Company Retreats on a Tropical Island: How We Make It Work

There are places to go and things to see, but for many reasons, we’re often stuck to our computers. From the moment I started running an internet company, I’ve been playing with the idea of combining work and travel.

My product was code, my users were online, and advertising revenue was paid by companies to whom I sent emails but never actually met. I heard stories about digital nomads – poker players and freelance programmers, traveling to far-away places with nothing more than a laptop, but still being able to have a gratifying and interesting job.

Digital nomadism was a new and unique opportunity of our time, and I wanted to experience it. By the time I realized this however, it was 2011 and my business had evolved into a real company, with an office and local employees to manage. The idea of going abroad faded away, labeled as a lost opportunity for solo entrepreneurs, and back I went to the daily hassle of running a company.

At some point though, the subject was raised again while speaking to my co-founder Michiel and it turned out he felt the same way. The conversation ended with us asking ourselves: can’t we just go anyway and bring the entire team? We’d never heard about an entire company temporary moving offices, but our team was up for it and we couldn’t find a valid reason not to.

Poki locations, Thailand 2014 and Bali 2015

Packing our bags

So in January 2014 we packed our bags, rented a villa on Ko Samui, Thailand, and flew in our team of 10 for a month of work and pleasure.

The outcome was incredible: aside from a lot of fun and a healthy dose of work, our team connected in ways that would have never been possible at home. It was such a success, both professionally and culturally, that we decided that this was to become a yearly tradition. By January 2015 we had grown to 15 people, and we were off to Bali, Indonesia.

The international gate of Ko Samui Airport, Thailand 2014

How we make it work

We believe that an extended company retreat is an ideal approach to realigning our team’s vision and reflecting on the previous year’s accomplishments. It is our version of Stefan Sagmeister’s sabbatical, and we think that more companies should be doing it. To encourage that, we’ve created a list of tips and experiences that will hopefully make it an easier decision for other companies to pack their bags and do great work.

Note: all these tips are based on our personal experiences in the past few years. A different flavour might be needed for your company. That said, we do hope that our story can serve as a source of inspiration.

1. Work on the right projects

On our trips, we spent a lot of time working on aligning our team’s vision for the future of our company. We hadn’t fully planned for that in Thailand, but with everybody on the same wavelength, away from home and in a beautiful environment, it turned out to be the natural thing to do. Instead of the day to day grind, we used our time on Ko Samui to rethink our product road map, plan a refactor, and redesign our web portal. From that process we reaped great benefits during the rest of the year, as project traffic and revenue boomed.

The next year in Bali we had grown to 15 people, and noticed that information was no longer automatically shared across the entire team. We used our experience from Thailand, and actively set up interdisciplinary teams to research and solve problems that we’d been dealing with. The results were shared in a series of presentations, during which, we discovered the exact requirements for our rebrand and started the process that led to what is now Poki.

Take-aways:

  • Use the distance to look at the big picture
  • Pick projects that you wouldn’t do at home
  • Schedule time for presentations, discussions and knowledge sharing while you’re all on the same page

 

Knowledge sharing, Canggu, Bali 2015

2. Pick your paradise

We’re based in Amsterdam where winters are dark and cold. In 2014 we went to Thailand because the weather is perfect, the food is great and the people are extremely friendly. We picked Ko Samui because it had the tropical island vibe, but was also reasonably accessible with decent 3G and an international airport. A year later we wanted something similar, but different, and we took off to Bali.

If you prefer cities, go somewhere more urban; although you’ll probably spend a bit more on housing and cost of living.

Take-aways:

  • Pick a place that your team is comfortable with
  • Your destination should be exotic enough to be different, but modern enough to access decent internet connection, shops, and sufficient choice of accommodation
  • Southeast Asia is highly recommended as it’s inexpensive, relaxed and friendly
  • Expat communities such as Thaivisa and Balipod contain a wealth of information on things like 3G and cost of living

 

A proper paradise, Gili Trawangan, Bali 2015

3. Bring new people

When we went to Thailand, 2 out of 10 people were developers that were still in their trial period. We weren’t sure what would happen when mixing people that didn’t really know each other, but in the end this turned out great because everyone that joined was really committed to making the trip work professionally. At the time, our developer Kasper hadn’t yet formally decided to join us, but didn’t hesitate for a second after the month was finished. He’s still with us, and will be joining for the third trip in 2016.

Another example is our first and only remote developer Andries, who lives a travelling lifestyle with his girlfriend. He was living in Botswana at the time and decided to join us in Bali. He flew over, and met most of our team for the first time. In Bali he put his international experience to use, and spent the month working on launching new Poki web portals in various countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Take-aways:

  • Bring new people
  • A retreat is a great way to build trust in your team
  • We are hiring!

 

Our lead developer Casper’s first week on the job, Ko Samui, Thailand 2014

4. Take your time

On our trips, we left for three weeks of work. For a number of reasons, I definitely recommend staying for as long as your team’s home situation reasonably allows. For one, the longer you stay, the more exotic your destination can be without being bothered by too much jetlag. Secondly, the longer your trip, the more acclimatized your team will be to their new situation, and the more comfortable they’ll be in one another’s presence.

We noticed that something changes for the better once you really start having the same rhythm of life. The usual commute, distractions and social obligations disappear, and get replaced by a shared way of spending your day. That doesn’t mean there’s no time to withdraw and relax, but being away from home definitely comes with a certain decrease of friction.

There were some of us that couldn’t make it the full three weeks, and that was fine too, as long as there’s some overlap.

