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How to make the most of your post-pandemic employee gatherings

Even before the pandemic, Knak was not a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday kind of company. Everyone worked from home, with occasional gatherings in someone’s basement or a coffee shop. We didn’t open an office until last year, and even so, we still expect employees to work from home some of the time. And any employees who don’t live in or near Ottawa work remotely on a permanent basis.

Because our employees have always been spread out, it’s long been our policy to bring everyone together in one place a couple of times a year. We’ve always found these on-site sessions – we call them ‘Knak Camp’ – incredibly valuable.

COVID-19 put a stop to our regular on-site gatherings. The last time we were able to get all our employees together physically in one space was in November, 2019. 

With the pandemic finally showing signs of running out of steam, we’re incredibly excited to revive our tradition. Plans are in the works to hold our next gathering in the fall of this year.

I strongly encourage every company to organize this kind of gathering, particularly if your staff has been working remotely since the start of the pandemic.

Here’s how to make the most out of any employee gathering, based on our experience of organizing a couple of them each year.

Get everyone together physically

Find a space where people can gather in person. This is absolutely critical. Everyone has to be there. No Zooming allowed! This is about getting employees to connect as people, with all their quirks, foibles, talents and interests on display.

Yes, Zoom is useful, and video chats have been important over the last year and half. But people don’t act on a Zoom call the way they act in real life. They don’t open up. They don’t show their vulnerabilities. It’s difficult to have side conversations. And in a group video chat context, some people never speak.

People need to meet face-to-face.

We’ve found our employee gatherings work best if they happen outside the regular work environment, whether at a hotel, a conference centre, or some other spot that isn’t the office.

The daytimes are business-oriented, focused on informing employees of company plans and gathering their ideas. The evenings are about social gatherings (usually dinner) and team building activities.

Daytimes and evenings are equally important to us.

Arrange to hear from everyone, especially the people who are normally quiet

Gathering everyone together is the perfect occasion for getting feedback and useful ideas from employees. Don’t waste that chance by lecturing them, or boring them with long presentations from management.

The leadership team should set the scene, and provide a structure for gathering feedback through an interactive discussion. Then it should step back and listen.

Once a discussion gets going, people will feed off each other. Employees you don’t normally hear from will pipe up. In our experience, wonderful ideas emerge from these interactive brainstorming sessions.

When your employees are all together, you’ll also get cross-pollination as people from one department interact (on purpose or by chance) with employees from another.

For example, during one discussion I realized that our sales people were targeting a specific type of person in a company. The discussion made me realize we should be targeting people with an entirely different profile. I would never have known that if I hadn’t been listening!

You can also plan to get insight and feedback on specific things.

For example, before the pandemic, our leadership team would deliberately present unfinished strategies at on-sites, and rely on discussion with employees to fill the blanks. We look forward to being able to do this kind of thing again.

Allow employees to create human relationships with each other

In our experience, it’s critically important that our employees get to know each other as people. The more they know each other as individuals, the better they are able to work together. That’s why non-business matters take up at least half of our on-site meetings. 

Over the years we’ve organized pool parties, brewery tours, go-karting outings and even poker games. The idea is just to get people to know one another as human beings.

The human side of a work relationship is important because it builds bonds of trust. Employees will work better if they know they can depend on their colleagues for help or ideas.

When your employees work remotely (as we all used to do until we opened our office), the hardest thing to replicate is the human side of work. That’s why we always put effort into creating human connections. And because the pandemic has made it even more difficult for people to interact as humans, it becomes doubly important to allow for that as soon as the public health situation permits.

Get people out of their comfort zone

We’ve found that one of the best ways to get people to know and interact with each other is to get them out of their comfort zone. That might mean taking them whitewater rafting, or zip-lining, or go-karting – anything that challenges them.

When people are out of their comfort zone, their vulnerabilities are out in the open. And that’s a good thing. When people can be vulnerable with one another, they work better together.

Why? Because they have learned to trust one another. They will have worked together to overcome their fears and achieve something tangible.

A lot of what we do at Knak is very abstract. We’re not like a hockey team that knows whether it’s won or lost a game.

We’ve found it invaluable for our employees to have a tangible experience of coming together as a team to face a physical challenge at Knak Camp. That challenge has a beginning and an end. When it’s over, we can celebrate together. And the experience of having won that victory together somehow makes what we do as a company seem more real.

Leave time for creativity

In a recent New York Times essay, science writer Annie Murphy Paul talked about how we make our brains work harder. One way to do that, she says, is through social interaction.

“We are fundamentally social creatures, oriented toward thinking with others,” she writes, adding that our ideas are made stronger when we have to defend them to others. 

She bases that argument on a theory of reasoning advanced by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Human reasoning, say Mercier and Sperber, is meant to be used in a social context. When people with different ideas have a common interest in finding a solution, they exchange arguments with each other. In that context, the best idea tends to win.

That is a fancy way of saying that ideas that are discussed with and tested on other people tend to be stronger.

We try to leave time for creativity by having part of our Knak Camp unplanned. In the past, we’ve found that some out-of-town employees go off and explore Ottawa, while others discuss business projects with people they don’t get to meet regularly. Others begin a project they are passionate about. This unstructured time is never wasted. It goes to building relationships, developing ideas, or working on projects.

We’ve also done role-playing. For example, we once had our employees pretend they were the sales team from one of our competitors, and try to sell us on our competitor’s product. It was a very useful exercise! It helped us understand how to stand out from the pack.

Have fun

One of our core values is work-life balance. So our on-sites are as much about having fun as anything else. And because they are fun, people look forward to them.

Our next on-site meeting should be interesting, since in the nearly two years since our last gathering, we’ve gone from 14 employees to close to 40. Many of our employees have actually never met each other in person.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the dynamic changes, and what new ideas emerge as all these people feed off each other’s knowledge and energy.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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