Our annual company retreat turned virtual this year. We met inside a game.

The COVID pandemic forced us to replace our in-person offsite retreat with a virtual retreat. Here’s what I learnt.

In 2016 we decided to make Whisk a 100% distributed company. Instead of having everyone in an office our team can work from anywhere in the world. Today we have over 100 team members located in the US, Europe, Korea, Russia and many other countries, spanning -8 GMT to +8 GMT time zones. Each year we hold a week-long annual company offsite which we call the “company retreat”. Previous locations were Budapest (2016), Prague (2016), Madrid (2017), Lisbon (2018) and Florence (2019). Our entire team flies to one destination where we rent apartments and a co-working space then spend the week together. We use this time to discuss company strategy and run workshops. Since running distributed teams I’ve come to consider this annual retreat as a critical component to running a successful distributed team.

A few months after the pandemic hit it became clear that we’d need to postpone our 2020 retreat — at first by a few months, then by 6 months, then further still. In early 2021 we realised that chance of holding a co-located retreat in 2021 was narrowing — so our team started to think about how to run the event virtually.

Ditching Zoom and meeting inside a game

Dread was my immediate reaction to the idea of spending a whole week on non-stop zoom sessions, taking place in the middle of the night for many of the team due our wide timezone spread.

After some research, we came across various companies that offer virtual meeting spaces. These are essentially online games where you control a character and interact with other participants inside a virtual world. We decided to use Gather, but also compared it to a few alternatives. Gather looked like it had the most robust platform. We split the group into two timezone cohorts with an overlap during the middle of the GMT+0 timezone to get a balance of togetherness as whole team whilst also making local times somewhat reasonable for everyone.

Gather requires each individual to walk their characters to different parts of the virtual space to take part in activities we scheduled in different locations. As you walk a character into another person’s character’s proximity the camera and mic automatically fade on (like in real life, where you can see and hear someone as you walk nearer to them). I was surprised how successfully meeting inside Gather replicated some of that feeling of real life. We were bumping into colleagues on the way to a workshop or poster session — having interactions that don’t usually happen in a video conferencing call.

We chose a virtual space that looked like a large co-working space with a kitchen, meeting rooms and auditorium. When the team visited the auditorium everyone could see each other sitting down which gave a feeling of unity. Waiting for a speaker to go up to the podium created a feeling of anticipation instead of the impatience I usually feel while waiting for someone to speak on Zoom. Speakers took turns to stand at the front on the “mic box” which broadcasts to everyone (this overrides the proximity camera/mic sharing in Gather). Presenters could share their screen or upload content into presentation screens or posters in the space.

Presentations in our virtual auditorium

Games and cooking classes

An important objective of the retreat has always been to build stronger connections between team members and create relationships that don’t normally form in more transactional work-focused video conferencing meetings with strict agendas. Gather allowed us to “install” various team building games — for example, teams competed to draw and guess words using a virtual whiteboard. In another game, teams competed to communicate words to their teams without using certain banned words (including the word to be guessed). Two things worked particularly well in these games; Firstly the team members joined virtual tables randomly and were encouraged to sit at tables with people they don’t work regularly with — building new connections. Secondly, the games were seamlessly integrated so no time was lost changing systems — it was easy.

We also had a kitchen in our virtual space, with kitchen islands surrounding a central kitchen. One of our team members ran a cooking class — teaching the team to make a pizza from scratch. We used Whisk’s recipe and shopping list functionality before the event to give team members an easy way to buy ingredients and follow the recipe. Watching teams cook their own pizzas (mostly with success) was fun!

Playing games in our virtual canteen area and later cooking together in our virtual kitchen

Running a virtual hackathon

One of our retreat objectives was to communicate and discuss our team values and 2021/2022 product strategy so we decided to run a hackathon after the first day of meetings and workshops. We asked teams to submit 2 minute idea “pitches” — then whittled the 20 shortlisted ideas into 8 hackathon projects through a pitch-off and team vote.

Teams self-organised into hackathon teams — based on which ideas they were most interested in working on. Each winning team was allocated a “room” inside Gather, which they could decorate and then use as their space for the following hackathon days. We invited an external judge at the end of the week to help us decide on the winner in addition to a team-voted “people’s choice” winner.

How will the technology evolve?

After our virtual retreat I’m more excited than ever by the opportunity of Virtual Reality for meetings. Solutions like Facebook Spaces offer Augmented Reality which could be a big upgrade to the 2D characters in Gather. However, a big hurdle would be the physical AR device requirement (e.g. Oculus Rift, which is expensive). Maybe solutions like Google Cardboard (using your phone and some cardboard as a VR headset) could lower the barrier to entry.

One negative of Gather was that some of our team reported high CPU usage — with some laptops crashing entirely. We’re a software company so I was surprised to experience technical issues like this with what seems like a very simple application compared to Augmented Reality experiences. A few of our team members had difficulty even opening Gather. This was definitely a minority but even having one or two people missing makes a difference when you’re running a team event.

I can imagine it will be some time before using AR hardware is seamless for larger teams. I can imagine for a while it will be trouble free for “95% of people” — but 5% will experience some technical issue (e.g. internet being too slow).

These virtual experiences offer something different to video conferencing and I’m confident will become more popular in the future. I think mainstream AR meetings might be 10 years out — but experiences like Gather will become more commonplace much sooner than that.

Conclusion — is this the future?

When we’re allowed to travel again, I’ll be going back to running physical retreats. Virtual retreats are not as effective or fun as going to a new country and meeting people in-person. But after our first virtual retreat, I’m more excited than ever about the new virtual ways to communicate that are becoming available — and I’m excited to join my next virtual event.

Gather was very successful in helping us run a virtual event — I’d definitely recommend other teams try them if they want to hold a virtual version of a physical event. Gather helped us to build closer relationship bonds that don’t get created as naturally over video conferencing or asynchronous communication tools. As one of my team members put it, “I’m not sure why, but it just felt psychologically different sitting in the virtual auditorium.”

Right, I’m off to buy a VR headset.

CEO of Whisk.com, acquired by Samsung.