Amantha Imber26 February 2024

How Inventium designs its team offsites. A behind-the-scenes look.

The last few months of 2023 were rocky for my team at Inventium. We had numerous team changes (including our wonderful CEO Mish Le Poidevin leaving after a decade with Inventium), we were navigating a tough economic environment, and we had restructured ourselves (self-inflicted, but still challenging).

And while I love being a remote-first workplace (i.e. we have no physical office), I have learnt that this decision means we need to be more deliberate about deepening connection with each other, especially when things are not sailing along smoothly.

We needed face-time. So: a two-day offsite was booked in the diary for February. 

And while I knew we had to get away, I had no idea how we would be spending this time. 

As I write this now, I have just returned from two brilliant days with my team. And I thought I’d share what went into designing those two days. (Warning: this is a long post, but hopefully a helpful one).

(A very loud shout-out to Georgia Luttick, Zo Aitken, and Charlotte Rush – my team of co-conspirators for designing and running this two-day experience).

Be single-minded in the objective (Hint: if you are not saying ‘No’ a lot, you are probably not being single-minded).

Two days. That’s heaps of time, right? We can do team building, strategy setting, brainstorming because we have So Much Time. 

No. Pick a goal. Just one. Because there is a trade-off. Why do two or three things mediocre when you can aim to do one thing brilliantly.

So for us, the goal was: deepen team connection. More specifically, unite this newly structured and slightly differently configured group of people (we had people leave last year + new people join this year). When people trust each other, like each other, and respect each other, a team can do anything.

Being single-minded meant saying ‘no’ to a lot of things. But mostly, strategy “things”. In the lead up to the offsite, I was asked (many times) about whether we could (or should) include content around our strategy. 

  • Should we talk about our company goals? No. 
  • Should we talk about opportunities for the new financial year? No. 
  • Should we discuss new product ideas? Still no.

Don’t overload the agenda (Hint: if you are worried about “fitting everything in”, you really need to take things out).

Again, two days can seem like a lot of time. So surely that means we can pack HEAPS of stuff in. Nope.

One of the best pieces of advice I received in the lead up to the event was from my good friend Jason Fox. Over coffee in South Melbourne, Jase said: “allow space”. Space for conversation, space for serendipity, space for recovery (especially for introverts).

With this advice in mind, we decided to limit the “work-related” sessions to 4 x 90 minutes. Everything else had to either be planned fun time or free time or eating/drinking time.

To decide which four sessions to include, my team and I reflected back on the goal (deepen connection) and thought about:

  • What barriers are in the way to achieving this objective? And how can we design a session to remove the barriers?
  • What rituals could we set up and continue throughout the year to achieve this objective?

This lead to four “work” sessions:

  • Role clarity (there was still confusion around people’s roles with the new structure and also with new people joining the team)
  • Personal and work values – understanding more deeply what drives us all as individuals and what our “non-negotiables” are (i.e. the things that matter deeply to us about our workplace)
  • Communication – reviewing how we “do” communication, what our communication values are, what tools we use for what communication, what “urgent” actually means, etc.
  • The Inventium Team Health Monitor (inspired by Atlassian’s Team Health Monitor). We decided on the 10 key factors that we believe (based on research and team input) make us successful as a team, and we rated ourselves on how we are tracking. This has now become a 6-8 weekly process we will go through as a team.

Curate the non-work time

A question we pondered when designing the experience was: How much do we need to craft the design of the non-work time (e.g. lunches and dinner) to achieve our objective? We were all conscious of not overloading the experience with too much structure, but also, didn’t want to leave too much to chance. 

There were a couple of choices we made that I think worked well:

  • At dinner, I introduced story-prompting cards from Ester Perel’s game Where Should We Begin (note: I removed all the sex-related questions – not quite appropriate for a work offsite). We laid a pile of cards across the table and people were free to pick up a card and use it to prompt a new conversation. The idea was to deliberately promote depth over superficiality, which it definitely did at my end of the table where topics such as feminism, extra-marital affairs, and secret-keeping were all covered.
  • Before the offsite, I asked all team members to send me three unusual facts about themselves that no one else on the team knew about them. Throughout the offsite, we dipped into the “hat of facts” and everyone had to guess which fact belonged to which team member. Who knew that one teammate had worked at the Hungarian Ballet Academy for a year while another had walked in a catwalk fashion show in New York when she was 17.

Incorporate lots of state changes

Maintaining energy (especially when you are on the introverted side of things) during a two-day offsite is hard. As such, designing frequent state changes is key.

All four “work” sessions incorporated state changes every 10-15 minutes (working in break out groups, going for a short walk in pairs, presenting thoughts, standing versus sitting). I don’t think there was more than a 10-minute period of one-way communication (which let’s face it, can be pretty de-energising to sit through as a participant).

Outside of the work sessions, we walked, we hung out in a billiards room, we did an Amazing Race activity, and we went on a bus safari through the Werribee open range zoo. Lots of states and changes.

Set yourself a personal goal

When you’re in charge of designing a team offsite, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the “group goal” and forget about your own personal goals. I had to spend time reflecting on this as I wanted to use my “free time” mindfully.

My personal goal was to get to spend one-on-one time with every member of the team – especially those who were newer to Inventium. This goal went through my head when I thought about where to sit at dinner, who to walk next to on walks, and who to sit with on buses.

While this might sound slightly calculating, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance – and if you don’t think about it, it’s easy to just gravitate towards the same usual suspects (typically those who you know best and therefore feel most comfortable with).

If you have made it to the end, firstly thanks! And if you have questions or would like me to elaborate on any of the activities we did, pop a note in the comments section. And as always, feedback and your insights on running these types of events is always welcome and encouraged 🙂