Q: What makes a good work conference/away day?

A: Not doing work

Most of our team work remotely, most of the time. We have a number of people based in Oxford, but otherwise we’re scattered across the UK, from Devon to Edinburgh. We communicate regularly and informally on Slack, but nothing really beats getting together in person to get to know each other better.

As one of the organising team for this year’s all-team Bennett retreat, one of my first questions was: “What is this for?”. Our conclusions were more about what it wasn’t for: work. Rather, we saw it as an opportunity to get to know one another on a personal level, engage in fun activities, and build lasting bonds.

Minimal organised fun

Personally, the words “team-building exercise” fill me with horror. Although we wanted to encourage team members to engage with each other, and especially to interact with people they don’t work with closely on a day-to-day basis, we were wary of forcing that interaction. You hear too many horror stories about awkward team-building exercises, and too much “organised fun”. Instead, we had some gentle ice-breakers to give us something fun to do and to encourage spontaneous mingling and chatting.

Optional social activities

We dedicated time to optional fun, social activities. Some people went running and bouldering together; others took part in a yoga class led by one of our team members. We had crafting sessions, music and board games.

Bouldering at the Birmingham Bouldering Centre

We did, of course, do some work-related things. However, we tried to make sure these were focused on sharing useful information, rather than serious, getting-things-done work. We had some deep dives into technical and research topics that were interesting for everyone, across individual teams. We had interactive breakout sessions where people could choose what they attended, and collaborate with others learning something new.

Interspersed among the work-related sessions, there were some lightning talks and show-and-tells, covering a wide range of entertaining topics such as Bovril advocacy, making origami, theme park comparisons and how guitar pedals work.

Inviting the kids!

Many of our team have young children, and it’s not always feasible to leave them with a partner or arrange childcare. We really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a barrier for anyone coming to the retreat, so we organised child care provision at the event. We had the added bonus of a very cheery small person joining us for meals and some of our social sessions.

What did we learn?

Building a remote team is hard. We do a lot of work online, and on the rare occasions that we can get together, work is not the most important thing. Having a relaxed, friendly environment where we can get to know each other socially builds relationships that will benefit our work.