Review of our Developer Retreat, held in January 2020.
Why we are doing retreats
At Timeular we work fully remotely. This brings many benefits including flexible hours, increased focus and fewer distractions.
However, the geographic distance can be challenging in building cohesion within teams and the company as a whole. To counteract this, we meet three times a year for a one-week-long retreat. We work towards a specific goal at each retreat, and there is also a focus on socializing and getting to know each other better.
During some of our previous retreats, the development team did a Hackathon and worked to create a minimal version of an experimental feature together. This produced valuable tools to improve our product, and greatly improved communication and collaboration within the dev team.
Following the success of this, we hosted a dedicated Developer Retreat at the end of 2018 in Graz, Austria. We were keen to see if the benefits of our company-wide retreat worked in a smaller context, with a focus on work and collaboration.
On company retreats, we usually stay at the same house(s) and spend most of our time together. On our dev retreats, we focus on full, productive workdays. In the evening people can do whatever they want. We’ll still go for dinner and drinks, but the focus shifts more towards improving collaboration and productivity. It’s also important that people have enough space and freedom to recharge and relax on their own.
Developer Retreat 2020
For this year’s Developer Retreat – again in the beautiful city of Graz – we decided to work on platform stability. Concretely, we started working on Offline-Functionality on the frontend and general infrastructure stability on the backend.
Our topic-selection process for dev retreats wasn’t set in stone at this point. It depended heavily on the project/product situation at the time the retreat was happening. We usually plan our retreats a couple of months in advance to allow time for organizing accommodation etc. In addition, the “very dynamic” flow of planning and adaptation at any start-up means there will always be some uncertainty, so it makes sense to have several options to choose from.
Our goal was to improve in terms of collaboration and team cohesion, so we focussed on topics where the whole team could work towards a common goal. This meant that everyone could contribute, regardless of their specific role. From that perspective, platform stability was a great goal. The improvements on the frontend side played very well into stabilizing the whole stack. With the possibility to work offline, our apps don’t need to attempt to reconnect aggressively anymore. This significantly reduces the load on our servers during an ops incident. Solving this issue also solved a user need, as its a feature many have requested in the past.
During the Developer Retreat we worked from the ZWI co-working space, close to the University in Graz. It’s an area close to central park, with a great selection of restaurants, coffee shops and bars. The co-working space was big enough for everyone to work comfortably and provided everything we needed in terms of presenting and brainstorm sessions.
We found it’s important to have a space with enough room and facilities to ensure everyone is comfortable. Even an open-plan office is fine for a week as the goal is to incentivize more close collaboration at the expense of focus. Basic infrastructure like stable Wi-Fi and facilities for food and drink are essential. Whiteboards and a way to present to the group are also nice to have.
These decisions will obviously depend on the budget for the retreat. It’s also important to consider accomodation options. For example, if the workplace is great but accommodation is lacklustre and drains the team’s energy, then the overall experience and benefit of the retreat will suffer. Finding the right balance is key.
We decided on the rough goals before the retreat. This helped us come up with concrete ideas in advance and meant that after a short initial planning meeting, we got to work quickly.
We split the team across the frontend/backend line. Frontend started drawing up a high-level overview of what’s necessary to provide our users with offline functionality, discussing issues like synchronization strategies when they get back online and conflict resolution.
On the backend, we created post-it tasks for the different areas we wanted to focus on, including improving our alerts, investigating critical points of failure and extending our load-testing setup. In both cases, once we agreed on a general plan, we created, distributed and started on sub-tasks.
We found that although we’re all used to working remotely, there is still a lot of communication when we’re in a room. This helped in terms of quickly spreading information and agreeing on things. Nevertheless, it also meant it was challenging to stay focused. Increased communication helps with team chemistry (solving conflicts, discussing issues), but it also reminded us of the great benefits of working remotely (focus, flexible workday, etc.).
As the whole event was limited to a week, it felt like a win-win scenario – improving team cohesion and refreshing our appreciation of the remote work benefits again.
Presentation & Next Steps
At the end of the week, we usually hold a company-wide call where we demo what we achieved during the week and give some context in terms of motivation and outlook.
It’s important not to let the things we achieved at the retreats wither and die when we get back. We create follow-up tasks and put them in our planning schedules to ensures that we finish the things we couldn’t get done during the retreat and reap the rewards of our collaborative effort.
This year’s Developer Retreat was a huge success. We got Offline Functionality off the ground and made progress around sustained stability of our infrastructure. Closely working together on topics you care about is a fantastic way to grow, both individually and as a team. While we were all happy to return to our our remote comfort zone after the retreat, the time away together recharged our social batteries. This is quite noticeable in the weeks after.
Making great memories together enriches the work experience for a long time. Much of the natural friction of working together on complex issues is easier to deal with if you have a deeper human connection with the person on the other end of the argument. This is especially true right after a retreat and slowly weakens as time progresses, making it important to refresh and strengthen team cohesion again, especially if new people join the team.
We encourage everyone who works remotely to try out this type of event. The exact format can and should change with every team’s specific needs and preferences, but the general idea – to meet and work closely together, strengthening the social bonds and communication – will be a great benefit for any team.
If this review sparked your interest to try a focused retreat format, but you need help getting started, feel free to reach out to us (via firstname.lastname@example.org) – we’ll gladly answer any questions you might have and we’d also love to hear your experiences if you decide to try it!