Planning an event is not easy. Planning a corporate summer retreat? Even harder. How about organizing a company-wide meetup when your team is 40% remote? That’s pretty tough, too. Similar to planning a wedding, it’s recommended to start about a year in advance and to exercise a lot, a whole lot of patience.
We’re pretty lucky here at Poll Everywhere to have an Operations team fearless enough to take on this task with grace and efficiency.
Wondering what we do differently to make our biannual company-wide meetups go so smoothly? Good news. We sat down with Thoey Bou, Poll Everywhere’s People Operations Manager, to give you the inside scoop on planning a company retreat that keeps your most valuable business asset top of mind: your employees.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face as a 40% remote company?
A: The hybrid model, having almost 40% of employees remote and 60% in our San Francisco office, is an expensive option, but choosing it highlights how leadership financially supports their stated values. For many reasons, the hybrid model is the right choice for us. It allows us to not have to choose between being fully remote or in-office and allows for a broader pool of incoming talent. This type of location diversity is one way of being inclusive. That being said, we do face some challenges with this model. Sometimes, it feels like we are constantly fixing the bridge, every day. Communication, which is infrequently talked about, always feels like it could be improved between the ‘Mothership’ and remotes. At times, it feels like the effort is unseen, but the Operations team definitely knows how valuable it is! It’s simple: no communication = no operation.
Q: Why do you feel that this hybrid model is the right choice for Poll Everywhere?
A: We really value work/life balance. In modern-day tech, we’re ‘on-call’ all the time. At Poll Everywhere, we try to communicate very clearly that work hours are not 24 hours a day – and when your teammates aren’t in the office together you’re forced to have really good communication from all employees. Here, we intend on creating a culture of trust. For example, you can have an appointment and not have to take a full day of PTO. We trust that you will balance your professional life with your personal one. This also puts the responsibility on the individual instead of on the company, which is exactly how we view company culture. Every individual’s contribution forms the foundation of a company’s culture. It cannot be dictated by one person or by the operations team. It comes from the ground up.
Q: What was it like planning a company-wide meetup for a 40% remote company?
A: Well, this was my 8th or 9th. Logistically, it’s gotten easier over the years, but the challenges of getting people to mingle, connect, and socialize, and figuring out what we need as a company stayed the same. As a creative, I’m constantly being challenged to think outside of the box. For example, People Bingo is not new but we added our own twist to it.
Q: What were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?
A: Logistics were a little tricky. It’s hard to find a place that fits 60 people AND also meets our needs! It always works out, but I always say that the show starts during remotes week, but the stress starts long before. Any obstacles that pop up you have to roll with, and definitely plan ahead. If you wait until the last minute, it will be too late. Another challenge was that we always push ourselves to be better and to plan events that are a fit both logistically and culturally. Happy hours are easy to find, but they didn’t feel right for our culture. There’s a point when you need to call it and let things go even when it’s not exactly what you want. Also, you need to ask for help when you need it.
Q: What types of events do you plan and how do you ensure employees feel included?
A: There’s no list that we check off. All of this is done by gut feeling and past feedback. We used to plan a lot of company-wide meetings and trainings during these meetups, but this year’s goals were very different. Our major focus was company culture, bonding, and mingling. That allowed us to specifically focus on planning events that ensured people would feel included. It’s also really important to make sure you give attention to new employees, making sure they feel engaged without being overwhelmed. Buddy systems are a huge help here.
Sometimes with planning events like these, people get so busy that ‘checking in’ on your team becomes less of a priority. We aim not to do that at Poll Everywhere. Just because one person is busy doesn’t mean we can forget about our teammates! This is why having a team in the first place is so helpful; we can keep each other accountable and remind each other to check-in, and be considerate and mindful.
A couple of events we planned this year that really stood out were People Bingo, a Mystery Dinner, and a Remotes Discussion. We used the book The Art of Gathering as a reference, which was very helpful. Our takeaway was that every gathering you have is intentional; the more specific you are, the higher the quality of that experience. We love the people mingling part! It’s so fun to host parties that get people to interact and learn about each other.
The idea for the Mystery Dinner came from Sam, our Operations leader. We grouped everyone into small dinner groups and sent them to ten different restaurants. The element of surprise here was that people had to discover their groups by piecing together a puzzle that only the other members of their group had the pieces. This event also ended up being a mystery for us since we didn’t know where people would be going until almost the day of! Putting people in smaller groups really limited them from mingling in their comfort zones, which was great since a point of feedback was that people felt that large group dinners were too loud and they wanted more bonding time with people they didn’t already know or work with. We were also incredibly intentional about selecting the groups. We thought about a variety of things including whether they were remote or in-office, introverted or extroverted, and have similar interests but didn’t know it yet. This was a really rewarding event for us.
When it comes to engagement and inclusion, we all have the same goal. As a product, Poll Everywhere focuses on engaging the audience. The Operations team focuses on engaging employees. We’re data-driven, but people operations is both an art and a science. How do you interpret data that also includes what the data doesn’t indicate and you have to fill in with people understanding? A lot of companies don’t get feedback or confirmation because they don’t ask their people – and they don’t know how to. It’s very intimidating. You have to remember that it’s a relationship between your business and your people, and that you all have the same goal.
Q: What would be your #1 piece of advice for someone planning a similar retreat?
A: Know your capabilities. The more tuned in you are with how much you can do will help you. Remember, the event is bigger than you. So many things are out of your control that perfection is impossible! As we scale, I let go of perfectionism, which really taught me how to lean in, ask others for help, and communicate expectations very clearly. I learned a lot about what I can and cannot do.
Flexibility is also important. Be open to last-minute ideas and don’t say no just because something is hard. That being said, whatever logistics can be made easier, it’s important to keep them easy.
From planning company-wide meetups to prioritizing our employees’, we do employee engagement differently at Poll Everywhere. Learn more about how Poll Everywhere works, and how you can use it to improve employee engagement, hold more effective meetings, or gather team feedback.