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Mini-Retreats For Remote Teams: A Way To Meet Up More Often

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If you’ve been following Buffer’s journey or this blog for a little while, you know how much we love working as a distributed team, while we also cherish the times we get to meet up in person.

Since the early days at Buffer, retreats have been a core part of our culture and a part of why we’re able to keep working remotely as a company of over 70 people. In their current state, retreats at Buffer happen once a year. We set aside a budget to fly everyone on the Buffer team to one location and we spend the week connecting as a team.

In the past, retreats used to happen more often (every six months at one point!) but that wasn’t sustainable financially for us. Although we’ve moved to an annual retreat for the whole company, last year we started experimenting with a way that individuals areas at Buffer could meet up in between retreats to continue bonding and tackling specific projects. That’s how mini-retreats started.

Mini-retreats have been successful for the Buffer team so far and we’re just now starting to plan mini-retreats for this year. In this post, we’ll go into more detail on what a mini-retreat is, how our teams spend the time they have, and exactly how much we budget for them.

mini retreats for remote teams by buffer

What Mini-Retreats Are at Buffer

Mini-retreats are a one week period of time where a specific area (ie. Marketing, Mobile, Data, People, etc.) can come together in the same place to spend a week focused on high-level vision, strategy, and goal-setting for their area.

Each area chooses their own objectives for their mini-retreat. For example, maybe one area will spend the time on a “hackathon” style mini-retreat focused specifically on one product or feature. Or another area might gather for a conference or outside event that their area will benefit from and then add some work sessions before or after the event.

Any use of this time together that results in meaningful collaboration that can have a lasting impact is well in line with Buffer’s vision for mini-retreats.

Mini-retreats are not mandatory for all areas or individuals, though most areas do take advantage of the opportunity.

While casual meet-ups and coworking time are highly beneficial for team bonding, we try and keep the agenda for mini-retreats focused and strategic. This sets mini-retreats apart from the larger company retreat.

The Data Team in Encinitas, California

The Logistics of Mini-Retreats

Every area is different and might use its allocated budget in a different way. Each area is fully empowered to manage its budget in the way that feels most effective. (More on the exact budget in the next section. 🙂 )

Here are a few guidelines and best practices we’ve learned from our mini-retreats.

Timeframe

Mini-retreats generally last one week. We also recommend that they happen in late Q3 or Q4 if that’s possible. We’ve learned that putting some distance between the full-team retreat and mini-retreats tends to produce the best results. Ideally, by maximizing the timing of full-team retreat and mini-retreat, areas can achieve a cadence of meeting approximately every 6 months. This won’t always be possible, but it’s a goal we keep in mind!

Preparation

Plan early and share objectives ahead of time. We know our team will get the most for their budget and time if they plan well in advance (three months is generally a good guideline). We ask questions like: What do you want to accomplish together? How will you know whether the mini-retreat was a success?

Prepare an agenda in advance. It’s totally fine if things change when you’re “on the ground.” But it’s more inclusive to all personality types to give folks a chance to plan and think in advance on the topics your area plans to cover.

Point person

For ease of planning, each mini-retreat should have a clear owner who manages the mini-retreat budget, acts as the liaison with the Admin team, and ultimately makes the final call about whether to accept or reject certain expenses. This doesn’t have to be a lead; anyone can be a mini-retreat planner!

Location

We prioritize togetherness over the location. We don’t want to limit our team’s imagination or budgeting skills, so this is simply a suggestion to remember that the goal of the mini-retreat is meaningful time spent together as a team, not seeing an exotic destination.

What about some of the teams where we couldn’t quite get everyone in one place? We had one team last year experiment with doing their entire mini-retreat via Zoom for a week and it was a major success!

Partners

We recommend attending solo, without significant others. Unlike the full team retreat, mini-retreats are intended to be small and focused, so traveling solo will give teammates the most freedom to plan appropriately for the limited budget (for example, sharing an Airbnb house) and focus more tightly on team goals.

Mini-retreats are optional

Teammates can opt out if they find these trips to be a burden for any reason. If a teammate shares a hardship around being present at the mini-retreat, we consider going to their city or making an effort to loop them into key chats via Zoom.

The Publish team in Pemberton, British Columbia.

How Much We Budget For Mini-Retreats

We set aside a budget of $1,400 USD per person for mini-retreats. This includes travel, groceries, and lodging.

This year the amount we budgeted is a slight increase from last year as we received feedback that it wasn’t quite enough. We want to be inclusive here and work within the allotted budgets. We do not invite or suggest to teammates that they pay for anything out of pocket that won’t be quickly reimbursable.

We pool the budgeted amount per areas to determine the overall budget for that area’s mini-retreat. For example, a 5-person team will have an overall budget of $7,000. That means the $1,400 isn’t always exclusively for one person. The marketing team last year had a mini-retreat in Colorado, where two of our teammates already reside. This made it easier to budget for airfare for teammates who are further away (like in Singapore or Australia) so that the whole team could be together.

The Marketing Team in Denver, Colorado

Over to you

Does your team do anything like mini-retreats? What would you do on a mini-retreat?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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