Working as an employee experience manager in a hybrid-remote team heading to an offsite by the sea, I hear the usual questions: “How long are we staying? How's the weather over there? What time are we leaving?”
Later, sitting in a taxi to the airport with the Paris-based squad, clutching their sunglasses and their headphones, a voice asks quietly: “By the way… how tall do you think Bruno is?”
And as we look around, we realize nobody quite knows the answer to that question.
Despite countless hours spent working together over the past year, many of our coworkers haven’t seen more than our torsos and chosen Zoom backgrounds.
It seems a long time since our last offsite in Hyères, France. In just a year, Meilisearch grew by ten more people. We now have enough to fill a soccer team!
As our company gets larger, it becomes harder to know everyone. With the offsite, our goal is to provide a venue for Meilisearch-ers to meet in real-time and in the same space. They can get to know each other even if they're not working closely together.
In fact, a question we loved hearing during the trip back is, "Who did you discover during this offsite?" Because the feeling when you're reminded that your colleagues are people you are proud to be working with makes it all worth it!
Bringing the Meilisearch touch to our company offsite
Meilisearch was created with the idea of being a people-first company. Early on, we chose to go with a 4-day work week, and later on implemented flexible working hours and unlimited remote working. Today, our team is hybrid-remote. Anyone can choose to work remotely, from the office in Paris, from a coworking space, or a mix of it all.
Although we think the offsite is the best way for everyone at Meilisearch to meet their coworkers, we know being away from home can be tiring. We want to ensure that work-life balance can still be maintained during this time.
Of course, there are limits to what we are able to do compared with a normal week. However, we try our best for our offsites to be a gentle and positive experience, with dedicated free time for people to spend as they wish and a room for each person. Our HR team takes care to apply the Meilisearch touch even when scheduling an offsite.
The offsite itself is not strictly mandatory: though we believe meeting and working in real life with the team has immense value, if someone at Meilisearch has a personal priority, we either find alternatives for them to be able to attend on slightly different days or let them out.
We do not think it is our role to enforce presence at any cost: if an employee tells us something in their private life is more important this year, we believe them no questions asked. If our colleagues do not want to board a plane or just don't feel like getting away at this time, we follow the same principle.
Similarly, the team-building activities are meant to be accessible to every team member present at the offsite, but we do not insist on participation. This year, we had a fantastic time walking all around the old town of Dalt Vila on a scavenger hunt. We did our best to find clues and take pictures in small groups. The views were breathtaking, and we collectively took far too many pictures of animals. (Although there were some debates about whether dragons counted as animals.)
On a different afternoon, some of us went biking alongside the coast and through the countryside, while others stayed at the hotel to enjoy the pools and spa. We were delighted to use electric bikes that afforded us all ten brand new muscles (disclaimer: no biology textbook was consulted during the writing of this blog post) and all the more serenity with which to admire the clear and sparkling sea.
At Meilisearch, we can strive together with different approaches and activities. Our initiatives and needs are valued, and we believe this frame of mind creates a space in which people feel confident to chat with their coworkers and build our projects together.
Learning communication: a skill rather than a talent
During the offsite, we participated in two workshops on considerate communication.
One morning, we practiced listening without interrupting: in pairs, we listened to the other person speak without saying anything for seven minutes. Another day, we worked the other way around and formed small groups who could ask as many questions as they liked on a given subject (”How to make sure our recruitment process is diverse?” or “How can we communicate better in the Product Team?”), while the person who was officially in charge took notes without responding. It was a whole new way to brainstorm for us!
We were also quite surprised to be reminded through a practical case just how many ways there are to interpret one message.
Communication is essential in any company or, for that matter, any kind of relationship. We believe communication can be impeded when people don't dare to reach out or do not have the tools or safety to express themselves. That is why we are very attached to a company culture in which we can publicly disagree, yet still commit to finding solutions together.
In another blog post, I explained how we were building informal communication within the team at Meilisearch. The offsites are a cornerstone of that strategy: it's one of the only times of the year in which we have an opportunity to directly observe other colleagues and pick up on some of their behaviors through osmosis. As we cannot rely on nonverbal communication or context much in writing, it's essential for all of us working remotely to communicate well.
We believe that communication can be learned. Although it's sometimes seen as a somewhat vague or innate concept, there are indeed skills that come with being able to express an idea, listen to someone, take or give feedback with grace, and work well together. And what better way to learn these skills than to experiment together?
We are very excited to continue improving our offsites as Meilisearch grows. After each offsite, we send a survey to everyone in the team to get their input and make the next ones closer to their needs.
As more people join us, we will continue to experiment with the formula. This could mean one all-staff offsite a year in addition to a team-specific offsite. We also want to work on sustainability and offer still more freedom regarding food and downtime.
In the end, though, there is one thing we will never change: that our offsite is not about discovering our colleagues' height, but how interesting they are as human beings.