Holding a Retreat at Least Once a Year Is Crucial (Interview)

Published:
June 10, 2024
Krunoslav Koprivnjak

Krunoslav is a passionate traveler and connoisseur with a sixth sense for discovering exceptional food and drinks. With a keen eye for unique experiences, he has traversed the globe in search of hidden gems of destinations, immersing himself in local cultures along the way. His journey into entrepreneurship began with a deep-seated curiosity for exploration and a desire to share his discoveries with the world. Alongside his partner Milana, Krunoslav co-founded Onsite Hub, a venture aimed at revolutionizing the way remote teams bond and collaborate through curated retreat experiences.

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Mijsje van Wieringen, better known to friends and colleagues as Mischa, is a People and Operations specialist with 10 years of experience in Operations and Project Management. Almost 4,5 years ago she started working with remote startups and hasn’t looked back since! She started a consulting company flowconsultancy.co which specializes in helping startups and agencies scale by building solid operational foundations for future growth. She does it by looking at people and processes and implementing systems, automations, tools and building a strong culture.

We met Mischa at a Running Remote 2024 conference in Lisbon and used this opportunity to have an inspirational conversation about the present and future of remote work.

Group of people at a conference in Lisbon
At the Running Remote 2024 Conference in Lisbon

Can you share how you started working remotely and what it means for you?

I’ve been working remotely for the past four and a half years, since 2019. My journey into the remote working space began when I was approached by someone starting a startup aimed at creating an alternative to Zoom. That was my first foray into the tech world and remote work, and I haven't looked back since. I absolutely love it.

What was the biggest shock for you when you started working remotely?

Honestly, I didn't really experience a shock. I never felt at home in the corporate world and was looking for something where I fit in better. When I started working with remote tech companies, it felt like a whole new world opened up to me. It wasn't a shock; it was more like a homecoming.

For me, remote working is more than just the act of working remotely; it's about the innovative environment it fosters. It represents the future of work, where companies look for different solutions and think differently. The remote space is very forward-thinking and people-centric. Most remote companies have a flat organizational structure, which I absolutely love. So, it's much more than just the remote work itself.

Do you think there's a relationship between remote working and startups, or do you think bigger corporations could also adopt this type of work?

I think tech startups are significant players in the remote working space, primarily because of the high number of developers who often prefer working from home. However, this preference isn't just a stereotype. Remote work offers flexibility and allows individuals to be valued based on the quality of their work rather than how they fit into social environments.

For many, especially those who struggle with the social dynamics of office life, remote work is fantastic because it reduces time spent on non-work-related activities and office politics. This is particularly beneficial for introverts and others who find traditional office settings challenging.

Regarding whether bigger companies can adopt remote work, absolutely. Companies like Deel and GitLab, though not as massive as some corporations with tens of thousands of employees, are still quite large and have successfully embraced remote work. Ultimately, it's about creating a people-centric environment, which is achievable for companies of any size.

Why do you think some companies can adapt to remote work while others say they cannot, even though it's clear some are very successful with it? What do you think are the critical factors?

I believe it often comes down to the leadership at the top, which I refer to as the "gray." Many established, older companies, which I call the "dinosaurs," are led by individuals from a different generation. For these leaders, whose companies are already thriving, going remote or even hybrid requires a significant shift in work strategy. They might resist change because their current model works well and they aren't inclined to disrupt it.

Additionally, as people age, especially into their 50s, 60s, and beyond, they generally become less willing to adapt to new ways of working. This resistance to change is a major factor. Another critical issue is that these leaders often don't know what the right strategy for successful remote work is, which further hinders their ability to adapt.

Is there a single strategy that is right for remote work, or do you need to find a strategy that works best for you? Can you give an example?

There's no one-size-fits-all strategy for remote work. Each company needs to find what works best for them.

During COVID, when companies were forced to go remote, I was surprised to see that about 80% returned to the office once they could. This was largely because they tried to apply their office-based strategies to remote work, which doesn't work.

One major issue was Zoom fatigue and a lack of connection among coworkers. To succeed with remote work, companies need a different approach. In-person gatherings should be intentional and meaningful. Trust is also crucial. Many companies struggle with this because they're used to measuring productivity by hours worked, rather than the actual output.

In remote work, it's not about being online from nine to five. It's about flexibility and trusting employees to deliver results. For example, someone might work from nine to twelve, then pick up their kid, and continue working later in the day. This flexibility fosters a people-centric environment, which is a key part of the future of work. Trusting employees and focusing on their output rather than their input builds loyalty and makes them want to stay, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Absolutely. I also think there's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you approach employees with distrust, they might end up not working effectively. But if you start with a culture of trust, remote work becomes a no-brainer. You mentioned the office jungle being detrimental. 

Regarding the office jungle, another reason why companies resist moving from an office to a remote setting is because those who were successful in the office environment might not thrive in a remote or hybrid setting, and the reason behind it might lie in social hierarchies. 

In an office, the person who shouts the loudest often gets the most attention. But in a remote work environment, success is measured by the quality and amount of work delivered. This shift can be challenging for those who relied on their social presence rather than their work output.

Those who were successful in the office might struggle because they were carried by their social weight. They were the ones having five coffees with the manager every day or constantly networking in person. In remote work, this advantage diminishes. It's a different kind of hierarchy where work quality matters more than social interactions.

What about in-person meetings? Many companies opt for a middle ground between daily office presence and never meeting at all. What's the best frequency for in-person meetings, and why are they important for remote teams?

