The LifeLabs guide to running a virtual retreat


How we ran our very first 2-day virtual retreat, including ideas/tips for yours!

11-minute read

labapalooza group

Twice a year we gather the LifeLabs Learning team for our company-wide offsite retreat, known internally as “Labapalooza!” 

A month before our highly-anticipated April Labapalooza, physical distancing guidelines suddenly uprooted our original plan to host our global team in the beautiful California woods. While we knew we couldn’t gather in the same physical space, we saw this as an opportunity to redefine how people can connect with one another. We wanted to know what we could learn from designing a totally online experience that allowed for pauses, recalibration, laughter, and community support.

With the overwhelming positive feedback received from our team, we’re excited to share how we ran our very first 2-day virtual retreat in hopes that you can extract some ideas and tips for your next virtual community event.

Pre-Game Prep

1. Plan with the end in mind.

Moving to virtual forced us to ask deep questions about what it means to have a retreat and what we hoped to achieve. Taking the time to reflect and clearly define your event goals in the beginning of the process will help you structure your event strategically and select relevant content and vendors. 

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • Determine the goals. The first thing we asked ourselves was: what is the purpose of our retreat? The three answers that floated to the top were: (1) reconnect with team members, (2) increase inspiration for our mission, and (3) embody our company values
  • Find a theme: To tie everything together, we chose one of our company values, “Find A Way To Play,” as our retreat theme. This choice helped frame our retreat guidelines, the welcome and closing messages, and even our overall event structure. For example, we got excited by creating optional dress codes for each day, and we created multiple simultaneous sessions so people could choose their own adventure.  
  • Work with the budget: Due to COVID-19, we decided to save our retreat budget and put it to use elsewhere. This became a fun challenge to get creative and it led us to pull ideas from the team! By the end of the retreat, we only spent $50 total (excluding the $6,082 fee for the venue cancelation). 

2. Co-create a retreat: brainstorm, prioritize, and delegate! 

Inviting collaborators into the process gives everyone a shared responsibility for the outcome of the event. One of our favorite principles at LifeLabs Learning is the tendency for people to overvalue what they create, otherwise known as IKEA effect. This approach helps simplify the work as the event director; rather than create everything from scratch, your role is to create the framework and project manage the different sessions to ensure everyone is set up for success!

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • Brainstorm ideas with the team: During a company-wide meeting, we invited everyone to brainstorm the type of activities they want to see at a virtual retreat. To boost the IKEA effect, we also asked them to add their name at the end of their idea if they were interested in leading that session at Labapalooza.
    • To inspire and gather a variety of ideas, we created a shared Google document with sections that elicit suggestions for activities of different sizes (company-wide, groups of 4-6, groups of 2, and 5 minute break ideas) 
  • Prioritize content: Based on the list of ideas and the timeframe of our retreat, we prioritized activities and content that closely related to our “find a way to play” theme to allow space for various playing styles and a variation of group size activities. This made it easier to say ‘no’ to good ideas that weren’t aligned with the theme. 
  • Delegate roles: To boost overall engagement (and to ensure the event ran smoothly), I delegated roles to make this retreat a co-owned and co-created experience. I created a role sign up sheet and asked everyone to sign up for one role (i.e., facilitator, time keeper, photographer, session designer)!

3. Choose and leverage your video conferencing platform.


Based on your activities, choose a virtual “venue” that works in your favor! Explore the different features and pick a platform that enables you to lead the event in the way you want to lead it.

What we used at LifeLabs:

  • Zoom: We used Zoom for the majority of Labapalooza because our whole team is already familiar with the platform. We also chose it because it has interactive features (i.e., breakout rooms, annotation, sharing screen, polls, chat) that’s helpful for the facilitation of our interactive activities.
  • Remo: To recreate our retreat meal times, we used Remo as our virtual cafeteria. People are able to hop in and out of tables.

Other resources to explore: Circles (built for facilitating authentic and intentional dialogue), Bluejeans, Kosmi, WebEx, GoToMeeting 

 

LifeLabs’ game day formula to host a successful virtual retreat:

Labapalooza calendar-1

To ensure that the LifeLabs team (across three different time zones) know what is happening and where to go when, we listed the retreat logistics and schedule in a shared Google calendar. Each session included an agenda (in the description), a Zoom or Remo link (in the location), and instructions for the session facilitator (in the invites). 

1. Start with a strong opener.


Start off each day with the whole team and include an interactive activity within the first 10 minutes to immediately invite connection and intimacy to the space. The opener will set the tone and engagement level for the rest of your event! 

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • In the first welcome session, we set the mood by playing music and welcoming people as they trickled into the zoom room. Since we had a daily dress code, we invited people to dance and show off their outfits.  Then, we each grabbed a noise maker to collectively “gong” in to kickstart Labapalooza. 

Pro-Tips: 

  • Share guidelines.  They are crucial ways to set the ground-rules for the shared experience we’re co-creating together. For example, at LifeLabs, we shared this document with everyone to make clear our intentions as the event team.
  • Zoom tip: To play music (without sharing screen) on zoom: click on share > advance > computer sound only > share

2. Convert some of your in-person retreat traditions.


Traditionally, we open our retreats by having small group discussions about our theme. This time, our CEO shared some research around play (our theme!) and we used Zoom’s breakout function to discuss in small groups how we would embody our childhood play style during our time together!

 

3. Break up the rhythm to build connection.

Yes, connection can happen beyond face-to-face screen time! 

We learned quickly not to rely on our video platform only because people will get tired of staring at their computers all day (We call it having a Zoom brain). 

