We moved our office to a French castle. Did it work?

How it all started…

January 2018, I walked into the office at 8 AM still recovering from an early-morning bike ride. After grabbing some breakfast, I joined my colleagues for our monthly breakfast meeting. After some strategy insights from our co-founder Philippe, my colleague Arne got up to give us a “Summer Office Update”.

At this point, I wasn’t necessarily sure what that meant. I knew he had been thinking about moving the office abroad for a while but I assumed it was more a we-should-do-that-some-day kind of idea. Our first key value is “Be Entrepreneurial” so I should have known better.

The presentation was short and covered the essentials:

Why should we organize a summer office?

  • It will improve our team dynamics & increase the happiness of our team
  • It will make it easier to attract top talent
  • It can be leveraged to build long-term relationships with our clients
 

What are the key principles of the summer office?

  • Everyone can come, no one has to
  • It’s an experiment to work remotely, not a group holiday
  • It should be cool enough to be seen as WOOW
 

After building suspense for a good 5 minutes, we got treated to some Keynote magic.

 

We booked a castle in the South of France for 2 weeks.

The way in which that decision was made offers a good insight into how we make decisions at Board of Innovation. Our decision-making process is designed to empower the team to be entrepreneurial and have a bias towards action. The basis for this decision-making process can be found in methodologies like teal, holacracy, etc. but it can be summarized as follows:

“So it seems that our first self-steering decision is spending 12K on a castle in the South of France”
— Arne

In short, Arne decided that a summer office would be a worthwhile investment even if the cost of the castle, travel and food (taking into account a personal contribution from everyone) amounted to 25% of our People & Culture budget. Following the advice model, he discussed the idea with a couple of people who would have been impacted and/or had more experience. Taking that advice into account, he decided that it was safe enough to try, so he went online, set some ridiculous Airbnb filters, and the rest is history.

 

What happened next …

With a small multi-disciplinary team we set out to prepare the summer office. We listed 4 goals and divided tasks and accountability. It is important to note that each goal was basically an assumption that we would try to validate – one of the side-effects of working in innovation is that everything becomes an experiment.

Our Goals/Assumptions

  1. We can design a frictionless experience for everyone, both at the Summer Office and at home
  2. We can leverage the Summer Office to build long-term relationships with our clients 
  3. We can leverage the Summer Office to attract top talent
  4. We can leverage the Summer Office to improve team dynamics & happiness

Let’s have an in-depth look at how to set out to validate those assumptions.

 

Assumption #1

We can design a frictionless experience for everyone, both at the Summer Office and at home.

There were a lot of practical questions in the team: “Will I be able to work”, “Can I invite my boyfriend/girlfriend”, “How will we organize dinner”, etc. A natural reflex would be to spend hours planning, drafting guidelines and creating elaborate spreadsheets. Fortunately, we didn’t have the time or felt like micro-managing the whole experience. We took into account the strong tendency of the team to challenge everything and decided to take a different approach. Relying on our second key value ‘Help Others’ we assumed that people would figure it out and we limited our preparation to an FAQ list that conveyed our thinking on all questions asked but left it up to the team to come up with solutions. So instead of making a cooking schedule for two weeks, we added one line to our FAQ:

Who will cook?  –  We don’t know, but we hope we’ll have a nice dinner each night. There will be a poster in the kitchen, feel free to add your name to it if you want to cook & go to the shop. 

In the end, we had very nice dinners every night. Clairewho recently joined us from California and has been on a quest to learn to cook since she arrived, treated us to a Mexican night & a Poke Bowl feast. Nick, our co-founder who barbeques year-round and gets premium cuts of meat as a Christmas gift, showed off his skills by making burgers, even if it meant driving to Bordeaux at 9PM because we forgot the burgers in the supermarket.

 No Mexican night without tequila

There is more to designing a frictionless experience that making sure everyone has wine & food in their bellies, although that should arguably be your number 1 & 2 priority, and while there was definitely room for improvement on some other aspects (yes wifi I’m talking to you) I’ll go ahead and call this one VALIDATED.

 

ASSUMPTION #2

We can leverage the Summer Office to build long-term relationships with our clients.

Building long-term relationships with our clients was a key goal of the Summer Office. We decided to host an invite-only session focused on innovation strategy, building intrapreneurial capabilities and organizational design targeted at executive and senior innovation professionals.

We set up a landing page outlining the program and reached out to some of our clients. after 4 weeks we only filled 3 out of 10 spots and time was pressing. Turns out that we had overestimated people’s availability during the summer holiday and our own reach with executive profiles. After some though discussions, we decided to cancel the session and focus on our other goals.

