“I love working remote, but damn does coming together help solve a ton of problems.”
-Tate Hackert, President of ZayZoon
Every year, ZayZooners come together and meet in person, à la 2019.
As a remote-first company, it may seem counterintuitive to have an in-person gathering where we halt our operations for the purpose of getting together and catching up. Nonetheless, at ZayZoon we do just that, and it’s proven to be an incredible way to make sure that the whole team is aligned.
“Well, that doesn’t make sense, Susy” you might say “I thought the whole point is that there’s nothing you can’t do online nowadays!” And you’d be almost right. Almost.
The thing is, it doesn’t matter just how good your remote setup is, there’s just nothing quite like meeting in person. Kind of like a friendly reminder that you’re a real person and you’re working with real, complex people towards the same goal. Sure, you can do it online, but it takes much more time, effort, and buy-in from the whole team.
So, why does it make sense to have an offline meeting for an online company, and how do we go about it at ZayZoon in order to strengthen our culture?
Let’s break it down.
Offsite overview: a much-needed boost
Last year, our first official offsite took place at Camp Cadicasu in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada. This was the first time since our team had grown in 2021-22 that we got to see everybody’s faces. For some it was their very first day; for others, it was a wonderful time to catch up and see old faces that we normally only see on the screen.
This year, we met up again in the desert town of Scottsdale, Arizona. More than 80 ZayZooners got together for a few days of brainstorming, presentations, good food, big thinking exercises, and fun activities.
This was such an amazing opportunity to validate the idea that, even though we have grown so much (with more to come) our culture, and the feel of the team are still the same.
The first thing that I encountered as I was heading to the offsite was a group of coworkers who were on the same flight as me. From the get-go, we took care of each other, laughed together, and talked about what we were most excited about. It was seamless.
This feeling of instant connection with other team members was only enhanced as the experience developed.
ZayZooners prepare to board their flight out of Calgary, Alberta
Once we landed in sunny Arizona, it was all hands on deck as we settled into our hotel, dived into the pool, or walked down the road into Old Town in search of the perfect Prickly Pear Margarita and some lunch (spoilers: I found it). Then, it was time to kick things off by the pool!
“That moment when we were filing into the conference room for the first morning meeting will stick with me for a very, very long time. Knowing that we've grown in numbers as a team and that we all share the same culture and vision was truly moving.” - Victor Platon, Product Designer
Over the next couple of days, we had a balanced mix of professional and social activities: dividing into cross-functional teams to brainstorm ideas on how to solve challenges for the business, taking in inspiring presentations from leadership, and playing games by the pool.
Some of the activities that were included were:
🏊♂️ Poolside hangouts
🥙 Good food and food trucks
🎨 🧘♀️ Painting, yoga, basketball, and board games
💌 Customer care shadowing
🧠 Big thinking exercises
👨🚀 Founder presentations
One of the breakfast breakout groups gathers around a good meal and even better ideation
The proud artists of this collaborative painting activity pose by their masterpiece
Any ZayZooner knows that if you have a chance to listen to Randy from Partner Sales, you should take it
The day was full of opportunities to learn from one another, to chat about what we’re doing, and to socialize with those we don’t get to see as often anymore.
We had a choose-your-own-adventure activity midway through the day where people could select either yoga, basketball, painting, or board games and be led through an activity with their groups. Needless to say, the swag to match these was incredible.
ZayZoon swag options per activity included thematic shirts, basketball jerseys, and even a yoga mat
One particular highlight was the Customer Care shadow-hour, where team members were paired with a CCR representative and answered queries coming in from our customers.
Customer care is the foundation of our business. How we impact and empower our customers is essential to every single person in this business, so being able to engage and see how this happens sparked a ton of conversations on how we could each be moving the needle forward from our unique position within the company.
After we wrapped up on planned activities, we had food trucks and pool-side hangouts to meet with our teams, make new friends, and overall bond until the later hours.
As they say, time flies when you’re having fun, and we found ourselves packing up our memories and heading back home the next day: inspired with new ideas to help accelerate our growth and excited for another year working at ZayZoon.
Going offline: why meeting IRL makes sense
With so much effort being put into making working remotely the best it can be, it seems counterintuitive to spend time, effort, and significant budget into what externally seems like an excuse to replace meetings with time by the pool and still count it as work.
Yet, offsites are so much more.
They’re an opportunity for big-thinking talks, collaborative sessions, and brainstorming. They also provide an opportunity for companies to show their employees that they value some of the softer skills that make a company’s culture. Skills and exercises that you cannot do as well online.
It’s hard to make time in your daily work to sit down and think about the big picture of the business. Things such as reinforcing company values, building relationships, socializing, or even asking hard questions that we can’t seem to fit into our Google calendars.
Offsites are therefore a perfect exercise to zoom out and focus on those topics that don’t fit in your day-to-day schedule.
During our offsite in Arizona, breakfast was a team activity, with people from Marketing, Sales, Client Success, Customer Care, Development, Finance, you name it, sitting down with one common goal.
