Planning a Virtual Retreat

06-16-21 Jody Thornburg

We hosted a creative virtual retreat to refresh our employees. Browse the activities we planned and glean some inspiration for your own virtual retreat!

Early into the pandemic, it was clear that Sparkbox wasn’t going to be able to hold its annual, in-person retreat in the late fall, so our Operations Team embraced the task of planning a virtual team retreat.

Brainstorming Ideas

The first objective on our list was to define the purpose of the retreat. We asked ourselves, Should it be a time for strategy and planning? An opportunity to provide deep-diving education and to polish existing skills? Or would a more fitting purpose for a 2020 retreat be to provide a refuge and recharge for our team? The answer was obvious: our team needed time to refresh, to take good care of one another. And luckily, our Operations Team is especially great at captaining that kind of ship! So we started to plan.

What a fun time we had brainstorming ideas, asking ourselves this question at every turn: Will this activity refresh our team members? Sometimes a refresh might require a good belly-laugh, and at other times, a moment of deep relaxation, and still other times, an opportunity for thankful reflection and meaningful conversation. Our goal was to provide a healthy mix of all these elements. The ideas began flowing like water from a tap, and we decided quickly to just write down every uttered possibility, no matter how wild or expensive or unconventional. We’d narrow down the list later. We spouted off things like virtual tours of The Met, multiplayer Oculus tournaments, adult crafting kits, and a teamwide yoga session. After all our ideas were swimming freely on the page, we began to pull the crop lines in to fit within our time and budget constraints.

It was helpful at that point to transfer all our top ideas to a spreadsheet—with estimated dollar amounts attached to each activity. We found immediately that we had set our sights too high and needed to shave the edges down for budget’s sake. We wanted to spend money in meaningful ways, so we zoomed out and adjusted the lens back to the right setting: our purpose to refresh. We then identified and scrapped any activity that didn’t promise a refreshing return on investment. We gathered the sifted remains and placed them thoughtfully within our timeline—making sure to stagger activities that offered breaks from the computer screen.

Once the setlist of activities was finalized, we meticulously poured over the details and ordered all the necessary materials to make the retreat meaningful and memorable. We shipped a large box to each member of our team, full of retreat-applicable items that were individually wrapped and numbered. Preparing these boxes was laborious but also really fun because we knew the mystery of the contents would generate some extra excitement and intrigue. There were specific instructions to not unwrap anything in the retreat box yet, except for item #1, which was a Sparkbox-customized Yeti coffee mug. We encouraged everyone to have a favorite morning drink ready in their new Sparkbox mug on the Monday morning the retreat would begin.

The Final Retreat Schedule

The retreat kicked off with an all-team meeting, and the rest of the schedule looked like this:

The retreat schedule was broken into two days, Monday and Tuesday. Each activity was blocked into 30 minute to 2 hour time blocks.

Detailed below are the components of our retreat schedule in case you and your team would like to use any of these ideas for your own virtual retreat—or even as one-off team-building activities!

Extended Coffee Hour

Monday 10:00–12:00PM

We typically hold a monthly, all-team meeting, which we refer to as Coffee Hour. For the retreat, we always extend our Coffee Hour meeting to comb through Sparkbox details with more significant depth as a team. For this, we encouraged all team members to turn on their cameras—there’s something about seeing each other’s real-life faces. And such wonderful faces they are!

Cooking Class Lunch

Monday 12:00–1:30PM

Prior to the retreat, we found five volunteers to lead various cooking classes. Team members chose which cooking class they wanted to attend, depending on which meal they were most interested in cooking (and eating). Each team member who signed up was sent a list of ingredients the week prior so that they could have all the ingredients in ready condition to cook together. Our chefs did a fantastic job of walking their groups through cooking the recipe, and it was a really engaging and energizing way to spend time together.

Scavenger Hunt

Monday 1:30–2:30PM

Our scavenger hunt was a lively activity that peeled back the curtains on certain team members’ competitive sides—a rare treat. Each person was to gather items around the house from a list provided, and we gave a prize to the person who collected the most items within the time allotted. It was a fun and energy-generating activity that drew out all the smiles. One thing we noted afterward is that there should have been time scheduled for cleanup. Lesson learned.

Thankfulness Journaling

Monday 2:30–3:00PM

2020 was a tough year in many ways for all of us. Period. While there’s benefit to recognizing the hard realities, it’s also restorative to acknowledge things we’re thankful for in the midst of the hard. We took a half hour on both days of the retreat—and provided a thankfulness journal in each team member’s retreat box—to reflect and record thoughts of thankfulness. Many team members said this was a refreshing exercise, and a few even noted that they wanted to make this a regular part of their routine.

Talent Show

Monday 3:00–4:00PM

The talent show was the most entertaining thing we enjoyed together—it was seriously so much fun! Prior to the retreat, team members could volunteer to show off a talent for the team. In order to avoid real-time technical glitches, we asked all our volunteers to record a timeboxed video of their talent, which we then played via screenshare over Zoom at the retreat. The content and tone of the videos varied widely, which made it so entertaining—ranging from dog tricks to piano-playing and singing to time-lapsed acrylic painting to magic tricks and beyond. It was really special to see our team members shining in personal lights we don’t often get to appreciate. Our team is full of such interesting and wonderful people.

Relax & Unwind

Monday 4:00–5:00PM

Again, the theme of our retreat was Refresh, so naturally, we wanted to set aside time for our team to do just that. We included a heated Shiatsu back/neck massager and a Sparkbox-customized Snuggie™ in each retreat box, and we encouraged our team members to find a quiet space to just relax and enjoy—a therapeutic way to end our first retreat day.