On both trips, we extended our trip with an optional few days of pleasure on nearby islands such as Ko Tao and Gili Trawangan to relax and have fun. These places happened to be diving paradises, so many of us got home with a freshly acquired diving license.

Take-aways:

  • Consider taking a longer time off to reap the full benefits of your trip
  • Allow for time off and relaxation
  • A few extra days of pleasure allow for unique shared experiences

 

A typical product meeting, Bali 2015

5. Get connected

The whole premise of the idea of working from anywhere is that there’s a reliable internet connection, so make sure that there’s plenty of connectivity for your team. In Thailand our WiFi turned out to be shaky, so we had to look for other options. Luckily, 3G coverage in Thailand turned out to be excellent, so we ended up using tethering on our smartphones and got a decent 5-10 Mbit connection – more than enough for our needs. We made sure we used the best network by buying a variety of sim cards on arrival, benchmarking every single one of them in our villa, and picking the best one.

Take-aways:

  • Do your research and make sure there’s decent 3G or WiFi before you go
  • On site, test the different networks and pick the one that works best on your exact location

 

The local internet providers, Bali 2015

6. Rent a spacious villa

If the cost of living in your destination is relatively low, benefit from that and treat your team with a great place to stay. In Thailand me and my co-founder went early having arranged nothing whatsoever, and we managed to get a great last-minute deal on an incredible villa with three hottubs, an infinity pool, sauna and cinema.

In Bali, we lived on a beautiful estate with a large garden, fully equiped pool house and dozens of palm trees. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live the 5-star lifestyle, and I’d be equally happy in a bamboo hut, but if you’re going to be living and working in the same house for weeks, make sure you do it in space and comfort.

Take-aways:

  • Don’t skimp on housing. You’ll be spending a lot of time there.
  • Pictures can be deceiving. Either check out the house in person or book through a trusted connection.
  • Go for a house with beautiful shared areas and plenty of work space, rather than a lot of bedrooms. For extra rooms, book a nearby hotel.

 

Thailand

Office spaces, Ko Samui, Thailand 2014

7. Optional: find a hotel

In Bali, we had trouble finding a nice house to accommodate 15 people, but did find a nice place that could fit 10. By booking some additional hotel rooms in the area, we were able to accommodate everyone. Some of us appreciated the privacy of a private hotel room, and as a bonus, enjoyed a beautiful, daily motorbike commute through the rice paddies of Canggu. As long as you make sure that the main ‘office’ has plenty of working space, you can make this concept work with as many people as you like.

Take-aways:

  • As long as the main house is nice, adding remote hotel rooms does not hurt the experience
  • Tropical morning commutes are fun
  • This option is appreciated by people who are keen on their privacy.

 

Breakfast area of the hotel, Canggu, Bali 2015

Breakfast area of the hotel, Canggu, Bali 2015

8. Take care of your team

We tried to do our best to make the working day structured and organized, and empower our team to be as relaxed, creative and productive as possible. In Southeast Asia it’s inexpensive to arrange a private chef and an afternoon massage, and most villas will provide staff that can take care of shopping and housekeeping.

This one may sound decadent, but if you’re going to live and work in the same house for weeks, these perks are really good for team spirit and make a memorable difference.

Take-aways:

  • For an uninterrupted work day, provide breakfast and lunch
  • Dinner is a good excuse to explore the area
  • Thai massages can be painful

 

Stress was hard to find, Bali 2015

9. Rent a motorbike

If you’re going to a place where you can easily rent a motorbike, and if you’re confident about driving in crazy traffic, go for it. It’s the ultimate way to explore, and the sense of freedom you get from driving around freely is amazing. It’ll also give your team a way to independently go out and explore when they’re done working, which is a really important part of the experience.

Take-aways:

  • In Southeast Asia, you can usually rent a motorbike for less than $5 per day
  • Wear a helmet, traffic can be dangerous
  • In Bali, bring an international drivers license if you want to avoid having to constantly pay bribes fines

 

Exploring the island on a motorbike, Lembongan, Bali 2015

Exploring the island on a motorbike, Lembongan, Bali 2015

10. Enjoy the location

One of the best things about being on a tropical island with your co-workers is that you get to enjoy time off in a beautiful and exotic place. No tiresome commute, lots of local culture, food, parties and, depending on where you go, amazing ways of enjoying mother nature. We went snorkeling and scuba diving with turtles in Thailand. In Bali, our daily morning routine included an hour of surfing.

Stats:

  • Coconuts cracked: 273
  • Full-moon parties attended: 1
  • PADI licenses acquired: 14
  • Sea turtles spotted: 11
  • Waves surfed: 673
  • Surf boards snapped: 1
  • Temples visited: 14
  • Swimming pool games invented: 7
  • Cliffs jumped: 38

 

Temples everywhere, Thailand 2014 and Bali 2015

Temples everywhere, Thailand 2014 and Bali 2015

 

All pictures Bali

Searching for turtles, Gili Trawangan, 2015

An invaluable experience

Looking back on our experiences, they’ve turned out to be invaluable in how Poki has grown. Not only are these getaways a perfectly effective way of working on whatever work needs to be done, they’ve has also spawned a successful major rebrand of our company and our products, resulting in a brand name that is powerful, flexible and adaptable in the future ahead. Furthermore, the spirit in which we undertake these trips represents our company culture and the pragmatic, effective and enjoyable way in which we want to work. It makes our team proud, connects them to one another, and makes for stories that will last for years. If your situation allows for it, go for it.

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