We’re a fully remote team at Buffer, so we’re used to connecting with one another via video, chat, and other collaborative tools.

Working this way is a lot of fun—and it means the times we get to spend together, all in the same place, are extra special.

The Buffer team just finished up our 6th retreat in Reykjavik, Iceland—an amazing experience (you can see tons of photos here).

Not only did the retreat give us a full week to work (and play) together as a team, it also gave us some time all together to reflect on the future of retreats as we continue to grow rapidly. (We have 10+ open roles right now!)

Over the course of the last 3 years, the team has been to:

  • Lake Tahoe, California
  • Thailand
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • New York, New York
  • Sydney, Australia
  • Reykjavik, Iceland

In a way, every retreat is a new chapter in the Buffer story.

In this post, we’ll share some of the details behind each retreat up to this point, as well as how the retreat has evolved and where we think it could be going in the future.

Retreat #1: Lake Tahoe, California

August, 2013

tahoe team retreat

Team members: 8

The first official Buffer retreat took place in San Francisco, with a bit of time in Lake Tahoe. It was strongly focused on team bonding and activities, with a bit less emphasis on working together.

At that time, the team had made the decision to have retreats every 4 months and bring the whole team to one awesome destination in the world.

Retreat #2: Bangkok, Thailand

November, 2013

Buffer retreat Thailand

Team members: 11

Members of Buffer’s distributed team came from as far as the UK, Australia and different parts of the US to be together for a week in Thailand in November 2013, where they worked from a hotel in Bangkok and a villa in Pattaya City.

This retreat was much more work-oriented—in fact, the bulk of Buffer for Business was created during this week. (It also happened a month before the team made transparent all salaries.)

Thailand also laid out the general foundation of Buffer retreats to follow: A core week of work together mixed in with some fun bonding activities like team dinner and fun excursions.

Retreat #3: Cape Town, South Africa

April, 2014

team photo Cape Town

Team members: 16

In the first week of April 2014, most of the Buffer team gathered in Cape Town. This was a chance for many new team members to meet for the first time, and for others to be reunited again for a week.

We lived and worked together in three villas in the beautiful Camps Bay area, and during the weekend we went on safari together.

In Cape Town, a new tradition was born: Joel and Leo relayed the story of Buffer (so far) to the full team. Now every retreat includes a get-together for all new team members to share Buffer’s past.

Additionally, the team made the decision in Cape Town to switch the retreat to every 5 months, with dates that would vary in order to accommodate more schedules with flexibility.

Retreat #4: New York, New York

September, 2014

New York retreat

Team members: 25

By Retreat #4 in New York City, Buffer had grown in team size as well as expanded its work philosophies. Many of us had read The Decision Maker and Buffer was beginning to experiment with self-management.

This retreat was the first one to move the team from working in houses or hotels to working in a co-working space together, creating lots of new opportunities for projects with diverse groups across the team.

In New York we also returned to a Buffer tradition that got its start at Retreat #1: personal stories. In this exercise, small groups get together to listen to each individual tell their personal story—all the important elements that got them to where they are today. I’d love to write more about these in a future post, they’re really powerful!

Retreat #5: Sydney, Australia

February, 2015

team pic Sydney

Team members: 26

Retreat #5 in Sydney marked the dawn of self-management at Buffer. The retreat was self-organized, from destination to planning to the actual event.

As such, this was a bit of a different retreat. It was planned “un-conference style” in an homage to the barcamp tech conference. The agenda was wide open for any team member to plan and present a session of their choosing, and team members heard talks on everything from working while traveling to CSS and HTML.

In keeping with our pledge towards transparency, we followed up this retreat with an in-depth report on what we spent and how we spent it.

Retreat #6: Reykjavik, Iceland

July, 2015

iceland team retreat

Team members: 31

Retreat #6 in Reykjavik wasn’t different just in that it was our first cold-weather destination—it was also the first retreat that Buffer opened up to spouses, partners and families by helping to cover some of the travel and housing costs.

Some of the changes we made included:

Flexible housing: Giving each teammate a choice on where they wish to stay. Solo travelers can have Buffer book their stay at a hotel, and families might choose an allowance to put toward an Airbnb house or other type accommodation.

Family boost: Offering a financial boost to help those who want to invite partners and dependents to the retreat. The boost dollar amount is 50% total accommodation costs for a retreat, to be spent however the teammate would like towards the retreat (flights, accommodation, activities…)

Having significant others (and significant brothers!) created a really cool atmosphere that felt so in line with our mission of bringing our “whole selves” to work. New friends also created more informal activities, from game nights and adventurous outings, that gave various small groups a chance to form and spend time together throughout the course of the week.

Here’s a video recap of the week:

What we’ve changed over time

Many things have stayed the same about the retreats over time—it’s always a 9-day trip in which Buffer covers all the expenses—flights, accommodation, meals and fun activities.

We generally spend the core week, Monday through Friday, working together on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ish) schedule and enjoy some fun events during the weekend (and sometimes during the week).

But a few things have changed quite a lot as we’ve evolved and grown:

  • Amount of work and play: This can vary on each retreat and often depends on our current philosophies and projects
  • Inclusiveness and diversity: We’ve made progress on making sure there are fun activities on retreats for all types of team members, including those with different types of abilities and interests
  • How they’re planned: We’ve moved from a top-down hierarchy to a flat, leaderless structure and then somewhat back again, and each change affected the way retreats are planned and enacted. Some retreats have been very “planned” while others much looser in format.