We were each given a prompt. Prompts covered everything from potential business challenges to new opportunities. They were all hypothetical. Our goal was to tackle each of these and come up with solutions as a group.
It was an amazing experience. We each got to learn about an aspect of the business we might not be subjected to daily. Our challenge had to do with client termination communications. This was something that Lexi, a Client Success team member deals with every day – and something I’d never even heard of. It was so enriching to see all of us come together and ideate possible solutions from our unique perspectives.
Taking the time to make that kind of big-picture thinking happen in person opens up the door to reaching out to other team members when we’re back on Slack because you have a better understanding of what they do and how they could help you tackle a particular challenge or opportunity.
It also allowed time for big-picture talks from our leaders. Our founders shared some of their 3-5-year plan, the vision of where we’re going, and nostalgia for where we’ve been. Having that kind of access to leadership allows employees to trust the leaders that are steering your company forward, and helps everyone understand how their individual contributions help get us to where we want to be.
Socializing with a purpose:
Being in person allows us to break out of that rectangle on our calls and interact as full people in a relaxing and judgment-free environment.
During our offsite, I sat by the pool with a group of ladies talking about Chauncy’s incredible DIY locker wall (it’s incredible). Chauncy Ford, our Director of Product Management, Partner Solutions built this wall of lockers as an innovative solution for storage in her home. We swiped through photos and commented on storage issues we each face in our different homes. We laughed and chatted, and shared more about ourselves in that half hour by the pool than we had before on Google Meet.
Meeting online for 45 minutes to work on a specific task or project is an amazing way of getting work done. It’s not so good for getting to know the more personal details of who you’re working with.
Add to that the invaluable effects of body language and non-verbal cues, and being able to be in an environment where the only expectation of outcome is to build strong relationships, and you have the perfect recipe to humanize those squares you see in scrum every morning.
“Still amazed at how easy it is to talk to a ZayZooner you met for the first time and still have so much in common.” - Veronica Gudova, Developer at ZayZoon
And the thing is, work relationships are important. Businesses ebb and flow, and with those changes, you have to trust the people who are on that ship with you. Being able to take some time and meet in person will create memories that permeate beyond distance and increase employee engagement.
A break from the norm:
I love what I do in my day job, but that doesn’t mean that a reset isn’t needed every once in a while to get those creative juices flowing again. A company offsite is an amazing way to get everyone out of their day-to-day routines and jumpstart their energies to prepare for another year. Going to Arizona literally meant going from cold, fall weather, to 90-degree heat and palm trees. It was going from my home office to having chats with people and experiencing new activities like yoga by the pool or painting by sections as a team.
Sometimes the importance of a good change of pace can be undervalued, but the effects of it can always be seen. At ZayZoon, you can feel the energy when we’ve all just come back from being in person. There are new inside jokes, and the #watercooler channel on Slack is full of new posts and smiling photos. It gives us a fresh start as we prepare to end the year with a bang and gear up for the next year.
Meeting of the minds:
The day before the majority of the company arrived, people leaders had an opportunity to sit in the same room and talk about company strategy together. They outlined the next steps, determined our priorities for Q4, and worked together towards common goals.
Although ZayZoon already does a good job at getting senior leadership together for this kind of planning, it is undoubtedly beneficial to have a change of scenery and to get new perspectives on existing topics. It also energized them right before we had big blue-sky sessions and one-to-one chats by the pool. I was talking with our SVP of Marketing Shannon Dougall, and was energized by her view of what’s to come and all the amazing things we’re going to do in the next months and years. We were able to talk strategy and think about all we could do without the limitations of a time constraint or another meeting coming up.
Ensuring that you take time for this kind of strategic thinking in your business will help you differentiate the forest from the trees.
Looking back to look forward
It’s been a month since the offsite and I’m still feeling its effects.
It’d be nice to simply sit back and recount these moments with a wistful sigh, yet it’s essential to think not just about what happened, but why it matters to us as a business that we have some time to meet IRL and build trust as a team.
According to a poll from the Harvard Business Review of over 2,000 employers and employees from all around the world, as many as two-thirds of employees who work remotely are not engaged in their work. It is important to develop a culture within your team where people feel engaged or your company will suffer.
As a fully remote company, we value the flexibility and collaboration that remote work allows for. This is amazing for those of us with a family or who want a better work-life balance.
Yet no matter how many Drink and Think sessions, fun watercooler chat GIFs we send, or inside jokes we share on scrum, there’s just nothing quite like meeting in person.
For a fast-growing scale-up like ZayZoon, this level of employee engagement is essential to our success. In fact, it’s activities like these that show results like an eNPS for Q3 2023 of 84 (anything over 50 is considered excellent and 80 is best-in-class).
Activities like these can make a massive impact on your company’s culture, and really push the needle forward on how a business continues to grow together.
I, for one, came home feeling rested, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the opportunities that 2024 has in store. I can’t wait to pack for next year’s offsite.