The best frequency for in-person meetings really depends on the company. It's clear that a successful remote company needs some level of in-person interaction. Human interaction is crucial for building strong connections. In-person meetings allow for social interactions that are different from work-focused interactions, which helps in forming deeper connections.

For remote teams, it's essential to create opportunities for team members to meet face-to-face at least once or twice a year. These gatherings should be more about fun and bonding rather than just work. For example, organizing a company retreat or a fun event can significantly enhance team cohesion.

Virtual interactions, like online cooking classes or virtual social events, are also great, but they don't fully replace the depth of connection you get from in-person meetings. When people meet in person, they can engage in casual conversations and shared experiences that strengthen their bonds.

Moreover, shared experiences, whether they're enjoyable events or challenging tasks, create a stronger sense of belonging. Therefore, ensuring these in-person meetings are enjoyable and not solely work-focused is key to promoting a positive and connected remote team culture.

So having these kinds of experiences brings people together and bonds them. There are many benefits, not just in employee retention. You mentioned retreats; successful companies don't just meet to have fun. There's a strategy behind it. If you make it part of your culture, so people join your company for these events, then we're talking about a complete retreat strategy. Can you elaborate on that?

Absolutely. In-person experiences are invaluable for bonding and building team synergy, which can positively impact overall performance and employee retention. It's true that the cost of acquiring a good employee is high, so anything that helps retain talent and support collaboration is beneficial.

Successful companies approach retreats with a strategy. It's not just about having fun; it's about creating meaningful interactions that align with the company's culture and goals. These events should be well-planned, with activities that promote team building and align with the company’s values.

Incorporating retreats into your company culture means designing these events in a way that employees look forward to them and see them as a valuable part of their work experience. This can include a mix of work-related activities, like brainstorming sessions or workshops, and social activities that allow employees to relax and bond on a personal level.

For example, a retreat might include team-building exercises, strategy sessions to align on company goals, and fun activities like hiking or cooking classes. The key is to balance work and play, ensuring that employees feel valued and connected. By doing this, companies can create a sense of belonging and loyalty among their employees, which enhances overall productivity and satisfaction.

A complete retreat strategy involves intentional planning, aligning the events with company culture, and ensuring they provide both professional and personal value to employees. This approach helps in creating stronger bonds, better teamwork, and a more cohesive company culture.

What do you think is the best way to integrate a retreat or offsite strategy into your remote company culture?

In my opinion, holding a retreat at least once a year is crucial. It should bring everyone together on a deeper level. That's the "how" for me.

When you consider the investment, it's a return on investment of 100%. Let me quote some data from a recent survey shared by Chase Warrinton, Head of Operations at Doist, where 92% of his teammates felt more connected to their colleagues, 94% felt more aligned with company vision and path forward and 95% felt more enthusiastic about working for Doist after attending an onsite. When you see numbers like these, funding should become self-evident.

Do you think the retreat should include a mix of work and fun activities, or should it focus more on team building?

Personally, I believe it should strike a balance, around 20% work-related activities and 80% focused on connection and enjoyment. The work part could include quarterly or yearly reviews and necessary operational tasks like processing orders or tickets.

The majority of the retreat should prioritize activities that foster team bonding and enjoyment. These could include team-building exercises and social events that strengthen relationships. Some companies also use this time for activities like shadowing for new hires, which enhances learning opportunities in a live setting.

What do you see as the biggest challenges of remote work, and what trends do you observe today? Where do you envision the future of work in five or ten years?

Over the past couple of years, aside from the impact of COVID-19, we've seen a significant shift where many remote-first companies have opted to return to office environments. Personally, I don't believe this regression is the right path. Blaming remote work for issues like employee dissatisfaction, as some CEOs have done, seems shallow. There are plenty of people thriving in fully remote setups, and attributing failures solely to remote work overlooks deeper organizational issues.

I think we're currently navigating a spectrum where extremes were tested during COVID-19 – from full remote setups to a return to traditional offices. Now, we're moving towards finding a middle ground. I foresee the future of work as being flexible. Providing employees with the option to work remotely or in a hybrid model offers them peace and freedom, which are crucial for productivity and well-being.

For working women, especially, remote work has been transformative. Being able to balance work alongside caregiving responsibilities, like caring for a newborn at home, is a significant advantage that an office environment can't easily replicate. Hybrid models can further enhance this flexibility, provided they are not overly restrictive, respecting employees' autonomy to manage their work weeks effectively.

Looking ahead, I believe the future of work will be people-centric and trust-focused. Trusting employees to structure their work in ways that suit them best not only empowers individuals but also fosters a responsible approach to team collaboration. This approach aligns with the desires of younger generations like Gen Z, who value flexibility and autonomy in their careers. It's essential to listen to their needs and aspirations rather than clinging to outdated norms.

Work from anywhere has become increasingly viable, whereas previously it wasn't an option. Now, employees question why they should return to the office if they can perform their tasks effectively from home. The only concrete answer seems to be mistrust, which sends a negative message to employees.

Essentially, what you communicate to your employees will reflect back to you. This creates a cycle that remote work can help break. However, I emphasize flexibility because I recognize it's not suited for everyone or every company, especially in fields like healthcare. Nonetheless, I believe there's a middle ground for virtually every company.

For instance, allowing employees to work from home for one or two days a week can facilitate tasks like phone calls and meetings without the need for commuting. With today's technology and internet speeds, everyone equipped with a laptop, the future indeed leans towards flexibility.

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