Dinner (Doordash gift card provided)

Monday 5:00–7:00PM

We always plan a special dinner during our in-person retreats, so even though we weren’t able to be together, we still wanted to provide our team members with the opportunity to order a delicious dinner. Doordash made it easy. Prior to the retreat, we found that there were just a few members who weren’t within range for receiving Doordash deliveries, so we made sure to send pre-paid debit cards to those team members instead, ensuring that every member of our team had equal opportunity to order a great meal.

Movie Night

Monday 7:00–8:30PM

With a snack kit in each retreat box full of popcorn and candy—and personalized dietary restrictions accommodated—team members were encouraged to enjoy a movie night with their individual families/communities or to join other Sparkboxers for a Netflix watch party.

Groanies (Team Awards)

Tuesday 10:00–10:30AM and 4:30–5:00PM

Sparkbox has an award ceremony that we affectionately refer to as The Groanies, where team members are celebrated—usually in a comical way—for things they’re known for across our team. For example, someone might be a great cook or snort when laughing or a former magician or a world traveler, and Groanies are awarded accordingly. Our team loves this tradition, and it’s fun to recognize each team member as a human being with charming shades of individuality.

Team Breakouts

Tuesday 10:30AM–12:00PM

Team breakouts have always been an element of our retreats, but the twist this time around was that we tasked each director with organizing a fun, team-building activity rather than focusing on strategy or project details. Our directors crushed that challenge with a mixed bag of ideas—powerpoint karaoke, a group paint-by-numbers session, a personalized Miro board activity, and a layer tennis design challenge.

Photo Walk Lunch

Tuesday 12:00–1:30PM

The photo walk was an optional activity for those team members interested. The directions were simple: “If a photo walk sounds fun to you, take a walk outside and capture things you find interesting while on your walk. Then, post your photos in the retreat Slack channel to share with the team! Enjoy the Great Outdoors!” Simple and fun.

Escape Rooms

Tuesday 2:00–3:30PM

We worked with The Escape Game to schedule virtual games for our team, where a designated game guide—wearing a live camera feed inside the actual escape game room—served as our physical proxy. We divided up into groups of eight to solve “The Heist” mystery of the stolen painting. Highly recommended!

Photoshop/Meme Contest

Tuesday 4:00–4:30PM

A treasured moment in Sparkbox history organically sprouted up after our 2016 retreat when several team members used a photo cutout of our beloved president, Ben, and placed the image into other random photos.

This effort generated quite a comical stir, so we decided to bring it back to life for our 2020 virtual retreat, but this time, with our beloved vice president, Rob, as the subject.

Thankfully, Ben and Rob are not only exceptional leaders but also great sports. We’re a lucky bunch to have them.

Other Elements Not Listed on the Schedule

Giveaways & Prizes

To make things a little more spontaneous and fun, we threw in a handful of giveaways and prizes throughout the retreat—Amazon e-cards were the perfect choice.

Sparkbox-Personalized Gifts

Along with some of the activity-specific items in the retreat boxes, we also threw in a few items to reinforce Sparkbox pride: a Sparkbox-logo-laiden Yeti tumbler and face mask, as well as a limited-edition Sparkbox poster, designed and hand-numbered by our Creative Director.

Spirit Week

One of our most cherished traditions at Sparkbox is Spirit Week. We have so many creative and costume-dedicated team members who love to go all out for this event each year. With a condensed retreat schedule, we decided to turn Spirit Week into two Spirit Days, and our themes were “Zoom Attire” (Day 1) and “The Great Outdoors” (Day 2). As was expected, our team shot the moon!

Detailed Planning and Logistics

The Operations Team started initial planning at the beginning of September—two months prior to the retreat. We purchased all branded items by the end of September to allow plenty of time for printing, receipt of items, packing the boxes, and shipping out to the team. We shipped the boxes three full weeks before the retreat in order to allow time for any delays or problems.

The Friday before the retreat, we created a temporary retreat Slack channel and asked the team to turn their notifications on for the channel. It created one space where all announcements, information, and activities lived, which helped prevent people from getting “lost” or missing out on anything. We also pinned the schedule, zoom links, and other important information for easy access.

The most beneficial tool for facilitating the retreat was our shared Timeline and Announcements doc. It had a detailed schedule broken down into tasks that were assigned to different members of the Operations Team. This allowed us to see who was doing what and when. And we could quickly switch out tasks with one another if necessary.

We included the announcements for each activity within the timeline of the doc so that we could quickly get the correct information to the team right when they needed it. We classified each announcement as Zoom (verbal) and Slack (written) in order to provide clarity on how the message would be going out. The Slack announcements were pre-written for easy copy/paste at the relevant time so that we didn’t have to remember everything as we went. We also included the correct links for Zooms, slide decks, and voting forms.

Everything was planned out ahead of time (down to the minute), so there were very few decisions that had to be made in the moment. Most of the work was already done ahead of time, so we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves much more than we expected.

A Little Advice

If your company is interested in planning a virtual retreat, the highest priority is to plan, plan, plan. Think through each activity thoroughly so that when it comes time, everything plays out smoothly and thoughtfully. There’s something about proper planning that helps reinforce clarity, kindness, and care for your team. Another bit of advice is to be willing to spend a little extra cash. The past year has been full of things being limited or reduced—even a virtual retreat is a product of those extra limitations—so go the extra mile to shower your team with specific, thoughtful, tangible reminders that they’re valued. They’ll feel it.