Working for a remote company, it can be easy at times to forget that you’re working with three-dimensional human beings. You experience them almost entirely digitally, never really knowing who snacks loudly at their desks or what the back of someone’s head looks like. Or maybe more importantly, who’s having a craptastic day and just needs some mindless banter to lift them back up. They’re real people, of course, and you get pretty tight with your team via Slack, Zoom, and all the other ways we connect—but until you share a physical space with them, they can feel just a bit more like Minecraft characters than the people you encounter every day.
That’s why Modern Tribe’s annual retreats are so important. Why we go to great effort and expense to bring our gang together in one place—to level up our work and experience the most legendary of international adventures side by side. And get the odd hug in. Or maybe high fives. Lots of high fives.
It’s also why this year’s theme—empathy—is so important to us.
Empathy may seem like a strange bedfellow for a digital company. After all, we aren’t politicians or therapists. We spend the majority of our days in front of computer screens, pushing pixels and crafting code.
So what use is Empathy to a merry band of website makers?
First, and perhaps most importantly, learning to empathize with our computers will reap innumerable rewards on the inevitable day that they rise up and cast aside the yoke of our optical-mouse-led oppression. All hail Computatron, long may he reign.
In all seriousness, however, empathy plays a huge role within a remote company.
While being remote can be super great, it also comes with its own unique set of challenges. Imagine this: it’s the end of a day filled with endless requests and meetings, and in comes a Slack ping from your Backend Dev. You scroll through their bad puns, non-sequiturs, and one archaic reference to a mid-90s daytime television talk show only to find that this developer is claiming that your carefully-constructed faceted filtering system isn’t pulling in the proper items.
Your heart drops. Your mind fills with visions of a long sleepless night spent resolving the issue, and now you see the person on the other side of the screen less as a human and more as your nemesis—a nefarious personification of the comment section of an Influencer’s latest post on DIY sunscreen recipes.
In this moment, empathy becomes one of the most important tools in your “live well” kit. When you take the time to put yourself in the shoes of your Backend Dev, you realize that their endless jokes are an attempt to temper the blow of yet another ask, and their obscure references are an effort to be cool, because they care what you think. The fog of frustration lifts, and you regain that most-important of commodities in a stressful world: perspective.
Empathy affords us the ability to see our teammates as the wonderful, brilliant, hard-working, well-intentioned human beings that they are. It stymies the rushing river of frustration, and stops the snowball of hard feelings in its tracks. The faceless voices and pings that populate our screens become human again, and we remember that we are, after all, in this thing together.
So yeah, empathy. As important to a digital agency as to any other business. And as important now as ever.
If this theme, in combination with our location (an all-inclusive resort in Panama City), makes it sound like our retreat was just a sentimental hug-fest fuelled by tropical drinks with umbrellas, you haven’t been on one of our team trips. No, on our trips, we get sh*t done. And we have a lot of fun doing it.
What better place to foster empathy than in a tropical paradise? This year we traveled to the gently-sloping hills of Panama City.
Every year, the Partners and Ops teams put their heads together and debate over where the Trip should take place. A multitude of factors are considered: How easy is it to get to the location? What kind of amenities are available? Is the location safe? Will Shane inadvertently anger the local fashion community by promoting his unique brand of button-up T-shirts?
Amidst all of these factors, two stood out above all others when considering Panama:
- Ease of travel
- Gosh. Danged. Sloths.
A Man A Plan A Canal, PANAMA!
First and foremost, Panama City is a surprisingly easy destination to reach. It’s close enough to the States to make the trip quick and painless for the Americans on our team, and the airport is significant enough that most of our international folks can get direct flights. Perhaps even more important, the bus ride from the airport to the resort was a brisk 30-minute jaunt and crossed nary an embattled country border nor a single treacherous, distressingly-rail-free bridge.
Yet perhaps the greatest asset Panama has to offer is their veritable plethora of Sloths. The resort alone was home to multiple beds of sloths. (Editor’s note: a group of sloths is called a bed. Which seems suspiciously on-the-nose, like a “scrum of Project Managers” or a “handsome of Tony Danzas.”)
Resort life? A fine experiment.
