For the last 3 years, the QLC team has wobbled between being a fully and partially remote team. We are currently spread across 5 different cities in 3 time zones, so we are used to connecting with each other at odd times of the day using chat and video.
While there are many reasons we love working this way, it also means we are extra excited when we get to see each other in the same place, at the same time.
Inspired by Buffer in early 2016, we have since actively organised team retreats in different cities twice a year. The two main reasons:
We are a culture-first company. Despite being a remote team, we recognise the benefits in person time still offers.
We prioritise team development. We are a global company with a portfolio of customers and partners from all over the world. We prioritise having a global first mindset, understanding different cultures, with a passion for constant learning and exploration.
I’ve been asked many times about what actually happens on QLC team trips - it’s not the easiest thing to explain to your investors and clients, or sometimes even your family and friends! In this part of the world (I’m currently based in Shanghai), most people associate team retreats as a luxury afforded to the lucky employees of billion dollar conglomerates, definitely not with a startup! In reality, the budget we currently allocate to our team trips is still less than what we would have spent on office space.
Each QLC team retreat has had a unique agenda, depending on the main priorities of the company at the time. Experimentation has always been part of our mantra, so we’ve tested multiple facets of the team retreat to see how we can always offer a better experience for everyone on the team.
In this post, I’ll share some key details about each team trip, what we learned, and why it mattered for us as a culture-first company.
Retreat #1: The accidental team trip to Taipei
Will working from Appworks Accelerator, Taipei after meeting some cool hardware startups.
This trip was unplanned. My co-founder Will and I hit a few visa problems staying in Singapore and needed to exit the country for a few months. Being an extremely tiny team, we were worried about Eddy’s (employee number 1) motivation levels suffering - so we decided to bring him with us!
Having a shoestring budget at the time meant we weren’t able to do any team bonding activities. Instead, we used the opportunity to explore the Taipei startup ecosystem, worked out of cafes, and ate a lot of street food together.
I often get asked by other founders how to find good early hires who can weather through startup highs and lows. For us, this grew out of experiences like the accidental trip to Taipei where despite immigration hiccups, we focused on building QLC with the resources we had at hand. We secured our second and third university partners over Skype during this trip and made the decision to pivot our growth focus to universities.
Retreat #2: Much needed R&R in Penang, Malaysia
Coffee and chitchat inside the hipster shophouses of Georgetown, Penang.
In early 2016, the entire QLC team was back in Singapore. I spotted an amazing deal to Penang and decided to fly everyone over as we were burnt out from working through Christmas and Chinese New Year 2015/2016. The team was still small so we lived and worked at an Airbnb apartment together.
We used this time to reflect on disappointing product feedback we had collected over the previous few months. The break from day to day tasks gave us some breathing room to really mull over (with some great laksa) what what we wanted the future of QLC to look like, and how the product could scale into that vision. It was in Penang that we decided to adjust the business model and completely dropped charging startups to use QLC. This change repositioned ourselves as an edtech product, rather than in the recruitment space.
Retreat #3: A team-first mindset took us to North Island, New Zealand
Chef Eden made everyone a delicious spagbog with a side of fresh New Zealand mussels.
We all lived and worked together from a home office in Singapore. In mid-2016, my co-founder Luke went back home to New Zealand for a while for health reasons.
So after a few months, piggy-backing off some meetings in Sydney, we flew the team to New Zealand to visit Luke! New Zealand isn’t the most budget friendly destination for an early stage startup, but we were very lucky to have Luke’s extended family open up their homes to the team in his hometown Hamilton alongside some amazing road trips around the beautiful North Island of New Zealand.
Working as a distributed team was still new to us at the time. Visiting Luke in New Zealand also meant it was the first time a many team members were meeting for the first time. Our focus for the trip was more team bonding, with less emphasis on working together. We made a team decision in New Zealand that working as a distributed team worked well for us and we would actively plan these in-person retreats every 6 months.
Retreat #4: The first “real” team retreat to Shanghai, China
Day trip from Shanghai to the water town Xitang (where Mission Impossible 3 was filmed).
A last minute decision to join Chinaccelerator meant that we coincided the next team trip with our temporary move to Shanghai. It was also our first cold-weather destination, which was tough on many of the team members coming from tropical destinations. Half the team became sick by the end of the week! We booked several Airbnbs across Shanghai to house everyone. We found out after that this didn’t work as we wasted valuable time travelling back and forth between apartments.
We experimented with a lot of firsts on this trip that have set the format for our current QLC team retreats.
Goal setting: Being a startup and generally operating on a schedule of “plan every 3 months for the next 12 months”, means that the reasons behind changing goals sometimes gets lost. Having the in person catch ups during team trips helps everyone reset their understanding behind moving targets at QLC and is great for team morale.
1 week trip with fixed schedules: We found 1 week to be a good duration for team trips to get some work done and have some fun. This was also the first team retreat where we allocated time for both work and play.
Coworking space: We had all been working from our homes for over a year and it was nice to be in a co-working space where we could also connect with new people from outside the team and plug into a new ecosystem.
Retreat #5: The digital nomad life in Ko Lanta, Thailand
Sharing session on timezone management.
By team retreat #6, we had been working as a distributed team for over a year and also a fully remote team spread across 8 cities. There was a good mix of people who were working from home, coworking spaces and now full-time travellers.
QLC has evolved from simply teaching digital skills through practical projects with startups. We’re constantly exploring different facets of the new world of work including co-working and co-living, popular with the global digital nomad community. For this reason, we chose to visit Ko Hub, which offered co-living units in the same building with a coworking space a short walk away. It was low season in Ko Lanta so we had a beautiful patio to work from all to ourselves, but we were still able to meet wonderful people from a new ecosystem.
We also set up some new firsts which received great feedback from within the team:
Organised by our Chief Happiness Officer: This was the first team trip I organised with our team happiness chief, Isan. She planned activities and schedules which were inclusive of different preferences from swimming in a cave to beer pong. More importantly, she also identified friction points to be discussed team-wide while dealing with remote team members individually.
Sunburnt and tanned after some island hopping.
Social impact activities: Two of the most popular activities on the trip included teaching an English lesson at the local school and volunteering at the local dog shelter.
Team sharing sessions: Alongside work and play, we decided to host a micro team conference to prioritise personal development and to provide a platform to openly share. We encouraged anyone from the team to plan and present a topic which could encourage learning and discussion. We spent time talking about challenges working in different timezones and even how to edit text on github for the non-technical people!
The next team retreat: Jeju Island, South Korea
We ready for the Jeju life. [Image Credit: Pyotravel.com]
For startups like QLC, the team is our oxygen. After 6 months apart, we’re excited to see each other again at our upcoming team retreat to Jeju Island in South Korea! We are currently in the midst of organising what that will look like.
Does your team organise team retreats? I’d love to hear suggestions about other activities or frameworks we can add to our next team retreat!