How do you do remote working?

Clients, and other startups, ask me this a lot. Mobile Jazz was an early adopter of remote working: we’re free to work anywhere that unlocks our creativity (our CEO even set up his own office in his camper van). Since I joined the company, remote working has been fundamental to our strategy and the cornerstone of our guiding philosophy, Optimizing for Happiness.

Now, as other companies migrate towards remote working, they want to know how we do it. Well, company retreats play an absolutely vital role. MJ has run remote weeks and summer camps since it started out, and these enable us to share experiences, create human relationships and, above all, build a real team. Face-to-face contact ensures that we don’t just work together; we work as one. We’re remote, but never alone.

This year’s retreat has been particularly significant. It was the first excursion since we closed our office and went fully remote. What’s more, we decided to combine our remote week and summer camp into one, so it had to be doubly impactful.

I was privileged to lead the event organizing committee, and, judging by the responses, it went really well. So I thought it would be good to write a blog post, both as a memento to our amazing trip and a ‘how-to’ guide for running a remote week.

Specifically, I’ll talk a little about the following:

  • Planning
  • Approach
  • Itinerary
  • Outcomes

Hopefully you find it useful (and enjoy the amazing pics and vids along the way).

Planning

Six months on from closing our office in Barcelona, we wanted to establish an annual meeting of the whole company, which brought everyone together in the same place at the same time. New starters could meet the rest of the team and we’d all get a chance to plan MJ’s future.

So we took the decision to combine MJ Remote Week and MJ Summer Camp. The two events were both geared towards team-building, but they were very different in nature. The remote week was firmly focused on work, while summer camp was a social gathering with families welcome. The new retreat would take the best of both.

I’d been pushing hard for this event to happen, so it was decided that I should organize it: having talked so much about what a great idea it was, I now had to prove it! It helped that I also run my own travel company, so I had a lot of prior experience organizing trips.

But rather than have one person in charge of everything, we decided to create an organizing committee, which Borja and Ruben joined. This is typical of how we work at MJ: we share responsibility around the company, so we all own what we’re part of. This creates a greater sense of pride in what we’re doing, and pushes people to go the extra mile.

Around the main committee, other team members were assigned individual activities – be they work-based sessions, sports trips or social occasions. The idea was to make the event-planning a team-building task in itself. Instead of hiring an event planning agency, we wanted to encourage the whole group to think about MJ and what we’re trying to achieve.

Because we no longer have a physical office, we needed everyone to attend this year’s event: if one person was left out of the loop, it would defeat the whole purpose. So it was decided to make the event compulsory, and this meant each activity had to be as relevant as possible. We needed to maximize the value of our time and ensure everyone wanted to be there, rather than feeling they had to be.

The planning was more arduous than I’d expected. At times it felt like I was organizing a wedding, not a work trip! It meant loads of calls and emails to different providers, hours of internal meetings to get sign-off on budgets and decide between different options. I was constantly back-and-forth with providers on email trying to firm up dates and prices, and liaising with my teammates in Asana, our project management tool.

Looking back though, the whole process was really beneficial. Each person had to think about their event from a company-wide perspective and co-ordinate with the group, so people who don’t work together directly were brought into contact. It pushed us to think constructively about MJ’s ethos and what it means in practice, and that’s something we’re already taking forward into our work.

Location

MJ has always sought cool, inspiring places for our retreats. We’ve been to Thailand, Cape Town and Martinique, and they helped us find new reserves of creativity. When you’re nestled with your laptop below a sun-dappled palm tree, a mango fruit shake in your hand, it’s amazing how fresh and original your thought process can be.

The team in Cape Town, 2016.

We had a decent budget to choose our location this time, but with the event being compulsory, MJ was paying for everything – flights, hotels and daily food budget. So we had to find a location which, while offering inspiration, also ensured value for money.

After exploring the options, we eventually decided on Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, a Spanish island off the coast of Africa. Most of our team are based in Europe, which made the journey time manageable for a week-long trip. It was also affordable, and the climate was ideal for team-building activities.

Itinerary

During the week, we packed the mornings and early afternoons full of workshops, demos and design talks. These were intended to ensure everyone was up to speed with our individual projects, and sharpen our skills in areas such as marketing and search engine optimization, which developers don’t use every day.

