Lessons learned from our latest team onsite (and running our quarterly team retrospective)
Every onsite, I've learned something different – this time around, I have a few tips and tricks on keeping a hybrid group engaged at the end of a packed day
101 on our team onsites
Over the past few months, I’ve referenced our team onsites quite a bit. Before I dive in, I want to share a bit of context once again. At TestBox, we are fully distributed, meaning that our team is spread out across the world. We meet quarterly in person at our onsites (thusly named because I pointed out that we’re usually offsite when we work from our respective homes).
Over time, we’ve iterated on the format of the onsites. The first one we ran was four days long, jam packed with meetings as we wanted to get the most out of being in person together. We learned quickly that the length and density were a perfect formula for overwhelming the team and pared down the schedule for subsequent onsites. We changed a few things that helped make subsequent onsites more manageable:
Build breaks into the schedule (and make sure they’re long enough to account for sessions that may run overtime and still leaving time for a breather)
Set aside most of day 4 as a fun team bonding day with activities/sightseeing
Add flexibility into when people can travel – we set a kickoff time for the onsite but give folks the option to arrive that morning (if they’re nearby) or the day before to enjoy some time to settle in
Introduce more optional evening activities instead of having mandatory full group dinners each night
Alternate between full group and small group meals and activities to reduce the planning burden (as full group meals and activities are hard to coordinate) and give different permutations of team members more chances to bond
A lot of these changes were suggested to us as part of post-onsite feedback. We have a set of questions we always ask in our feedback form including NPS, ratings for specific sessions/activities/meals, and any open ended suggestions for the next onsite. It’s been a great way for us to track team sentiment regarding each onsite and to keep making changes over time based on what works best for the team.
One of the other biggest decisions we’ve made when it comes to team onsites is having a rotating planning committee. Having the committee rotate means different perspectives get represented and results in onsites that have different flavours. This has also helped distribute the planning burden across multiple team members. As part of the committee setup, we also give each planning member a $500 budget for travel upgrades as a token of appreciation for their time and effort, as we recognize that planning onsite requires extra time and energy.
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Setting up our quarterly team retrospective
Since the first team onsite, we’ve had a few staple meetings. The list includes:
An onsite kickoff (with overview of the schedule and goals)
A quarterly team-wide retro
A kickoff for the new quarter
Individual team time, which each team lead plans
I have always run our quarterly retros but try to mix up the format each time so that it stays interesting. I’ve also made adjustments over time based on where I want the team to spend more time reflecting. For this retro, we focused specifically on our onboarding process for new customers, which has been the primary area of investment for the team over the past quarter. In past quarters, when we did a broad, unfocused retro, I often felt a bit of whiplash in the topics that surfaced. We’d go into very scattered reflections, and not all of the topics applied to everyone on the team. My hope with narrowing in on our onboarding process was that we’d have a more focused conversation with more actionable commitments.
To set up our retro board, I went searching on Miro for inspiration. I found this template:
I made some adaptations to the template for our purposes:
In advance of team onsite, I sent out the Miro board and asked the team to spend some time filling in stickies. I typically give folks a week or so to do the prework, so that they can look at the board, think about their reflections passively, and then come back at a later time to write out their thoughts.
Last minute adjustments I made on the day of
In the half hour leading up to our retro, I decided to adjust my approach to moderating the retro. Usually, the rules of thumb that I stick to are:
In advance, cluster the stickies by theme and overlapping subject area
Always open up the floor to see who wants to speak
Go around the room to hear different opinions
However, experience with our team had also taught me that getting different people to speak up can be a challenge. I also knew that I had the sleepy o’clock part of the day: 3:30-4:45pm, after a morning full of big, very important meetings.
With 15 minutes to spare, I made two decisions:
I ran across the street to order Starbucks coffee for everyone
I decided to make the first 15 minutes of the block a break and a chance for folks to add extra stickies to the board, which was looking a little sparse
As I thought through the rest of the schedule and looked around the room at everyone’s energy levels, I decided that I’d probably need to get even more creative to get good participation.
Here are a few of the tactics that I used, which turned out to be quite effective:
For the gratitude section, we went around the table and I had each person read one of the stickies out loud. After that, I had everyone turn to a partner and add one more sticky about what they were grateful for. This got the room humming with conversation and also gave us some good warm fuzzies, setting us up for productive discussion and reflection. I don’t normally look to add more stickies during the retro, but for a section like this one, it felt right to fill up the board even more.
For the next two sections, good and glum, we went around the table with each person reading one sticky at a time. As we did that, I opened up the floor in case anyone wanted to add anything to the grasped or going forward sections. Having everyone read out loud kept people more engaged, versus having them all sit and listen to me read.
When we got to the final two sections, grasped and going forward, I took a few minutes to make sure the stickies were clustered by theme. I paired up the group (different partners from the earlier pairs) and asked if any pairs felt strongly about discussing specific clusters/themes. There were a few pairs that gravitated towards specific topics, so I assigned those pairs to clusters first. Once each pair had a cluster, they got a few minutes to discuss these questions specific to their topic:
What we learned this past quarter
What we should do going forward
Any experiments we should try
After the individual pair discussions, we regrouped and each pair shared a summary of what they discussed. As we did this, I took notes for the group and bolded our commitments on new stickies.
All in all, this led to much higher engagement from the team. People stayed focused and were able to bring energy to the session, even if it was on the later end of a busy day. We got really good participation from our virtual attendees as well, which can be hit or miss in hybrid setups.
Tl;dr and summary of lessons learned
When it comes to running team onsites, be prepared to iterate and find what works best. What works best on a given day or week may not work well later on, as the team evolves. We’ve built systems that help us get feedback from the team regularly and we rotate in different voices to plan our onsites. As I ran our quarterly retro, I adapted the format last minute based on the group’s energy level. I noticed the impact that small things like getting everyone coffee and having everyone participate in reading the stickies out loud could have.
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