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How to Make the Most of In-Person Gatherings for Remote and Hybrid Teams

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In February, at our annual “Return to the Mothership,” as I call it, our team came together to spend three days at an airport hotel in Minnesota. We wanted attendees to be able to fly where they needed without stepping outside into the cold Minneapolis winter. There was even a direct connection via mass transit to the Mall of America for sightseeing, but the place itself was not where everyone found the most value.

Since the pandemic, people have been less engaged and more disconnected from their company’s mission and purpose. A strong workplace culture can create healthier, happier, and more productive people who stick around and increase profits. Still, as leaders adopt greater remote and hybrid flexibility, that culture becomes harder to achieve.

Regular in-person gatherings help us bridge that gap for our mostly hybrid company. We spend a lot of money on our annual event, but the cultural boost and energy lift we receive in return is always worth the investment. Rather than considering the cost of holding these in-person experiences, I evaluate if I drew out the most possible value from them. Here’s what I consider:

Related: 5 Things You Need to Bridge The Gap Between In-Person and Remote Meetings

Do what is digitally impossible

Design in-person activities that can only be done in person. Rather than on-screen product demos, we put products into people’s hands. Instead of speakers in big lecture halls that could be watched over Zoom, we rent many small rooms for round-robin exchanges between small groups. In-person training should go beyond skills development to ensure alignment around the leader’s vision, direction, and path. At the heart of every activity, consider all possible ways it can drive and blend culture.

Even lunch can be an opportunity. Encourage team members to get to know coworkers with whom they might not normally socialize. Gallup data has long connected having close friends at work to higher engagement, a stronger culture and increased profitability. These are business outcomes that, since the pandemic, have become even more pronounced. Some experts estimate a high degree of belonging among employees can save a 10,000-person company $52 million a year. Taking every advantage to promote meaningful connections in person can be an effective way to build that sense of community.

Related: The 3 Meetings You Should Have for Remote Workers

Consider everyone in the room

Plan activities with the needs of all attending groups in mind. Most of our salespeople are remote and might need more support to feel connected. Rather than keeping them separate, we plan their time with others by considering shared needs. We held one large group sales training but restructured the conversation to accommodate the inclusion of non-salespeople. By helping accountants better understand the goals of the people requesting commission checks, they can more easily build relationships and improve cross-departmental collaboration.

What people want out of in-person gatherings may be different, so ask. When our company was smaller, we knew one another’s spouses and families and often included them in team gatherings. Today, our workforce is larger, younger, and less oriented toward spousal or family events. Compared to an in-person gathering of 200 employees, a 400-person event, including spouses, is much more expensive. By asking what my team members want, I can determine if that extra cost is needed or if $100 gift certificates to recognize a spouse’s support would be more appreciated.

Related: 5 Unconventional Ways to Boost Remote Work Culture and Enhance Productivity

Timing is everything

We used to hold our annual gathering in October at the launch of our fiscal year, but last year, we were in transition and unable to dedicate our focus to the event. So, we delayed until February, but cancellation fees cost us an incremental 20 to 25% of the whole event. Still, if we had paid the full expense and called everyone into the field without being ready to offer them an event worth attending, the negative energy in response would have been much more devastating.

As it turned out, rescheduling the event gave us an energy boost, leading to our busiest time of year and maximizing our annual opportunity. To help sustain that elevated energy, we also encourage smaller gatherings throughout the year as needed. Our regional sales teams meet several times a year, while our inside sales group prefers to meet quarterly. Schedule in-person events with enough frequency to sustain the resulting energy from one gathering to the next and, if lagging, adding another might be a valuable investment.

Related: Don’t Make Your Team Dread Meetings — Try These Tips Instead

Follow up and improve

Asking for feedback ensures that efforts to bring people together in person are most effective. Our leadership team monitors the event throughout for signs of enjoyment or discontent. We also ask people to share what they liked most as the event wraps up. Within the week following, we send out a formal survey requesting feedback on each part of the agenda, including factors like the environment, hotel, and event dates. Finally, we discussed our notes as a planning committee to adjust and improve for the following year.

This year, we tried to help people mitigate agenda conflicts with their day-to-day jobs. Rather than setting aside another 15 minutes of unassigned free time, we built intentional breaks into the day dedicated to doing work. We also asked people to prioritize that time for work and free themselves from distractions the rest of the day. Be direct in asking employees for buy-in and start early, long before the gathering happens. By getting people to invest their focus on the special environment, we better ensure they get as much out of it as we do.

Despite a mild winter, we got lucky this year, and it snowed — a picture-perfect dusting. We had attendees from across the country and beyond, including from our Mexican manufacturing team, who had never seen snow. We all watched with shared joy as they got on the ground to make snow angels for the first time — a moment I could never have planned and will probably never be able to recreate. As long as we set the stage to maximize authentic connections, some of the most meaningful interactions happen when we simply sit back and let them.

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