakers are great territory for establishing just how creative and interesting your company can be.
Being in Lisbon, we were completely spoiled for delicious places to wine and dine. But one of the best evening meals actually turned out to be one of the least conventional. The whole company booked into an evening at Cooking Lisbon, with one half sampling local wines and cheeses, while the other prepared Portuguese vol-au-vents — culminating in a huge co-created feast.Why was it was so successful? Because it was a leveller — it gave everyone the chance to interact naturally. Everyone had a common activity to focus on, learning and experiencing something new together. But they also had the freedom to move about. Often, seating plans and restaurant layouts can stifle fluidity — if you’re stuck in a corner for the night, it’s even worse. But with an interactive and varied “active dinner”, people can move about and talk to far more people. You produce something together that you all share at the end, and the wine really flows. Try working one of these in towards the start of your meet-up.
Meet-ups are all about getting to know each other. For remote teams, that means putting an actual moving human face to the Slack picture you communicate with on a daily basis. So you’ll ideally get everyone to speak to the rest of the group at some point during the week. Not everyone likes public speaking, but we really don’t see it as that — it’s a chance to show who you are, how you communicate, share your humour and actively participate. For completely new employees, it’s also an important opportunity to make yourself noticed and get used to talking as an equal among your new group of colleagues. Hopefully, everyone should get the chance to speak at some point — either during icebreaker challenges, small competitions, presenting solutions from problem-solving breakouts, or during their “Story of me” presentation. But getting every department to present something is an extra catch-all.
While AI is a central part of everything we build at Memory (check out Timely if you haven’t already!), not all our employees are machine learning technicians. So holding a four-part interactive AI workshop to help people learn and apply the basic principles of what our machine learning team actually does was insanely useful. But we took it further and got different teams to come up with new applications of Memory’s AI. The ideas generated were incredible. People who only had a surface understanding of AI pitched some of the most imaginative solutions for everyday work problems, taking our experts by surprise on several occasions. It went to show that creativity and ideas are not limited to the discipline you practice; your best ideas can come from the unlikeliest of places, and everyone should be involved if you really want to build a better company.
Be under no illusions — meet-ups are intense. You’re hanging out with colleagues (many of whom are completely new to you) often for 12 hours every day. If you’re a remote worker used to your own space and quiet, it can be overwhelming. So while you have a lot to pack into your meet-up, make sure you have regular breathers. Obviously, you should have breaks between presentations and activities, but think about reserving space for “collaboration time”, which gives people a chance to do whatever they want and work with colleagues they don’t often meet in-person. We also chose to make one evening “DIY”, so people could group off and do their own thing — pick their own restaurant, explore the city or simply relax, order in and make full use of the hotel’s facilities.
It sounds obvious, but many work trips never give you the opportunity to leave your conference room and see the city you’ve travelled for hours to reach. For many Memory people, it was the first time they had ever been to Portugal, and since Lisbon is such a cool city, it would have been massively disappointing if they didn’t actually get the chance to see it. So in addition to downtime, meals and evening activities, we all went on a group tour of Lisbon’s Alfama district on our first day. It was the perfect activity for the first day of the meet-up — breaking up introductions and getting out into the soft spring sunshine. Much like the cooking class, it also gave the group the chance to mingle freely, and by working in a photo competition to the tour, we introduced a hugely popular interactive element.
The fact you’ve arranged a whole week of activities, flown in people from across the world and put them up in a fancy hotel with an endless supply of delicious food is already ridiculously generous. It shows that you actually invest in your people — that you care about fostering relationships with them and see them as the centre of your company’s success. But there are tons of ways to build upon it — and people really notice the extra effort. Company swag goes a long way, provided it’s thoughtful. This year we designed our own meet-up tote, filled with books, quality apparel, treats and practical goodies that people would actually use in their daily lives. But we also made sure our competitions were competitions — every member of our winning hackathon team got a set of AirPods and our budding photographer (winning photo featured above!) took home a pair of Bose headphones. We plied everyone with Norwegian chocolate, pasteis de nata and snacks at every opportunity. You don’t have to go big, but small details go a long way.
Hopefully you’ll have a basic structure of your meet-up in mind, but a really good one requires extra thought. While it makes sense to start with presentations introducing the company background, values and aims, don’t just go with wall-to-wall talking on your first few days. Break your days up — make sure you have a variety of different activities, and ensure at least one of those is interactive for the whole group. Workshops and breakout problem solving are great examples of this. But you also need to plan in fun bonding activities, since these are really where employee relationships develop. Obviously, presentations need to happen, but if you can tell that people will start flagging, introduce a dumb interactive “wake up” activity to help everyone refresh and refocus.