Rachel Gimbert

Head of Operations
October 28, 2022

Going Dutch – the value of company in-person team events

Now that we’re a fully remote-first team, team events allow us to bring our people together and strengthen our company culture.

Remember the halcyon days of ‘water cooler chat’ and finding out that your co-worker is really into stamp collecting or doing stand up comedy on the weekends purely  by chance whilst you’re both making coffee at the same time? This level of employee intimacy has taken a bit of a nosedive since the pandemic, not only on a personal level, but also on a professional level. It’s much harder now to glean little details about a project you’re not involved in, or that one team is really excited about some code that’s going to change the trajectory of their product without these spontaneous moments.

We now live in a world of scheduled video calls and lengthy online chat discussions. Along with the feeling of ‘always being at work’ when you work from home, setting healthy boundaries but still being engaged, some employees now struggle with loneliness or anxiety. Here at matterlab this is something we’re keen to actively build into our culture from the outset, right from our hiring and onboarding process through to encouraging co-working and hosting bi-annual team events.

We’re a small, close-knit team of 25, so we still have the luxury of being able to organise in-person company events pretty easily. As teams grow this definitely becomes harder, so we’re working now to build a culture that allows us to keep this feeling as we scale in the coming years. This begins with actively encouraging all our employees, wherever they are based, to come together in co-working spaces as often as possible. To make it easy for them, we’re partnered with FlowSpace to give our employees the freedom to choose where and when they come together. With locations across the UK (and expansion into Europe in the future) they give us so much flexibility to cater to our employees preferred working habits. There is no on-size-fits-all method we can adopt here, so we simply offer the freedom of choice in what works for the individual. To ensure our EU based employees felt this same benefit, we’re working with Croissant to allow them the same flexibility. The chatter that happens around coordinating meet ups is strong, so we know the investment here is worth it.

Despite this freedom, many of our employees still don’t see each other on a regular basis (primarily due to geographical or logistical reasons) which is where the bi-annual team events come in to play. By not having an office, we are redefining what it means to work as a team. By default this means we have also redefined what it means to come together. If we’re coming together simply to sit in a room and all work on our individual assignments (like a traditional office) that’s a no-go for us. We exist to connect with people. By defining how we gather, why we gather and what for, we’re able to tailor the events to get the best possible use of everyone’s time.

For us those questions are simple to answer:

  • We gather in person as a whole company twice per year, and in smaller teams and cross functional teams on a weekly basis at our employee’s discretion
  • We gather to foster connection and build up relationships in person, to strengthen our collaborative working when online
  • We gather to strengthen our alignment on company goals and vision and how we all, individually and as a group, play a part in that
  • We gather to learn from each other, and share knowledge amongst the team
  • We truly believe that all of this allows us to be the absolute best at what we do.

Our latest event was, we think, a great example of this. We all travelled to Utrecht, Netherlands, to spend 2 days working and connecting as a whole company. We had clear objectives on bringing everyone together, what we as management wanted to get out of it, and what we wanted the team to get out of it. Having been the one to plan it, I can tell you that there is a meticulous amount of detail that goes into this!

Having worked on several company team events over my career, I can safely say that each company I have worked with approaches it uniquely and has different motives. For us at matterlab and KOPE, we want to work hard and play hard. So the split was pretty simple; we’d have one day of intensive work and one day of intense play (with some healthy competition thrown in across both days!)

A day of intensive work allowed us to design a challenge for the group that would play to everyone’s strengths, and everyone could get involved in, as well as cater to a business need. We set a design challenge to rethink three parts of our existing product, KOPE. The team were strategically split into 3 groups with mixed skillsets and had a full day to explore and unpack their brief, work together to create a new solution and then all come together at the end of the day to present and feedback on each other’s work. We got so many useful learnings, ideas, and plans from this day that we are now able to move forward with many of them – leading the team to feel that they are directly contributing to the growth of the product and the company. This employee investment tends to lead to greater job satisfaction and therefore better retention in the long run.

“[the challenge] really helped to develop and accelerate the direction of the product roadmap and has definitely energized me for the next steps. It also helped to give everyone visibility and an opportunity to really feel a part of all levels of development, particularly at a strategic level.”

The second day we set the team the challenge of a scavenger hunt around Utrecht (taking in the local architectural sights along the way – gotta keep it relevant!) where they were split into different teams once again. There was a healthy mix of fun challenges, a lot of movement around the city and also the freedom to interpret and choose which tasks they wanted to focus on to earn points. Everything needed to be documented with photos and there was some healthy competitive chat, jesting and sabotage at play throughout the whole day. For some, this is the preferred part of the event and it’s easy to see why when you see our team together – they love having fun and socialising with each other as much as they love learning from or teaching each other new skills. The energy of the team was palpable in the group chat and lasted well into the wind-down time of the boat tour and meal that followed it.

“It's nice getting to spend time with everyone away from their desk and getting to know them better.”

We had three new employees join us for this trip (hats off to them for getting so stuck in from day one) and it was quite possibly the best way to solidify and model our culture in a way they were able to see and feel it right off the bat, which they absolutely wouldn’t have been exposed to if we were doing their onboarding online. Building these strong connections in the early days in a new job are invaluable and will serve you well as an org in the long run.

Some learnings from it? (Because these things are ever evolving to be what we need them to be…)

  • Always over communicate – there will definitely be someone who didn’t read the memo or the instructions!
  • Allow for some quiet time. Obviously you want everyone to be having a great time, 100% of the time, but actually we’re still coming off the back of a long period of isolation and this full on schedule with a lot of people can be very emotionally draining – some down time between activities is always very welcomed
  • Ensure that there is more than enough time to focus on the work that people have put in. Don’t rush your “work element” and allow plenty time to provide constructive and thoughtful feedback on the teams work they are presenting (if we did this again I would have them present the work the next day to really give them the respect of all the effort they have put into it.)
  • You can’t please everyone. It’s inevitable that whilst most people will absolutely love most of the event, there will be some people who struggle with certain elements of it – so request feedback, take it on board and where possible, any changes in to the next event that you plan
  • If you make branded umbrellas, it’s probably not going to rain after all…
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