Then, in late afternoon we’d go off for a group activity, something which stimulated our competitive juices and enabled us to work towards a target while accommodating everyone. People could pick and choose the activities they wanted to do, and there was a blend of sporting and cultural options.

For the weekend, we booked out a house in the mountains for the weekend and kept it fairly loose, allowing people to plan their own activities in tandem with their families.

This is the itinerary we eventually came up with:

Our Google Calendar with the itinerary.

The Event: Best Bits

Looking back now, there are loads of amazing memories – great times spent with people we’ve not always had the chance of meeting in the best.

But I’d have to say the workshops were the most valuable part of the event, and I know others feel the same. We’d all been to workshops which were irrelevant and overlong, and we resolved to make them better. So we put together a programme of punchy, focused and time-efficient sections, directly relevant to our current projects.

We held detailed discussions on our new branding concept throughout the week, and these will help the marketing team craft our creative strategy in the months ahead. We also got great insight into Bugfender, the MJ project which had previously been limited to a specialist team. And we had another chance to look at a number of our projects, including MyMoments, the powerful app we built to help vulnerable people express themselves through digital creativity.

Richard and Pablo conducting a design workshop for the team.

Alongside these events, we found time for a plethora of activities. Here are some highlights:

We went hiking from Roque Nublo to Pico de las Nieves, which took us between three and four hours (apart from our developer and keen runner Jose Luis, who smashed it in 40 minutes).

A bunch of us went scuba diving off the coast, and saw loads of cool stuff (although our marketing specialist Tea insists she saw more exotic creatures snorkeling in the shallows than we did 10 feet below the surface).

We ended up doing paddle surfing twice, because people loved it so much and couldn’t wait to repeat it.

Finally, the weekend summer camp allowed us to kick back for a couple of days. The house was amazing, complete with swimming pool, and we played loads of fun games and ate some great food – far too much food in fact!

Another highlight was provided by our brand-new t-shirts, which were unveiled at the event. We’re all very proud to work for MJ and very happy to wear a t-shirt proclaiming this fact.

Richard unveils our new Mobile Jazz t-shirts.

Takeaways for Next Time

After the trip we took feedback from the entire team, to find out what we can do better next year.

There were a few small things we’ve noted for next time round:

  • The summer camp could be split back into its own event, although this will be dependent on location. Asking families and partners to travel for two days was a bit much in hindsight.
  • The location was a bit too far for a few members of the team, notably those from Croatia and the Czech Republic.
  • Too much FOMO. We were so fearful of missing out on the cool activities Gran Canaria had to offer that we packed everything in, and the schedule was a bit hectic. In future we’ll take things a bit easier!

Aside from these minor issues, however, the event was universally well-received. People found it relevant, engaging and fun – exactly what we were after. The responses suggest we got the tone and structure of the event spot on, and demonstrate once again that we’re all pulling together at MJ.

In fact the main thing we’ve taken from the event is a real sense of community, a feeling of togetherness which is even stronger than before. We made lots of new connections while organizing the event, and we’re still talking to those people. As we adapt to being a fully remote company, this team ethic will be vital to our success, and we’d definitely urge other remote businesses to organize their own retreats.

Having sifted through the feedback, we can safely say that it’s impossible to make everyone happy with everything. So, if you’re organizing a retreat for a big group of people, don’t sweat this. If you can make everyone happy most of the time, you’re doing very well.

We also realize that some companies don’t have the travel-friendly mindset we do, and the hands-on approach we took doesn’t work for everyone. If you don’t have the expertise to plan such an event yourself, or you feel you’ll be over-stretched, let a specialist company take care of it for you.

However, if you do have the resource and expertise, do it yourself. By empowering the team to make decisions, you turn them into stakeholders, building a collective sense of enthusiasm which will power the company long after the event is over. When people are trusted to do something, they change from followers to leaders – and, in an organization like Mobile Jazz, leadership is key to everything we do.

If you’d like to find out more about Fran’s travel company, Your Way to Travel, click here. And keep checking our blog for more updates about MJ and our projects.

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