Behind the Scenes at Tuff’s First Company Retreat

Before starting Tuff, I was a freelancer.

The way I thought about remote work was pretty simple; it’s great and easy and we should all do this.

Then, when I started Tuff in 2016 and hired my first remote team member that suddenly changed. The more the team grew and the more I leaned into leadership, the more I realized how essential remote team management is.

When you’re separated by thousands of miles, communicating and collaborating with your team can be a challenge. Luckily, there’s a lot of awesome content out there on how to build a remote team and culture. I devoured (and still do!) content from companies like Buffer, Doist, Help Scout, TaxJar, and Remotive.

One of the things on our “someday” list was a company retreat. We love working in our own corners of the world (Portland, Nashville, Boulder, Eagle, Boston, and San Francisco) but we were itching to meet face-to-face.

In February, we had our first in-person get-together in Colorado.

Here are some of the highlights:

We Planned as a Team

We gathered together for 2 and a half days and worked together to design what that would look like. We wanted to take advantage of the time in person and decided to use one day to work together and one day to spend out in the mountains getting to know each other better.

For the work day, we had a few topics we knew we wanted to cover so gathered them together in an agenda to keep us on track. Each team member had a session they would lead:

We Worked 30% of the Time

On Friday, we coworked from The Riveter in Denver. The agenda was loose and flexible. We collaborated on small things but mostly just enjoyed coworking in the same physical location. This was a good time for us all to be heads down on client work so we felt good about our work heading into the weekend.

We also used our time together to get some photos of us as a team. If you click around our website a bit, you might spot them! In the work we do with our clients, we try to serve as close partners. We lean into the human side of being an agency and so we wanted to have actual photos of us on our website. As a remote team, getting these together is obviously a little challenging. So, we went to Soona for our team photos!

After Friday, we spent the rest of the time hanging out and having fun. Here’s a look:

Getting together in Colorado was an awesome experience and a big deal for our small team. But retreats aren’t what make us great. It’s the consistent, every day focus we put on trying to build an awesome place to work.

Our team and the way we work together every day is what matters.

We Build Team Culture Every Day

At Tuff, we have three core goals:

  • Stay in business
  • Be an awesome place to work
  • Deliver meaningful results to our clients

We focus on incredibly small things we can do to work better together and we’re always trying to improve.

Things like:

Weekly Meetings: The Tuff Weekly Standup is a 30-minute all team video chat every Wednesday to check in, share what we’re working on this week, brainstorm with the team, support each other, etc. Loose agenda:

  • What’s everyone working on this week?
  • What do you need help with this week? Any blockers?
  • Any personal goals this week (read X pages, yoga X times, cook at home X times, etc.)?

Bi-Weekly Happy Hour: Every other Thursday we get together (attendance optional) to hang out after work for 30 minutes. Dogs, kids, partners are all invited.

1:1s: We have an internal slide deck of ‘advice on getting the most out of 1:1s’ you can check out, here. 1:1s are helpful to set an intentional time for us to come together and talk about projects, clients, as well as share feedback for each other, talk about higher level growth at Tuff, employee experience, Tuff culture, etc.

Spotify Playlist (aka Tuff Tunes): We love music at Tuff and all have different music tastes and styles. We created a Tuff Tunes playlist on Spotify that has songs from everyone on the team. We listened to this as a team during our team retreat and it was fun to guess who put on what song. I like to queue up this playlist on Fridays at work.

Feel free to crank up the volume on our Tuff Tunes.

Slack
We use Slack as ‘our office’. Slack is great for real time collaborating in channels. We often create channels named after our clients to discuss work specific to their projects. Also, good to grab a team member in a Direct Message to collaborate, ask questions, etc. Because Slack has such a perceived feeling of real time, we try to check in with a quick ‘hey, you have a few minutes?’ or, ‘Is now a good time to chat on X?’ before fully diving in.

We try to have new team members start on Wednesday’s so they get to see a full team call on their first day. We also make sure to send a warm welcome to them in Slack:

#learning
Another way we use Slack is to share what we’re listening to, reading, learning about, etc. While we don’t have explicit company values, learning and self-improvement is definitely an implicit shared value across the team.

In our #learning channel, it’s common for someone to open up a conversation on something they’ve found interesting:

Walk and Talks
One of my favorite things we’ve added this year are “walk and talks”. This is a time for us to take things outside and talk about anything but work. Instead of jumping on zoom, we go on a walk and catch up.

Our dogs are big fans of this one, too.

Over to you!

We were lucky to get this time together before Covid and the need to shelter in place. I’m so grateful for that.

And, as more teams have made the shift to work remotely, I’d love to hear what your team has been doing to stay connected while apart? What has worked well for you?

We’d love to work with you.

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