The future of retreats

By our next retreat, Buffer may have doubled in size. In the future, how and where we get together could look very different, especially if our team grows to 100 members or beyond.

In Reykjavik, we had a roundtable discussion about the future of retreats. We agreed that they’re a hugely valuable element of our journey in that they allow us to spend time together, see how each individual lives out the Buffer culture in his and her own way, and experience the world together.

But there are challenges of the retreats, too. They take quite a lot of time and energy to plan for the teammates that choose to be involved there, and they often don’t feel the best for our customers when our schedules keep us from getting back to them as soon as we normally would.

Additionally, for families with children they can create a financial and logistical strain. They’re potentially challenging for people with physical handicaps, or those afraid of flying.

Here are some of the potential changes we’ve discussed recently around retreats:

  • Frequency: We’ve discussed changing the retreat schedule from every 5 months to every 7 months as we grow and it becomes more challenging to accomodate our whole team in one place.
  • Families: Future Buffer retreats could include whole families, including children, and would likely change quite a bit as a result.
  • Retreat variations: Buffer could also add mini-retreats and work meetups among those who work close together geographically or in the same areas on the team.

We’re excited to experiment and see how retreats grow and develop over the years. Meanwhile, you can take a look at the evolution of the Buffer retreat in photos over on our Facebook page.

If you’re part of a remote team or have ever take part in or planned a company retreat, we’d love to hear from you and get your advice! Share your thoughts and questions in the comments.

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • It’s so cool to see how the retreats have changed over time. It certainly will be a challenge to figure out as the team continues to grow also. But I know everyone at Buffer is up to that challenge.

    I worked remotely for almost 7 years. Our team would meet up every couple months at various conferences and add extra time to spend time together working on projects and having fun. Often that time together is when big ideas came and we were able to make big jumps forward in the development of our products.

    When we didn’t have regular conferences to serve as reasons to get together, we would travel to spend time together to work and have fun when things felt right. Sometimes that would be my boss’ place in San Fran/Oregon. Other times it would be somewhere else.

    Having some time to be with each other in person had a hugely positive effect on how we worked together when we were apart. While wonderful relationships can be created and grown just in the virtual world (I knew my boss at this job through online interaction only for several years before ever meeting in person), it seems the other relationships formed in person can build bonds in slightly different ways. Building bonds through both virtual and real-world interactions seems to give the best of both. I really cherished that time together in-person and felt far closer to everyone when I got back to my digital land.

    Thanks for sharing the amazing time the Buffer team had on the most recent retreat. It was great to see the entire group together and all of the amazing opportunities you get to enjoy.

  • Hey Courtney! Thanks for sharing all these! What I love most is that the team includes significant partners (and brothers) during the retreats; not just having them there physically but also making them feel like part of the team (as seen from P-A’s post) :)

  • I really enjoyed reading the evolution of buffer retreats! I’d been wondering for some time how you manage to maintain the excellent customer support and community engagement while focusing on building your team during the retreat! It sure didn’t feel like you guys were less responsive or available/present for your customers :) Looking forward to reading more about the buffer team!

  • Whoa, what a great summary of Buffer retreats. Thanks a lot for sharing that Courtney. Great you’ve invited family members in the last one and I can only imagine how hard it’ll be to prepare a retreat for 100 members. Looking forward for your next retreat :) What are your current ideas for the place it’ll take?

  • Andy Edwards

    This is really cool to read about! I have worked remotely and done some U.S. trips to meet up with the team but the focus was always on a specific trade show or event with team bonding/community as a secondary benefit. I love how you guys put this as a top priority and help it drive your culture!

  • Johnny Estep

    us at http://www.funnelyourbusiness.com like what you got going, and we hope to be able to get involved with your outstanding work you do. We want to do all we can to help every company, person, and industry become bigger and better.

  • Matthew Day

    This was such a great read, Courtney! It is really exciting to see how a company can work together to make both employees and customers happy; far too often is employee happiness overlooked today. All these retreats look like a great opportunity for teamwork and collaboration. I found it fascinating to read how the retreats have changed from what they started as and noticing how each one seemed to have its own unique focus compared to the rest.

  • Teresa wolf

    Quick question; do the recent issues regarding terrorism around the globe affect any Buffer team members? Also, do these tragic events deter the team from traveling to certain area’s?

  • Greg Mercer

    Hey Courtney! Thanks for sharing this! I am on the brink of planning my third company retreat albeit a bit smaller than the buffer retreats (we are a team of 14) but I am curious how far in advance you start looking for housing and where you find your housing? Are there any services you guys love using? Would love to hear your thoughts :)

  • Strong recommendation for your next retreat location: SRI LANKA! It’s one of the few paradise islands left on this planet. Couldn’t help noticing that you already have one Sri Lankan in the team. Nice!

    Get in touch with me and we’ll take the planning and organizing burden off of your shoulders so you can focus on bonding and results!

    Love,

    Tomi
    http://www.bb.lk

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/053883a8d9ad22c51c14155da6e666c4c91c47241ab785cffdc8f3ab704bc1f8.jpg

  • Tino Studenčan

    Insightful post, thanks for sharing Courtney.

    I would love to use this opportunity to invite Buffer and other teams to the Wolfhouse – Coliving house for teams, we have just recently opened in sunny island of Tenerife. For more info: http://www.TheWolf.house and email me at martin@thewolf.house. Happy to make a Skype preview of the Wolfhouse anytime. :) Thanks.