Last weekend I invited everyone who does ongoing work for the Empire to fly to Seattle for a staff retreat. A third of my folks couldn't make it (including one who, oh, JUST GAVE BIRTH TO TWINS) but six of us gathered for a long weekend at my mother's bed & breakfast/eco-retreat space, Sacred Groves.
The ladies all flew in on Saturday. I picked them up in The Vantasy, and we caught the ferry over to Bainbridge Island. Once everyone had snuggled into their various rooms (Cat & Caroline shared Moon Yurt, Stephanie & JMDodd got separate rooms in the bunk house, and Megan got the Sun Yurt to herself, because she makes really loud weird noises when she's sleeping), we basically got down to business — which mostly involved drinking copious amounts of cheap red wine, gossiping about work, and doing snarky impressions of comments we've deleted over the years.
Here were a few things I learned:
Definitely do welcome bags
…but maybe outsource them. Kelli from Shindig did these great welcome totes for staffers last fall, filled with little snacks, presents, a map & schedule, soaps, chapstick, hair clips, and other awesomeness. This spring, I decided I wanted to little welcome bags again, but I told Kelli I could handle it on my own. This was a mistake, as I suck at this kind of thing. I ended up using barf bags (literally: green airplane barf bags) with an Empire sticker, and then hastily shoving them full of random stuff like hair flowers from Lila Jo, a poorly branded Empire lighter, and a sample pack of Box Intimate Wipes that had showed up in the mail. The result wasn't pretty or especially useful.
Cook for each other
Not that there aren't plenty of restaurants on Bainbridge, but once you're nestled in at Sacred Groves, you don't REALLY want to go anywhere. We went on one big grocery shopping run, and then spent the remainder of the retreat cooking meals for each other. I worried that this would feel weird — "Hey, everyone! To thank you for all your hard work, I was thinking you could all feed each other?!" — but it ended up being really wonderful, with the cooks pulling out their favorite recipes (duck egg apple dutch baby! grilled cheese sandwiches made from brie and pears! pancakes!) and the non-cooks washing dishes and chopping vegetables. The winner for food prep was definitely J.M. Dodd, my web dev. She's used to cooking for a family of six at home, so she was able to feed everyone without breaking a sweat.
Consider time zones when scheduling meal prep
It wasn't until we were out on the island that I realized, DERP: the folks who flew out from back East should totally make breakfast, because for them, starting food prep 8am PST was super easy.
Blend nature & tech
We're all nerds who spend waaaay too much time in front of our machines, fiddling with our smartphones, and staring at our screens. It felt really important to have some time staring out the windows, walking in the woods, sitting in the grass, and otherwise unplugging.
Maybe don't schedule your staff retreat on tax day
Derp. The Empire's coffers were extra low after paying our taxes for both last year and Q1 of this year, so I wasn't as able to go all out financially as I would have liked. Furthermore, we all had to waste precious minutes all griping about our taxes just because that's what you DO on April 15th. No big harm, but April 15th just isn't a fun day.
Homework is valuable, even when people don't do it.
As an assignment, I asked all staffers to try to visualize the dream job they'd like to be working in a few years, and then write a cover letter pitching themselves for the gig. (With bonus points for explaining how their Empire skills made them exactly the right candidate for the gig.) My goal was to have folks pull their heads out of the blogging trenches long enough to visualize where they want to go, and to hopefully work on some self-promotional copywriting skills.
Interestingly, only two of the staffers actually completed the homework — but it was telling that none of the managing editors were willing to do it. Maybe it was laziness, but all of them claimed their excuse was basically, "This is my dream job. I can't picture anything better," which is pretty amazing.
And now, what everyone else says they learned!
Megan Finley, Managing Editor of Offbeat Bride
1. People confuse me with Cat Rocketship in real life
2. Wine gives Stephanie Tourettes
3. You change the oil on an '86 Westfalia behind the license plate
4. When applying for jobs, you should lists some strange cultural references you've encountered from working on the Empire on your app to get people's attention
5. What does and doesn't go into a compost pile
6. Bonus female edition: how to collect menstrual blood from a tampon for use as a garden fertilizer!
Cat Rocketship, Managing Editor of Offbeat Home
The most important things I learned at the Offbeat Empire staff retreat were…
- I WANT A ROUND HOUSE
- It verified what I suspected after the first retreat: I really like the people I work with. They are smart and awesome. In that vein, I feel more able to rely on my co-editors for brainstorms and problem-solving help.
- DUCK EGGS ARE HUGE!
- Grilled cheese sandwiches should ONLY be brie and pears on bread. Mmmmm.
- I didn't actually know how attached to my job I was until I realized NONE of the editors had done our homework because none of us wants to leave. I knew I loved editing Offbeat Home, but I didn't realize it was almost as important to me as drawing. That's pretty incredible. I've chosen drawing over LOTS of things.
- Stephanie takes wayyyy better photos than me!
- JM Dodd could feed an army. Girl has mad skills.
- In fact, the most enjoyable thing I learned was finding out about the other skills Offbeat Staff have. It helps make e-people seem like real people!
- Caroline and I have crazy-similar travel styles. She is my new travel buddy I think.
- The Northwest is amazing. I have never felt so dwarved.
- I LOVED going over our editorial pitches in person. I feel like I leveled up on planning pitches. I don't know what about it clicked, but it did.
- Forests are dark and scary
J.M. Dodd, Web Developer
- I really can spend a weekend reading a book (Game of Thrones!) instead of messing with code. I think I opened Terminal once to fix a misbehaving plugin.
- Duck eggs are very tasty, especially in apple Dutch baby.
- The native flora of Bainbridge Island is totally different from the stuff on the East Coast. Trilliums! About a billion kinds of ferns!
- I work with awesome people. It is so nice to come out from behind the screen to say something other than "Fixed," or worse, "Can you elaborate on that?".
- Xbox 360 Dance Central 2 is more fun with friends.
- My family gets along pretty well without me. Children were clothed, dishes done, laundry run, meals cooked.
Stephanie Kaloi, Offbeat Mama Managing Editor
1. I really do actually really love my job. I knew I did, but saying out loud that you would have to force me to leave the Empire was kind of awesome because I realized, "OH, hey! That's TRUE."
2. Yurts are just as lovely in real life as you imagine they might be.
3. My previously held ideas as to what constitutes a mildew-y smell and what REALLY smells mildew-y were challenged. This wasn't a bad thing. I love you, PNW.
4. JM Dodd is the best cook ever.
5. If we were able to work in-person all the time I think we'd rock it. Pitch meeting on Monday was long, but so awesome. I felt way more connected to the other two sites.
6. People don't take warnings about how I talk too much after drinking red wine as seriously as they should.
Caroline Diezyn, Copyeditor
What I learned on the Offbeat Retreat:
1. How to hone my cover letter writing so that it pimps my skills even more.
2. How to make lots of grilled cheese really quickly.
3. That playing Dance Central 2 on a projector in a round yurt with huge speakers is something I can do all night long.
4. That Jim Carrey was really hot with blonde hair.
5. That Cat Rocketship and I both love walks, naps, and boozes to punctuate our travels.
6. That all of the members Empire are even more fun and personable in real life.
7. That my grammar trolls are no match for the Empire's trolls at large.
8. That ketchup chips are generally not well-received in the States.
9. That Gersberms are my fravrit berks.
Ariel here, again.
So, the biggest lesson I learned? Making staff retreats happen annually really REALLY does need to be an ongoing business priority for a company with all-remote workers.