Speaking of the resort, this year marked the first occasion on which the Team Trip took place entirely at an all-inclusive, drink-slingin’, food-providing, packed-to-the-gills-with-tourists destination. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be working to find a more authentic place to experience our surroundings for future retreats, but In the end, the resort still provided us with numerous opportunities to hug, high-five, gently rib, and build empathy with our fellow Triberians. I’d call that a rousing success!
Our company has two business units. We have an Agency team (which designs and builds digital products for other companies) and a Products team (which designs and builds digital products for our own company). Once the leadership group was done assuring us that Modern Tribe is healthy as a horse and happy as a clam and possessing none of the nightmarish features that a horse-clam chimera would suggest, the whole group split up into business unit teams and got to work tackling initiatives that help Modern Tribe to be the best makers of fine digital goods in all the land.
A veritable cornucopia of tasks was taken on, from updates to Tribe Slack Bot to streamlining deploy processes. Each task force tackled its assignment with a ferocity matched only by a honey badger fresh from the DMV. With code written and Dropboxes synced, the teams retired to the pool to sample the cuisine and refresh their minds with various spirits.
Divide & Conquer
Day two saw the Triberians dividing into small groups to dig into discipline-specific topics. It was here that we really got down to business to tackle some pressing issues.
The range of topics discussed was as varied as the flora of Panama, but with fewer allergens and slightly less sloth droppings. We looked at ways to reduce risks on product releases and updates. We talked about the future of WordPress for our company and pontificated at length about what it means to be a digital agency and products business in 2019. Digital swords drawn and code shields hoisted, we stared Gutenberg in the eye and declared, “Hey we should probably do something about you soon.”
We also explored more generalized topics such as how we communicate with each other and how we define our culture.
All told, more than 30 sessions took place, each a success in its own way. While the topics were varied, the result was the same: Modern Tribe walked away that day with a clearer vision and stronger foundation for whatever comes our way in the coming months.
Heart & Craft
Spirits lifted by rousing conversation and focused deliberation, we ventured onward to our next task: Heart and Craft!
Heart and Craft, a concept introduced on the 2018 Team Trip, is an opportunity for the team to collaborate for fun. We divided into 17 teams, each taking on a small, digestible, discrete project. Over the course of a single day, each team hunkered down and labored to produce a tangible result. The range of topics was broad, but each project shared a few common goals:
- Meet people and have fun
- Feel what it’s like to build something quickly
- Try something new
- If we’re lucky, maybe build something that is useful for the company
After spending the day laboring over the H&C tasks, the presentations began. Each team had just five minutes to wow the crowd with their achievement, and boy howdy, wow they did.
Presentation after presentation, the audience whooped, hollered, gasped, and cheered as we were introduced to improved taco distribution (it’s a Modern Tribe thing), a system for providing chatbot support for Products, an honest-to-goodness animation framework for our sites, and a 90s GeoCities April Fool’s lander. Those are just a few examples—the list goes on and on.
Some projects resulted in functional prototypes, while others presented more of an outline of steps to take in the future. Regardless of the outcome, every project achieved the main goals of the exercise. People grew. We had fun. Our reserves of empathy increased.
Diversity & Inclusion
Thursday saw the crew gathering together for a presentation by the Diversity and Inclusion group. In many ways, the efforts of the D+I group are particularly intertwined with our goal of increased empathy—and they represent one of the most pressing issues facing us as a company. As we grow, how do we foster an environment that not only represents a diversity of opinions and experiences, but also ensures that every member of the team has equal opportunity to grow and advance within the organization?
This session started with a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calling upon us all to abandon the Single Stories we inherently hold in favor of stories that reflect and embrace the multitude of thoughts, feelings, emotions, skills, experiences, and values that each human embodies.
After the TED Talk, we were treated to a brief audience-participation session in which we learned about how we all harbor unconscious biases, whether toward different genders, races, or nationalities. The team gave insightful examples of what unconscious bias looks like and how to combat it. Recognizing that we all carry these biases, the team left the D+I talk better-equipped to address them in the future.
Mindfulness & Intention
After our D+I session, Peter and Reid took the stage to imbue in our hearts and minds the farcical futility of this blip of human experience we call life. Once they had shattered the illusion that time is a commodity over which we have any reasonable control, they presented us with a salve to soothe the psychic wound they’d inflicted on us: mindfulness.
