A Virtual Walk in the Park

Customer.io doesn’t have the luxury of spontaneous conversations at the coffee machine or spur-of-the-moment catch-ups over lunch as a remote-first company. For many companies, those little moments are what build relationships and company culture.

As our VP of Operations, I’ve planned over ten company retreats with the mindset that they are our highest impact team-building opportunities throughout the year. About every six months, we gather as much of the team in locations like Budapest, Iceland, and Romania. Being together helps build up our interpersonal relationships and psychological safety, allowing us to collaborate more openly throughout the year.

The team at our 2019 Fall Retreat in Budapest
Our Fall 2019 Retreat in Budapest

In 2020, when all travel stopped due to the pandemic, we lost the option to meet in-person. Without our standard retreats, I worried that morale would suffer and people would feel withdrawn from each other and the team.

We knew we needed to add something more interactive to our Zoom calls and Pizzatime shared meals. Something to make this virtual retreat memorable. And that’s when it clicked: virtual retreat, VR … virtual reality!

We had our doubts. VR technology has come a long way, but would it feel like a gimmick? After researching a variety of VR headsets, we landed on the Oculus Quest. We found it the most user-friendly all-in-one VR set. Plus, we could get it shipped directly to almost all of our teammates all around the world!

Five teammates trying out the VR headsets in preparation for the retreat.
Five teammates figuring out their VR headsets together in prep for the retreat.

When the VR Virtual Retreat came around, I was surprised and excited to see that many of the activities we used to do in-person translated incredibly well to VR. Instead of sitting together in a dark Hungarian bar playing cards, we hosted a VR poker tournament with Pokerstars. Instead of preset team-bonding activities in the evening, teammates started impromptu Elven Assassin sessions throughout the day.

Response to our Virtual Reality Retreat was overwhelmingly positive. Seeing teammates half a world away from each other having meaningful interactions, to borrow some quotes from the team:

From Cam: I have to be honest that I wax worried that VR wouldn't be as effective of a "Real LIfe" replacement for cross team trust building and just filling up people's social batteries. But then I saw HiuHui and Cody playing Eleven Assassin together and it made my heart full. Cook-Out also gets huge praise from me promoting teamwork, trust and communication.

From Alyssa:
It has gone so well Cam, brilliant idea to you all!!! Lacey, Alex, Nay and I are dominating at Elvin Assassin and the team work is amazing. Cook out too! I think everyone will keep playing after work hours and stay connected even more post retreat!
From Brendan: Signing off for the day. I thought VR made this retreat roughly 1m000% better than our last virtual retreat. THanks Cam, Alyssa, Sonja and everyone else for making that happen!

What surprised me most was how, as a remote company, we could use VR to build relationships between coworkers throughout the year. Why wait for the next in-person retreat? You can always catch up with a teammate on a virtual walk in the Walkabout Mini Golf park today.

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