While we didn’t focus on involving clients at the Summer Office, we did have 2 experiences that are worth mentioning. Tarryn and Shervin invited Coen, an internal Innovation Consultant at ING, for an overnight stay at the castle to align on a program they’re running together. Arne planned a sales meeting with the innovation lead from a leading multinational. While we were a bit worried about the optics of people working in the pool, the meeting turned out to be a success and when asked about it, our visitors said that they really appreciated our openness.

‘It feels like you invited me into your house’
— Innovation manager after sales meeting in the castle

Notwithstanding our small wins, we have to be honest and admit that we didn’t succeed in leveraging the Summer Office to build long-term relationships with our clients. We did get a lot of interesting insights out of this experiment (sr. innovation managers are very keen to share experiences with peers) and we’ll build on those insights in the very near future. All things considered, I’ll have to call this one INVALIDATED.

 

ASSUMPTION #3

We can leverage the Summer Office to attract top talent

We’re continuously looking for fast-learning, passionate, CEO-proof, entrepreneurial, and authentic people who can connect the dots and see the bigger picture. This is quite a wish-list but we don’t settle for less and continuously raise the bar – our third key value – by attracting top talent. This means that we invest heavily in recruiting and we’re always looking at ways to improve that process.

 The recruiting funnel at Board of Innovation

Leveraging the Summer Office to increase the inflow of our recruitment funnel was an obvious goal. For those of you who follow us on Instagram or Linkedin you probably got an overdose of work sessions in the pool or on the roof with inflatable flamingoes or a castle in the background.

“LinkedIn, roof-top video :)”
— Applicant answering where or how he found out about our vacancy

While increasing the inflow is crucial we also wanted to test if we could improve our close rate so we designed another experiment that aimed to do both. We launched a summer-office recruiting day landing page and social media campaign. Targeted at relevant profiles – via some pre-GDPR LinkedIn scraping – this helped us improve the inflow in our funnel. We also scheduled as many recruiting calls during our summer-office and we invited five people to have their assessment days (in-person and virtual) with us in the castle to see if we could improve our closing rate. By the end of the Summer Office, those 5 assessment days resulted in 3 offers and 2 hires.

While the sample size of this experiment was too small to draw any strong conclusions we learned some valuable lessons: 

  • All applicants liked the idea & it was a great conversation starter to talk about our culture & values.
  • For the virtual assessment days, the experience was not ideal due to slow wifi and other practical issues.
  • Having applicants have dinner with the team and spend the night offered both of us the opportunity to evaluate culture-fit in much more detail.
 

It’s too early to call this one (who knows maybe this article triggers you to apply :D) so let’s call it INCONCLUSIVE.

 

ASSUMPTION #4

We can leverage the Summer Office to improve team dynamics & happiness.

We decided not to over-engineer this: team-building activities tend to happen spontaneously at Board of Innovation. We booked a “team day” on everyone’s agenda and decided to spend the morning hanging around in Bordeaux and have a nice lunch together. But other than that we assumed that we didn’t need to organize anything and that people would take initiative to do nice stuff.

This turned out to be the case and I personally really enjoyed:

  • Late night campfires & wine-fuelled strategy sessions with Zygi & Julie
  • Surf trips & endless traffic jams with NickTarrynPeterArneKlaraPhil, etc.
  • An outdoor documentary screening about British special forces in World War II organized by Mike
  • A “bullshit tour” through Bordeaux featuring Claire’s fantasies about French medieval dating practices
 

Based on the above and the resounding positive feedback that I got from the team, I’ll go ahead and call this one VALIDATED

Next year: Summer Office 2.0

Following a serious case of post-Summer-Office depression, we gathered with the organizing team for an in-depth evaluation. We looked back at all the different experiments we ran, analyzed the outcomes and had some serious discussions on the way forward.

We agreed that while Summer Office 1.0 could be called a success, but we realised that we stumbled into that classical millennial trap of wanting to do too much with too little time to do it right. Looking back it seemed obvious that focusing on culture, recruiting & clients was a bit of an overkill and that we missed opportunities because we spread ourselves too thin.

“There are 50 brilliant ideas on this whiteboard, let’s be selective and only try out 20”
— Typical innovation consultant with an already fully packed agenda

Taking all of the above into account we decided to raise the bar in 2019 and organize Summer Office 2.0. A one-week trip to a non-obvious location where we’ll focus entirely on leveling ourselves up as a team. Are you up for it

Thanks!

I’m Nick Bogaert, Innovation Strategist @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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