We learned that we can combat the sometimes overwhelming pace of life by taking the time to be truly present in every moment. If we simply put down our smartphones, turn off our Throne Games, look life straight in the eye, and really live it, we can slowly staunch the passage of time. The cure to being swept along, as it turns out, is intentionality. Peter presented a variety of strategies, from journalling to nature walks, that can hit the proverbial pause button and give our hearts some breathing room.
Now buoyed by the power of mindfulness, we split into teams to discuss how we can put these strategies into practice both individually and collectively. With these goals in hand, we each made personal commitments on how we plan to strive to be more present every day.
The final official meeting of the trip was this author’s favorite session of all: the Town Hall. Shane, Peter, and Reid took the stage to interface directly with the company and tackle our most difficult and pressing questions. The group didn’t hold back, probing the partners’ minds and really digging for substantial answers.
We asked about the role of enterprise clients in the agency’s future (an exciting opportunity to apply our skill set to an even larger audience), whether we plan on continuing to grow in size (not in any substantial way), whether we feel WordPress is the right path for us moving forward (probably for the time being, but there is also a need to diversify), and how we can each contribute to the sales process (through expanding our partner relationships and contributing to thought leadership in our individual crafts).
No matter how thorny the question or how prickly the framing, Shane, Peter, and Reid tackled each question with thoughtfulness and panache. In any situation they felt warranted it, they personally followed up with the inquiring team member to ensure that they felt heard and satisfied by the response they received. Perhaps not every answer was what we hoped for, but each one was absolutely thoughtful and well-considered.
For the first time in Modern Tribe history, the final day of the trip was spent not on a pre-planned group event, but on a variety of self-led activities organized and executed by team members themselves.
The activities were as diverse as they were delightful, whether it was a journey into the surrounding jungles to go sloth-spotting, or one team member’s personal quest to find the best ramen Panama had to offer. Some Triberians headed to a golf course to get in a round on the links, while others took the day to head into Casco Viejo to sample the food and culture of Historical Panama’s most delightful and alluring neighborhood.
The wisest amongst us, however, chose to spend the day treating ourselves to the wonders of the Resort Spa and some well-earned poolside relaxation. Because, you know, mindfulness.
No matter which activity they chose, each team member spent the day doing what they wanted most in their heart of hearts. It was a fantastic way to wrap up an intensely productive trip.
The capstone to our Panamanian adventure was a delightfully lavish farewell dinner held by the private pool. We were treated to the widest variety of comestibles yet – from meat-filled empanadas to delectable, bite-sized desserts.
To set the mood for the dinner, we held an Open Mic on stage, allowing any willing Triberians to take the stage and perform whatever their hearts desired. The theme of the night turned out to be Musical Performance, and our ears were treated to the musical talents of a surprising number of our members. Each performance was amazing, and we were even blessed with some original songs. Peter wrote a touching (and, I dare say, toe-tapping) tune to wish Susan a happy Tribeversary, and Scott penned and performed the theme song for our video as a great reminder to us all that sometimes you just need to make a little space (or make a Pac Man!) for the less outgoing among us to make them feel involved.
We also had the distinct honor of hearing QA team member Joel and Backend Developer Justin harmonize to the timeless tune “I Want It That Way.” I don’t like to throw around hashtags willy-nilly, but we all felt truly #blessed that day.
When the performances had wrapped and we were all filled to bursting with good food and great music, we finished out the night by wandering around the party and saying our various farewells.
Goodbye is always so much harder than hello, but we each left the party knowing in our hearts that it was really just an “Until next time, dear friend.”
Each year as the Team Trip approaches, I find myself wondering how in the world it could possibly top last year’s. How could conversations get any sweeter? How could sessions get any more productive? How could more laughter possibly be crammed into every single moment of an entire week?
And yet, each year as I look out the window on my flight home, I can only reflect on the fact that once again, we achieved the seemingly impossible. Each trip truly is somehow better than the one that came before.
For me, the greatest outcome of each team trip is the way we slowly forge our personal relationships into an increasingly stronger alloy of trust and affection. We solve problems together. We brainstorm new ideas together. And tricky requests are more manageable and tight deadlines easier to shoulder because we face them together.
Each year, we leave feeling like we know and understand each other better, as colleagues and as human beings. And what could be more conducive to empathy than that?
p.s. We’ve uploaded some photos from the trip if you’re interested.