Can virtual team building really work?

Getting better at leading online meetings. Key lessons from 350.org’s Communications department online retreat.

By Débora Gastal

With the urgency to avert climate crisis and the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s never been a greater need for ways to meet people and collaborate effectively online. For 10 years and counting, 350.org staff have worked together remotely online, now in more than 30 countries!

Even having this vast experience with remote work, one thing we’ve learned is how crucial and valuable in-person retreats are for building trust, empathy and alignment across a remote team. Human contact is vital to our work and life. But the question that always remains is: is it possible to reproduce what happens in face-to-face events in online meetings? How can we create online spaces for in-depth conversations and relationships?

We decided to try it out in our Communications department, with our team of 24 staff working from 13 countries. There are obvious financial and carbon-saving advantages to not meeting in person, and we also learned some valuable lessons that may help other organisations and movements, who may suddenly be facing an urgent need for effective online meetings and retreats.

Engage your team in every step of the process

One of the first steps in planning the online retreat was to create a working group. Members of the working group met regularly in a collective brainstorming space, which brought a diversity of views for drafting our agenda. We, the working group, established clear goals: strategic discussions and trust-building were some of our top priorities. We know that being efficient as a team also requires working well together. This becomes even more important as we work remotely and come from a range of different cultures, since we communicate in our day-to-day via text, which can be easily misinterpreted or misconstrued.

So right from the beginning, we were very clear that we wanted the rich diversity of our team to show up, we wanted to hear beyond the usual voices, we wanted to increase everyone’s participation and engagement. This was central to our session planning and design: for example, the agenda for the retreat was defined based on staff input and we consulted the whole team for main logistical decisions (i.e. format, timing).

Above all, we distributed facilitation between every single member of the team for all the different sessions. This brought a sense of shared leadership and engaged people more in the meetings. Each day we heard different voices, with different accents and different personalities and styles. This probably also helped to break the monotony and catch peoples’ attention more.

To cope with the fact that not everyone may feel confident or comfortable with facilitating, we created facilitation small groups of 3 or 4 people, and encouraged them to share the tasks amongst themselves: preparing slides and materials, note-taking, holding the space and whatever else was needed. We also made sure each small group included one team members from the overall retreat working group, so we could keep alignment with the overall agenda and avoid repetition of session formats.

This is 350.org’s Communications Team at their online retreat this year!

The one thing we centralized was logistics: it’s nearly impossible to take care of facilitation and coordinating the technical aspects of an online meeting at the same time (eg. creating breakout groups in Zoom, recording the sessions, creating live polls of participants), so we asked one colleague to lead on this throughout the week. We also created a logistics guide version of the agenda, which clearly stated who was facilitating each session, which slides they were using, how much time was needed, etc — this was super helpful to keep everyone well informed and on the same page. It was our roadmap!

Mimic an in-person retreat as much as possible

One of the main aspects of a retreat is pausing daily work activities so that a team can be together and focus on the objectives of the meeting. Everyone was asked to be online only during meeting hours and to alert all of their other colleagues that they would not be able to perform regular work during this time. To replicate an in-person retreat, we decided as a team to have an intensive 4 day online retreat in one week, rather than spreading it out across several weeks.

Given how spread out our team is, we cover timezones from Fiji to Toronto, choosing our timings was a huge challenge. However, it was key to honour our commitment to be as inclusive as possible. To try to minimize the impacts of being online at unusual times, we encouraged all team members to deprioritize other work for that week and to close our online communications platforms (i.e. Slack and email), so they could focus fully on the meetings and rest otherwise.

The definition of the best amount of time for our online team retreat was key, knowing that the time people manage to be attentive in front of the computer screen decreases over time. So we planned similarly to an usual face-to-face event, but adapted in relation to the number of hours. We made one 30 minutes break, which was crucial not only for keeping energy up, but for people in different times being able to eat snacks, lunch or dinner.

As with in-person meetings, we made a small budget available for snacks and we created informal online rooms for the breaks, so that people could have a coffee or relax together by someone’s window, having informal conversations freely. These moments are so valuable in in-person spaces, right? It’s usually when you get to find out someone’s hobbies, to talk about that side project, to discover you like the same food… in one of the spaces I joined, we laughed with a colleague who was telling how they made cookies to try to please the neighbours after a party they had thrown — unsuccessfully.

