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🔗Creating Team Bonds & Inspiring Team Mission
The art of planning an onsite in a post-pandemic workplace
As a team leader, I want to foster deep bonds within my team. I feel a responsibility for rallying the team around a mission and constantly improving team culture.
With an ever more diverse and remote team (over 40% of my team is outside Seattle and well over 50% don’t come in daily), creating these bonds in a post-pandemic world is challenging. I’ve needed to learn new tools to help the team thrive in a distributed manner - and one way I’ve done that is to have rhythms for bringing the team all together once or twice a year to fill up our cups together.
Last week was one such tradition, where I asked as much of the team as possible to gather in Redmond for an onsite. We’ve been doing this in various forms for a few years now so it’s a bit of a team ritual at this point. This week’s post is dedicated to explaining how I approach these team onsites and how we’ve made them a touchstone of our culture and rhythm.
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Create Separation Between Urgent Business & Team Development
Pre-pandemic, when most of us saw each other every day, onsites were primarily focused on urgent business objectives - planning summits & pivot executions for example.
Now the concept of connection & community building among team members and across disciplines is just as important.
We’ve had success when we create explicit space for both. A day for team-level planning. A day for ad hoc 1:1’s and synchronizing on whatever is urgent. And a day dedicated to developing employees and the team.
It’s this last day that the rest of this post is dedicated to. And it really is a mind shift: We plan a day around improving skills, driving alignment, and setting context for every team member. The goal is to wire up neurons and drive mutual understanding and shared norms. We pretend it’s Day 1 of a new team when bond building has traditionally been most critical. We ask, “What can give us enough context and connection that we can all thrive as a distributed team for the next chapter?”
Let’s dig into some of our most important rituals as we create a day focused on connection and context.
Choose a Theme
I am intentional in setting the frame of mind that I want team members to walk into the onsite feeling. It’s a signal to people on how to show up and it creates an extra sense of safety as folks walk in.
One way I do this is by picking a theme for the onsite. A theme is a one-word summary that runs through all the agenda topics for the day. For instance, as we were leaving the pandemic, we chose the theme of Sunrise to spark a sense of renewal. Last year, we had a theme of Prism that enabled a fresh look at our work. And this year, with the paradigm shift of AI and the macroeconomic climate requiring us to respond to a lot of change, we chose the theme of Transcend to capture the spirit of rising above the typical tradeoffs we find in our product and team.
You get the picture: the point is to pick a theme that reminds folks that onsites are about stepping back from the daily grind and give a name to the most important context for the team’s situation.
The theme is introduced in the invite to the onsite (like a wedding invitation). Here are some banners & framing text in the invite to previous onsites we’ve done:
Individual agenda owners are asked to find a clever way to reference the theme. I also find it fun to create a PowerPoint deck template aligned to it (e.g. the section header slides for Sunrise were all around the sun during different seasons of the year) and we’ve even created Spotify playlists aligned to the theme to play during breaks.
Measure How You Made People Feel
The post-event survey is where the mental shift to employee development as the goal takes shape. This drives intentionality around how I want the team to feel when the day is done.
Here are the top questions I use on the post-event survey and of course I take this impending grade into account as we plan out topics:
1-5 Star Rating
Agree/Disagree: “The offsite was worth my time”
Agree/Disagree: “I feel more in the know about what's going on around the team”
Agree/Disagree: “I feel more energized about my job"
Agree/Disagree: “I feel like I can now prepare for what's coming”
Agree/Disagree: “I feel like I got to know people on the team better”
Agree/Disagree: “After today, I'm more convinced that my workplace is a safe & inclusive place where I can do my best work”
“What was your favorite part of the onsite and why?”
“If you have a shout out to a particular speaker, leave that here”
“Next time we have an onsite, I suggest that we…”
Brutal Agenda Simplicity: Why, What, How
The frothy mix of connection, mission, context, culture, and strategy can be tough to create a crisp agenda around. I don’t want people to feel like the day lacks cohesion. We’ve homed in over the years on a simple frame for the agenda that focused the day on three parts:
Why: Focused on our mission, customers, and how we as humans are motivated to do great work.
Example agenda topics: Motivating customer stories, leadership AMAs, geeking out on the latest workplace research on what motivates humans
What: Focused on celebrating successes, learning what the rest of the team is doing, and what our next objectives should be.
Example agenda topics: Celebrating past successes, stories around big learning moments, a look ahead to upcoming events and milestones
How: Focused on our culture, process, and diversity & inclusion.
Example agenda topics: Brainstorming on how to improve product craft, retro on why we aren’t moving fast enough, D&I programming
This ordering is intentional: “Leaders start with Why,” after all. And brainstorming around How is richer when everyone has a greater understanding of our objectives.
1-2 agenda topics per question is appropriate for a 1 day onsite.
Tell Stories and Retros
One of the problems with onsites is that often speakers feel the need to get into hardcore information dissemination mode. Nothing sucks the energy from an onsite more than a 20-minute recap of the latest Objectives and Key Results.
I create a counterweight to that inform-first mindset and it’s one steeped in my experience as the sponsor for years of Lunch & Learns within our team: stories are more powerful than charts & tables & bullets. I ask speakers to think about specific events with a cast of heroes, problems to overcome, surprising setbacks, and an exciting climax.
In short, onsites should go for a sitting-around-the-campfire feel:
Here are a few ways we’ve done this over the years:
Have each team tell a story of their biggest learning
Share stories of transformation and renewal from the past six months.
Choose agenda topics focused around sharing personal stories and learning moments
Tell the origin story of a particular business line or product
Move Beyond Icebreakers with D&I Activities
There are many reasons to focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at onsites - it’s a great reminder to ensure all voices are heard and DEI-fluency is an important skill to teach the team. In addition, they can be powerful ways of fostering team connections and ensuring a deeper sense of belonging on the team.
