Posted 1 March, 2016 by Zara Rahman

Live from Spain, it’s the engine room retreat!

Last week, we held our annual retreat in a house in the Pyrenees – a “retreat” in all senses of the word. 

The retreat is always an important week in the engine room calendar: as a distributed organisation, we don’t get to meet in person very often. For some of us, the retreat can be the first chance to meet in person after months of online collaboration – and it can make a big difference to how we work.

To prepare, Alix worked with Chris Michael to develop an agenda using information gathered through one-on-one discussions with each of us, conversations with our board and reflections on the challenges we face as an organisation. The major topics included:

  • What is “success” for us in five years’ time?
  • Feedback mechanisms within and for the engine room.
  • What policies do we need to make our work possible?
  • What are our strategies for documenting what we do?
  • How can we best systematize the support we provide?
  • Identifying challenges for our work – both on a personal level, and organisationally.

As you’ll see from this list, very little of it focused on content. Rather than looking at what specifically we work on, this retreat was much more about understanding how we want to work. We focused on putting processes in place, and setting the foundations that we needed for our work over the next year.

In-person time lets us discuss processes that rarely reach near the top of our to-do lists, addressing issues that we take for granted or are hard to address online. For example, which communication channels we use to communicate internally can make a huge difference to the way we collaborate. So does the way we frame the content, and how often we share that content. But it can be difficult to prioritize conversations about this in the course of our normal days – particularly when they have to be held remotely.

For a distributed team, retreat priorities are very different to those of organisations who spend most of their time in the same office. Working online in a busy organisation means that we rarely prioritise ‘social’ time, but it turned out to be almost as important as the scheduled agenda time. Members of our team have out-of-work interests that are very relevant to what the engine room does, while strong relationships between team members helps keep work fun and engaging. Building those relationships needs time and space, so having a couple of afternoons off and a weekend just to hang out with each other was really valuable.  

Because I’m more used to workshops that aim for concrete outcomes or actions, the idea of not doing or creating initially seemed a little counter-intuitive. But as the week went on, it began to make complete sense. For a distributed organisation, the how matters a great deal more than the what. When we know how best to go about our work, supported by a good set of systems, we can make sure that we achieve the what as best we can.

Although we made a great start on building those foundations, we’ve still got a way to go. We made an effort to try to be pragmatic about what we could do immediately following the retreat: each of us committed to doing just one thing, with others scheduled for later in the year. We’ll be sharing progress on those processes and learnings as we go – watch this space!

With big thanks to Chris Michael for helping us put together such a great agenda!

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