Beach in Oceanside, California

Annual Retreats for Distributed Teams — Worth Every Penny

Chromatic is fresh off our annual team retreat, and while we're still feeling the tangible benefits of this last trip, I thought it would be worthwhile to write them down and share with others. Doing so will hopefully convince other owners of distributed companies that the investment in these trips is worth every penny.

TL;DR: If you're running a distributed company, you need to be doing annual team retreats. Team gatherings keep people engaged and excited. Simple as that.

Here's a rundown of the real benefits we've seen with our Chromatic team retreats, in no particular order:

Opportunity for leadership to connect with the boots on the ground

Relationships between leadership and employees are difficult to nurture as it is. Being a distributed company only makes this harder. This is especially true as your team grows. Being together creates a real chance for these relationships to blossom and grow.

Team building

We're not talking trust falls, but real opportunities for team members to connect, build trust and cultivate camaraderie. Whomever you choose to run your retreat should help create the content and activities to facilitate this. We've loved working with Jen Dary of Plucky for our last two retreats. Jen's sessions have helped our team learn about one another, find common ground and understand our unique motivations.

Feedback Loop

Employees have a forum where they can share real feedback with leadership, and leadership has an opportunity to speak candidly to employees. At Chromatic, we work hard on creating a safe space to share feedback day to day (be it 1-on-1s, team calls, KnowYourCompany, etc.). Given all that, we've found that there is no substitute for being together and opening up the floor. This year we created a session called "Close the Door" where we talked through things we'd like to stop doing across the company.

R&R for Employees

Getting away and going somewhere exciting is something that just about everyone likes to do. Location, lodging and scheduling are critical here. Find a locale that will be enjoyable for the given season and be sure to give your team enough time to relax and enjoy all that this place has to offer. For us, this means letting our clients know that our team will be off and limiting our official company activities to just a few hours per day.

Sharing Important Company Information

Annual retreats provide a perfect opportunity for leadership to share important company information. At Chromatic, we kick off each retreat with a "Chromatic State of the Union" presentation where leadership recaps our year. We share financials, details on benefits changes, how our various initiatives are performing, etc. We also share goals for the new year and set the tone for where we're headed tactically and strategically.

Lightning Talks

At our retreats, we ask everyone to give a 5-10 minute talk on any subject of their choosing. Your team is likely composed of people with wildly different interests, both personally and professionally. Giving these folks a space to share something that they're interested in ends up being really fun and informative. To top it off, you end up learning more about the individuals that make up your team and your employees get a chance to practice their presenting skills.

Appreciation

Retreats are an awesome opportunity for leadership to share their appreciation with their employees. The retreat itself helps team members feel appreciated and valued, but sharing a meal and thanking someone face to face goes a long way. Calling out individuals in front of the whole company is another great way to recognize extra effort.

Cross-discipline Pollination

Even with a small company like Chromatic, it is easy for people to become siloed in their areas of focus and expertise. Gathering people of different skill sets and teams within your organization allows for sharing of ideas and techniques across disciplines. For us, it has been surprising to see just how much our team didn't know was happening in say, DevOps or over in Marketing.

Building Momentum, Re-energizing the Company

I saved this one for last because it's definitely the biggest benefit we've seen. Following our retreats, the company has a palpable buzz around it. Everyone is reinvigorated and reenergized. People are excited about the work and because they've just spent days hanging out and socializing, they're more comfortable with one another. We see people collaborating that have never worked together before. There is a real momentum created that no other company meeting comes close to accomplishing.

Wrapping Up

Team retreats are not an insignificant cost. For our small team of 12, we've spent between $20,000 - $40,000 (per retreat) when it's all said and done. As an owner, that sounds like a lot, but I'm here to tell you that when done right, these retreats are worth every single penny. I firmly believe that these investments in people and experiences are a big reason turnover and attrition are so low at Chromatic. Still don’t believe me? Research shows that the median cost of replacing a single employee is ~21% of their salary. For more specialized positions, that percentage skyrockets. If you do some quick math with a couple of your team member’s salaries, I’m betting the cost of a retreat now seems much more palatable.

Take it from me and plan a team retreat. It’s a safe bet you’ll be thanking me in the days and weeks following the event.

Further reading:

If you’re so inclined, I’d be more than happy to connect and expand on my thoughts here. Coffee hangouts with fellow entrepreneurs and distributed leaders are always welcome.

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Chris splits his time between helping Mark and Dave run Chromatic and providing technical consulting to our largest clients.