Balance between team building and strategic discussion

Getting clarity on work priorities is generally one of the main goals of team retreats, and definitely one we were pursuing dearly. But even if we wanted to be objective, getting everyone comfortable with each other was very important. These goals don’t need to be dissociated and it will actually come in handy for having meaningful conversations.

Throughout the retreat, we dedicated at least half of our time together to have fun, know each other more and discuss our team culture. And this proved to be quite welcome, as we spend so little time with each other in our day to day work routine.

This is me, by my colleague Aleksei!

We played a treasure hunt for some key facts about our organization and main materials we use in our day to day work. We interviewed and drew each other in pairs, having the larger group to guess the identity of our partner. We played a bingo on our Theory of Change, creating a mind cloud of the most common words we associate to it. And we played an online game about climate change all together.

Some of these fun activities also prepared the ground for the strategic and more in-depth conversations we had, as an introduction to some of the main topics on the table. And were also useful for helping to keep attention and energy up during the more serious moments.

Even for the more formal sessions, don’t go for the obvious .ppt presentation all the time. It might be difficult to imagine how to use the usual design tactics if we are not in person, but the truth is that there are so many options online these days! It’s very important to diversify the design of your sessions so people don’t get bored.

For inspiration, check out some of the very cool resources our Trainings team suggested! And this is a brand new book about leading online events:

Prepare well but leave space for the unknown

You can only implement a plan B, if you have a plan A. Careful planning demands a lot of time and it’s essential for the success of your retreat. The sessions in the days and in the overall retreat should feel like a story or a trip all together from one place to another: you do need to have a map in hand.

We had 4 versions of our agenda before we were satisfied, and spent almost one month fleshing it out in our weekly meetings. This included coming back to the survey results, brainstorming in the working group, reading training materials, getting coaching from our Trainings team and, well, trying to think outside of the box!

As we were splitting facilitation within the whole team, it was crucial to have a well structured agenda that included clear goals and suggested session formats to help those with less facilitation experience, to ensure alignment of goals and the diversity of designs. We also shared an outline of the whole agenda with everyone, so they could see their sessions in context.

The facilitation small groups had freedom to change the formats we proposed as long as they stuck to the goals. The members of the main working group, on each facilitation small group, were responsible for ensuring everyone was on the same page. We were also very intentional about creating facilitation small groups that contained a range of people according to a variety of factors (i.e. area of expertise, role, time in the organization, gender, place where they are based), to foster integration and get the best of our juicy diversity.

One of the sessions that got lots of positive feedback was one in which we explored intersectionality connected to our own identities and to how that influences our work. The facilitators proposed to add a space for small breakout groups to discuss, and the result was amazing — nobody wanted to stop talking! We did a quick survey for defining what to do and collectively decided to go overtime to be able to stay longer on that conversation.

A tip I would give is to check the temperature by the end of each day and evaluate how the meeting is going: how is everyone feeling? Are there any big topics emerging? Do we need to go deeper in anything? Be prepared to change the plans if needed.

Ask for help

I’ll be honest. I had never organized a retreat before, in person or online. And I was a bit skeptical at first: can online retreats really work? Am I the best person to lead this project?

Well, I didn’t do this alone. It was the collective ownership of our meeting that made it great! I am a journalist and translator, and in 350.org I am the head of our Translations team. I was very conscious that there was quite a lot of learning for me to do in this area and I didn’t hesitate to ask for support. We had a wonderful working group to define the agenda and prepare the logistics, and the coaching of our Trainings team was crucial in giving us guidance during the whole process.

Collaboration is key for mostly everything we do, and it’s not different for organizing online gatherings. After all, each retreat is a different meeting, with different goals and needs — and, of course, different humans joining it. It is not rocket science, and probably the best tip is: ask for help, listen to your team, go on and experiment!

Bonus track: quick list of nice things we experimented

  1. Encourage people to deprioritize other work, if possible: joining online calls is demanding and requires focus
  2. Play lots of games! It’s fun, we get to know each other more and learn to cooperate better
  3. Try linking the energizers to the activities of the day. This makes work lighter, and gives one more meaning to your ice breakers
  4. Create informal interaction spaces. This is the hardest thing about being online: you cannot just have a coffee with someone. We planned some Zoom rooms for the breaks so people could drop by to chat
  5. Make space for non-verbal expression. Communicating online is so much about what you say, verbally or writing… Draw, paint, connect beyond words!
  6. Allow yourselves to be silly. In front of the cameras we are so professional all the time! We can practice yoga, dance or listen to some good music together for a little bit, can’t we?

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350.org

350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.