How We Ran Our Best Virtual Offsite With 110 People
January 13, 2021

How We Ran Our Best Virtual Offsite With 110 People

by Brian de Haaff

Punta Mita. Key Largo. Lake Tahoe. These are a few of the places our company has been fortunate to call home — at least for a week. Every six months, our remote team travels to a beautiful destination to reflect on our achievements, plan for the future, and enjoy spending time together. But the pandemic presented a seemingly insurmountable problem. How could we facilitate team connections when none of us could safely meet face to face for well over a year?

Team connection is essential, but it becomes much more challenging to find ways to be together when everyone must be apart.

Aha!s are goal-first and high-performing. We are privileged to be able to help more than 5,000 companies create strategic plans and deliver breakthrough products. But in order for our team members to continue to achieve their best, each person needs to deeply understand company strategy and their role in achieving it. And we all need to be able to challenge each other's ideas and push for exceptional results.

So for the June 2020 onsite, we focused on what we thought were the essentials — strategy presentations, functional team meetings, and volunteer activities. But this streamlined approach did not capture the energy of a regular onsite. Folks told us they missed the feeling of closeness and camaraderie. The feedback was consistent. "I think direction is clear for the upcoming six months and the look back at the past six months was good," shared Bill Chaney, who is one of our engineering leads. "But I missed spending time with people and getting to know new hires."

Positive relationships are part of what enables us to do great work every day — but bonding does not happen without purposeful attention.

This is why we changed our approach for our December 2020 offsite. Our goal was to create space for people to forge meaningful connections in a compressed time frame. Above all, we wanted to ensure that the team felt committed to our company, connected to each other, and valued as a whole.

To accomplish this, we thought deeply about how to recreate the magic of our time together in person. We chose the theme "100 percent Aha!" — completely united despite being apart. Our People Success team put enormous effort and thought into making the agenda impactful. The week was full of learning, bonding, and fun. And our team experienced a renewed sense of purpose and excitement about our work.

Here is how we did it and your company can too:

Be intentional

Goals help you focus on what matters most. We set bonding between individuals, connection to the broader company, and service to others as our key pillars. This helped us decide which onsite traditions to continue — such as our rookie reception, volunteering, and book club discussion — and how to make them a fulfilling experience virtually.

Customer Success Specialist Rommy Shehadeh donates supplies to a food pantry in Orlando, Florida.

Include everyone

It takes time and mental energy to get to know someone. But our team of more than 110 people works across nine time zones, from Hawaii to New Zealand. So we canceled standing internal meetings and built a schedule that allowed each person to participate in a few all-company sessions — no matter their location. We also chose activity options to appeal to a wide range of interests, from morning workouts and painting classes to chocolate and cheese tastings.

Principal software engineer Jeremy Wells took part in a group painting class.

Create new memories

A strong culture relies on shared experiences. We wanted to give people the opportunity to form fresh memories that would sustain them over the next six months. (This is especially important for recent hires, most of whom have yet to meet their teammates in person.) So we introduced novel events such as a company-wide competition and evening magic shows. These activities gave us a shared vocabulary and made our time together that much more memorable.

A group of Aha! detectives celebrate cracking the case as part of a virtual game.

Cultivate spontaneity

One of the most special aspects of an onsite is random encounters — running into someone in the hall or sitting with someone new at lunch. This feeling of spontaneity was one of the most difficult things to recreate virtually. But we managed to replicate it by hosting a series of organic, drop-in discussions. Folks could chat freely and ask questions about the different presentations they had just seen. We also assembled random coffee/tea groups so teammates could talk with people they might not otherwise interact with.

A group of Aha!s share lively conversation as part of a "random" coffee/tea meetup.

Share the experience

How do you feel together while apart? Seeing is believing. We encouraged everyone to show their faces on camera during meetings, and people shared group screenshots and selfies of themselves participating in the various activities. We closed the offsite with a slideshow of images and videos to celebrate our time together throughout the week.

We all learned that it is possible to create a virtual experience that people will love and remember for years to come.

When it was over, we sent out a lovability survey to see what people thought. The team scored the week 9.31 out of 10. And some of the comments were quite touching. "So many lovely memories. It was great to have a change of pace from regular work and I feel energized in the same way I do after onsites," said Claire George, who leads our product marketing team. "It was a perfect way to end the year together."

The relationships you share with your coworkers is significant. You likely spend more time with them each day than anyone else. When everyone is aligned around a shared goal and a plan for how to get there, you can all accomplish your best work. And building (and deepening) connections with teammates makes work joyful too.

How do you foster connection when you are apart from teammates?

Our team is happy, productive, and hiring — join us!

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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