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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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