“Teamwork makes the dream work” – the tritest of trite motivational work quotes. I deeply dislike its corniness and yet could not agree more with the concept behind it. A group of talented individuals will only take you so far if they cannot work well as a team.
Around May 2020, when it became clear the company would not be able to operate as usual for an undetermined long time, Shaun, our Executive Director, came to us with a powerful message: while we adapted and switched to the virtual realm, we would also prepare to emerge from these challenging times stronger than ever. That is what we did- during 2020 and a significant part of 2021, we worked in committees to advance projects that we hadn’t had a chance to work on before. We adjusted our risk management protocols to be ready when we re-launched our academic travel programs. We also developed areas that had long been in the pipeline (hello, Marketing Department!). We did all this with a reduced team, as the pandemic had forced us to downsize and painfully say goodbye to valued colleagues.
We resumed our travel operations in September 2021, and since then, have expanded within our previously existing regions, ventured into a new one, and are en route to opening even more destinations in new areas of the world as I type this blog post!
With the expansion of our operations came the growth of our teams, and we started hiring and training profusely. In this new context, we embraced hiring remotely, particularly when we found the right candidate. My North American team now has full and part-time members throughout the United States and Mexico. What a welcomed change, being able to hire talent regardless of location! For managers, however, this meant coming up with new ways of generating synergy and bonding within our teams. While remote work has become widespread, I think the corporate world is still learning how to make new employees feel welcome and included when they do not have an office to go to and colleagues with whom to grab a coffee during a break (and let’s be honest, virtual coffee chats, Zoom happy hours and online team-building are no match for actual in-person interactions).
In the case of my North American team, I had seen most of them only once, and some had never even met each other. It was clear we needed to spend some time together. With this purpose, I came up with the idea of hosting what I unashamedly called a “mini-retreat” with my team in Miami. I had never done this before, and as I set out to organize it, I thought about what I wanted to achieve. Ultimately, it came down to consolidating the team. Did my team members need training? Sure, but we could do those online. Did they need general company information? Perhaps, however, that was not high on my priority list at the moment.
Instead, I focused on building relationships, understanding each other’s roles, and finding ways to thrive as a team. I organized everything myself as I wanted this to be a surprise- and in a way, a treat- for everyone. Throughout two and a half days in August, we had working sessions, we dined and wined, we tried an Escape room (and managed to get out!), and we even did a video shoot for internal training and promotional purposes. There is something about in-person shared experiences that Zoom meetings cannot replace. We learned so much about each other (hi, escape room master Jose Paz!), had incredibly productive discussions, and had so much fun!
I have no hard data, but the impact of our retreat was immediately palpable. Even though we had our company-wide summit earlier in the summer, which had been a great opportunity to meet and attend different sessions together, we still benefited from our retreat so we could understand and ideate better ways to fit into the “big picture.” Each team member who participated reported how helpful this time had been and how much closer they felt to their colleagues.
It’s evident how the dynamics inside the team change once you have the in-person coffee, lunch, dinners, and brainstorming sessions. My team is also happier, which the Austral Group leadership team recognizes as a top priority, and other departments and areas of the company have gone on to replicate this experience with their teams. I can’t wait to see what they have come up with and the results these engagements will bring! Here’s to more in-person coffees with our teams in 2023!