There are some moments in life where you feel like you’ve seen everything professionally, especially when you’re an old dog like me, but what I experienced recently thanks to a fantastic initiative of one of the team of my ART proved me wrong – A team retreat near Valencia (Spain) proposed and planned by themselves showed me that the power of bonding and true camaraderie based on human interactions and work excellency can indeed make miracles.
“We all want to go away from the office for two working days”. Excuse me?
A few weeks ago, one of my teams’s Scrum master, Jimmy, came to me with this really shocking request: the team wanted to have leave to go all together, specifically Thursday and Friday of a working day by the end of September, on a team retreat to one of their team members’ home.
They had come up with all the details: where they would work, how they would do it and, most importantly, taking into account the logistical aspects in order to break not the team dynamics and interactions. Most importantly, this was all worry free for the company: they would work like any other day (or so they promised), decided the dates, and they would pay the trip themselves. Zero cost for the company. They simply asked for permission to not go to the office, like any WFH day.
I’m a servant leader, and it did not take me much at all to convince me and grant their request. Initially I simply thought wow, this is really cool but I did not really put much more focus on it at the very moment. But then, I started to think…
A team culture that transcends the company rules and boundaries
It was not that long ago that I worked in environments where my company did not trust me. Where I had to be in the office 9 to 5 every single day with no exception. Where leaving at 3 even if I planned to work from home wasn’t well seen. In Spain we have a funny word for that: calientasientos (seat warmers). That’s what I was once. And while I was warming my seat, I was not productive and I just wanted to go home. I had to comply.
The ask of this team made me realise that their experiment was the very definition of the working culture change I aim to implement in my ART and my company: Trust. Autonomy. Focus. Happiness. Camaraderie. Friendship. Good vibes! The more I thought about what these guys wanted to do, the more excited I was.
I started talking to some of my friends about it and they could not believe me. They’d say things like They’re not going to work, all they’ll do is partying and drinking. And while not everyone had the same opinion, most where headed in that direction. This proved my point: we don’t trust people and their professionalism by default. Even I, at some point, struggled with this idea. And the truth is that being in the office and make yourself be seen matters, but it’s not mandatory. We all run our very own lives and surely our company needs to be able to accommodate it if we want to feel engaged. In return, we must be productive and liable to our jobs. That simple.
Hence, not only I granted permission from my so-called RTE leadership. I would join them to support their experiment and document it. And then turn the results into this article.
Gandía and Valencia at the end of September are absolutely gorgeous… but we have to work!
One of the team members, Juan, has an apartment in Gandia, a beach town near Valencia that’s also very popular for local tourism. The team decided to make of his home an improvised office. And since not all of them fit there, they rented a place for the people who needed it nearby. All of them cooperated economically in it even if they stayed at Juan’s (another solidarity move from them).
The first day we went to Juan’s home where we had a homemade breakfast and then kicked off with the routines: daily stand up! Refinements! Platform reviews! And in the middle of all that, lots of coffee, sweets and delicious paellas ordered to be delivered home.
After a long working day, we headed to the beach where we all had a delightful bath, a drink in a typical Spanish beach bar or chiringuito, then we headed to have dinner and a walk around the beach. Last, we went to sleep.
The second day was very similar, but slightly different in the sense that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the team needed to go through a very tough exercise of backlog redefinition, and lots of private meetings from my end and the product owner. This was not a deal breaker at all for their routines, but in a way it hijacked the usual working day and we engaged in very tough and honest conversations that were close to arguments. This lasted until over 7pm that day. The team would not leave their working day until an agreement had been made. But they made it (conclusions coming a bit ahead).
After this tense day that left us all a bit weary, we headed to Valencia. Didn’t take long for us to recover by having a walk around the gorgeous Palacio de las artes y las ciencias, then the old town and to enjoy some delicious local food.
That was the end for me, as I left on Saturday morning. I did not want to be in between their well deserved weekend together. And let’s face it… because I’m too old to keep up with their energy!
So… how did it go? Was it worth it?
During the two days, I asked the team members for feedback. Honest feedback. Because I was there working too, and observing. And felt like they were being both productive and having the time of their lives. But it was logistically funny due to the space limitations and the fact they had nowhere else to go. And here is the common agreement, including my own:
- There was a truly unique, genuine team bonding that transcended office hours and interactions. Made the line between work and leisure really blurry to the point of not distinguishing where one start and the other ended. But somehow, the professional boundaries were there as well. But no one felt uncomfortable with sharing not only sincere work views, but also personal life.
- The team felt more relaxed. It did not feel like a cold office… it wasn’t. It was more like an impossible 8-9 hour meeting in the office.
- Some of them admitted they felt less productive individually (the host, in particular), others felt more productive than usual, but all of them agreed that the common productivity as a team did increase: no distractions, no other place to go. They had to stick with each other. Their own words were “it’s incredible what we achieved in just two days”.
- There was increased motivation and cooperation. They appreciated each other’s strengths and took pride embarking in honest conversation toward achieving quality and excellence in their product. A few social drinks would not have been enough in Cambridge. In short, the place and conditions promoted a massive stream of creativity and good will.
- A sense of pride and self consciousness as a team was felt in the air. More psychological standing and safety. They became more than colleagues: they became friends. This last bit became instrumental for the tough discussions that we had on Friday. They admitted these would have been much more difficult to get through had they not been in that situation.
- Some of the team members, as a result of the above, managed to engage more strongly than usual in purely technical agreements.
- There was sometimes a need for privacy that could not be fully met. The line between personal and work became essentially invisible, so the usual need to disconnect after the working day disappeared, and they all agreed this situation needs to be the exception and not the norm.
- The need to discuss new priorities hijacked the original plan of two normal working days, and it was tough for the team psychologically.
- The product owner had to go on private meetings separated them for most of Friday.
I found this experiment profoundly inspiring for many reasons. The first one I can think of is the bonding between them as individuals and professionals, but it goes way beyond that. It’s rule-bending (adding flexibility), promotes real trust, it is observed externally as cool and, most importantly, it provided real value to their working practices and their productivity, not to mention that it felt like a holiday without being a holiday at all.
Someone told me, shortly after this trip, that if that’s the first time it ever happens it needs to keep on happening to come to a definitive conclusion as whether this is something sustainable for this team or others. It may very well be true, but the sole reason I expose the outcomes of this specific one is solely because, without any glimpse of a doubt, it is the kind of culture I’d like to observe in all the teams I work with: creative, outside the box, in their own terms and profoundly experimental.
Well done, guys. And thanks for letting me be part of it.