Many D&I activities are actually icebreakers-with-meaning. Here are a few of my favorite:
Privilege survey. The mechanic asks folks to examine and discuss the privileges they’ve had in their life. It starts with a private ranking of privilege using for instance this Better Allies 50 forms of privilege. It’s a creative way of getting people to discuss where they’ve come from as larger D&I concepts are explored.
Sort your values. The mechanic has people choose their top five values that are important to them by sifting through a 50-card deck of values (Autonomy, Purpose, Justice are example values).
Glad It Didn’t Happen. The mechanic is that each person shares something they are glad didn’t work out in their life. It’s a meaningful way of learning about the tradeoffs coworkers have made in their lives and the path each of us takes to find a sense of belonging.
Life in Thirds: The mechanics asks each participant to divide their life into three parts and write short bullets about important moments in each of the three chapters. As you share out, spend equal amount of time on each chapter.
Value Snapshot: Everyone creates one slide with pictures of things that have meaning and value to them. Photos, meaningful books, graphics of important hobbies - anything is fair game.
The crucial point here is to engage the team to share meaningful lived experiences and then layer in key diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging concepts while steeped in learning about each other’s lives.
It’s more powerful than any typical icebreaker and more memorable than context-less explanation of a D&I concept.
Don’t Skimp: Celebrate milestones. Frame the Future.
Over the years, we always get close to overprogramming the day and need to cut back on the agenda items. I've found that the popular things to cut are celebrating our recent milestones (excuse: didn’t we already send the victory mail on that? or what if I miss something?) and the look ahead of what’s coming soon (excuse: oh, didn’t we cover that in planning report outs?).
Both are critical and it’s a mistake not to fit them into the agenda - people will feel like the day is too fluffy unless you really give them these left-to-right views.
There are mechanics we’ve tried that can enable you to fit these in even when the day seems full already:
Consider celebrating milestones as rotating banners during breaks and on the slides between agenda topics.
Consider mechanics where team members can recognize great work in async chats or in a Cheers for Peers board on the wall.
Consider a single slide that lists out the major events and milestones for the next 3-6 months. Even if you don’t have time to cover it in detail, it’ll be a resource to enable people to plan their lives around the rhythms of the team.
Here’s one PowerPoint template I’ve used over the years to frame a season for a team:
Vary the Interaction Format
Now we get into the mechanics more so than the content. The biggest challenge of an onsite is keeping people engaged for a 7 to 8 hour stretch. The key to doing this is to vary the format of each agenda topic - the variety breaks up the day. While the search space initially seems large, the fact is there are only a few typical mechanics for onsite agenda topics - and I try to have one of each:
TED-like presentation: Single speaker with an engaging topic.
Small group break outs: A owner frames a problem and asks for discussion among table groups.
Big group discussions: A facilitator frames a problem and asks for a large group discussion.
Structured activities with report backs: A facilitator frames a problem, asks smaller groups to work it, and then facilitates a large group report back.
Leadership AMAs & outside in perspectives: A guest is invited to share top of mind thoughts and answer questions.
Round robin stories from across the team: A facilitator frames a problem and asks a leader from each team within the org to share a story or lesson about it.
Private activities: Each person spends time privately creating a slide or sticky notes on a topic. Where appropriate, people can share in small or large groups.
Each of these formats has pros and cons - but the key is to choose many of them throughout the day.
Be Intentional About Hybrid Participation
Sometimes team members can’t fly in or sometimes we invite partner teams and disciplines that didn’t prioritize the travel budget.
It’s been hard for us to balance the energy and connection inspired by in person face time with a duty to still ensure remote participants feel included.
While there is no perfect solution for this, a few things can help:
We state our hybrid intentions at the start of the day. We recognize the goal of including remote participants as we kick off the day.
We create an opening for people to give real-time feedback on the remote experience. I use the phrase “See something, say something” at the beginning of the onsite to ask for the interruptions in real time if a camera fails or microphones stop working.
We project a shared chat. We always project a shared onsite chat in the room and encourage in person attendees to use it as well as remote folks.
We nominate a remote champion. We choose someone who feels accountable for validating the remote experience is working well and who we can lean on to suggest improvements during the day.
We try to have a least one remote presenter. This ensures someone remote is on the planning committee for the onsite, which is a useful voice to have.
We check in with remote folks several times an hour. We ask presenters to validate microphones are working and screens are shared in the right way. This serves to remind in person attendees about remote participants as well.
Onsite days can be long, especially for remote participants. We try to create the time and space to make connections ad hoc - a morning and afternoon break and an extended lunch if we can. What’s more, I plan to end earlier than the time I publish - so if I tell people the onsite will end at 4PM, I secretly plan the day to end at 3:30PM. Yes, it’s a bit of a hack, but the anchor point is a way of managing the energy level.
In the worst case, we have buffer for agenda topics that run long but in the best case, you give people the gift of extra time for ad hoc connection at the end of the day.
I’ve always felt a deep responsibility and accountability for these onsites on two dimensions.
First, I want to show respect for people’s time - that’s why I go the extra mile to choose a theme, define goals, and think about the little things that make people feel special and taken care of for the day.
Second, and even more important, these onsites are a mirror to reflect how clear my vision is for what it’s like to excel on the team. It’s a chance to crystallize what’s important and what we stand for. I care deeply about a customer-driven culture, a sense of belonging, a strong mission and purpose, and a culture that celebrates the past but sets ever-higher expectations for the future. Too many of my days I barely get to make one of these points to the team - but onsite days are a chance to make all of them in one pre-programmed way. I try not to waste the chance.