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • Everyone had a retreat buddy who would be their go-to person for questions and for check-ins throughout Labapalooza. Each pairing was designed to mix people across departments, location, and tenure. We scheduled a 30 minute block for LabaPALs to connect, debrief previous sessions, and go on a walk (we call them soul-strolls) together. We strategically placed this midday so people can take a break from the computer screen and move around. 

Pro-Tips:

  • We thought really intentionally about what it would mean for people to collaborate across time-zones - there were breaks throughout the day for people in different time zones to eat lunch, stretch, or simply to get some solo-time. 
  • We also knew that people would be checking email throughout the session - it’s only natural when people are on their laptops all day. To help boost focus, we created email breaks in the day so give people a chance to be responsive to clients.
  • Add in creative breaks in between and in the middle of sessions. For example, have teammates lead a 5-10 minute meditation, breathing exercise, stretches, or a silent disco. People can also use this time to take bio breaks.

4. Run simultaneous activities!


Virtual retreats allow you to host concurrent choose-your-own-adventure sessions!Labapalooza side calendar-2

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • We separated our Choose-Your-Own adventure by theme. 
  • In breakout session #1, the goal was to have sessions that allowed people to recharge creatively. We had three options: open mic, rejuvenate with meditation and art, and a solo break time. 
  • In breakout session #2, we had three options for physical exercise: Boot-E camp (interval training), E-Yoga (vinyasa flow yoga), or take a break! This gave our LabMates with extra talents the opportunity to showcase them by leading fun activities.

 Pro-Tips:

  • More is not always better. We chose to reduce ‘decision fatigue’ by limiting the number of times people have to choose. We opted to have one breakout session (1 hour each) per day
  • Have a variety of activities (size, type, and length) that people can opt into or opt-out of to make it brain-friendly for all play and learning styles
  • Zoom tip:  You can either host these concurrent sessions on different zoom links (make sure to list them in the agenda), create pre-assigned breakout rooms (if you are limited to one zoom account and people already chose the session they want to attend), or create breakout rooms on the spot (if you are limited to one zoom account and people choose the day of)

5. Experiment.

We asked ourselves lots of questions about what it would mean to create a uniquely virtual experience.  What would recreating the commute experience look like? How can you replicate the meal time experience? What would it mean to sit around a virtual campfire telling stories late into the night?  

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • After our dinner break, we hosted an optional ‘LifeLabs After Dark’ session. We took advantage of the virtual opportunity to invite our partners, pets, pals and have them join in on the fun! The prompt for the discussion was to share any stories of firsts: first kisses, first big breaks, first time you felt really connected to a group, etc. We found that some of the stories became touchstone connection moments that we’re still referring back to nearly 8 weeks after the event. 

Pro Tip:

  • Have sessions where teammates can invite their loved ones to participate in the activities. The ability to introduce bits of our  personal life and personal space with the rest of the team is definitely a benefit of having a virtual retreat!

6. Include cross-team collaborative work time.


One thing that hasn’t changed in the virtual space is that retreats present a unique opportunity for people to step away from their typical day-to-day to mingle with folks who they typically do not interact with. We wanted to really intentionally create opportunities for positive interdependence by hosting cross-team collaboration sessions to increase a sense of unity and togetherness across departments, locations, and tenure.

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • At every Labapalooza, we have a mini hackathon session to collaborate cross-departmentally, diagnose in small groups, and present ideas for ways to improve a particular internal area at LifeLabs Learning. This past retreat, we were consultants for our own company and brainstormed how we can make our feedback culture 10% better! 

We presented the agenda and prompt to the whole group: “How might we improve our feedback culture?”  and created breakout rooms with 6-7 people per group to let them discuss the prompt, capture ideas, and create a proposal within 20 minutes. Then we brought everyone back together in the main zoom room and had each group present their idea. After the retreat, the People Ops team created a task force that will take these ideas and notes to lead an initiative for the company.

Pro Tips:

  • Zoom tip:  When a group is presenting on zoom, you can create a virtual stage for them! Ask those who are not presenting to stop video and have everyone click on “hide non-video participants”.  
  • Facilitation tip: To keep the flow going, queue up the next group in the chat box and let them know they are next after the previous group presents. Instruct the team presenting to turn off their cameras to get off the stage and ask the next group to turn on their camera to enter the stage. 

7. Engineer surprise and delight.

Our most meaningful and memorable experiences contain an element of surprise. To capture attention, engage, transform, and make a lasting impression, turn predictable patterns into unexpected moments. Think of the retreat as a place to be a ‘surprisologist’ and think about what are the feelings and stories you want your team to share with others after the retreat.

What we did at LifeLabs:

  • Tone-setting: During our welcome session for each day, we played music in the background as people trickled in
  • Increase anticipation, decrease stress: We sent out a retreat countdown email series which included a packing list guide, activity teasers, and the overall agenda
  • Add surprises to agenda: We surprised the team by inviting our clients to share how our work have impacted them 
  • Scaling intimacy: Invite cohabitants (family members, pets, friends, partners) to a session and integrate them in the activities
  • End with a bang: We closed out retreat by revealing a company video

Takeaways from our first virtual retreat: 

Virtual company retreats can be done (and it can be done well)! The “limitations” of planning for a virtual retreat expanded our creativity levels and we discovered so many new and dynamic ways to foster connection. 

Curating an experience to serve as a playful and meaningful interruption to the team's day-to-day can help build resilience and provide the connection that we all crave. 

 

Appendix:

Want more resources? We’ve included an appendix with links to some resources referenced in this article: