How a Summer Office benefits our company

For the second year running, our whole team packed up their Sharpies and Moleskines and ventured to the South of France for our temporary summer office. We rented a complete glampsite and turned it into a remote workspace for an entire week.

Why we did it.

Firstly, being part of an international innovation agency with clients and offices across the world is very exciting, but it does mean there are very few opportunities to come face-to-face as a team. Sure, every month we organize an “office day” (including breakfast and after-work drinks). Each member of our team tries to attend in order to connect, and discuss anything and everything. We also use this time for company-wide (virtual, cross-office) meetings and update sessions. (Yes, clients, that’s why you have trouble booking our consultants on the first Friday of the month #sorry). But a single day does not make for a solid team-building session!

Additionally, we know from our years running workshops in unique locales that being in unusual, fresh environments can spark creativity and stimulate new perspectives and ideas.

Lastly, as a group of innovation consultants, we’re always up for an experiment. And the more time we dedicate to actively testing ideas and concepts, the happier we are!

What we changed.

This year’s summer office looked very different (castles are so 2018). Based on our learnings from the previous venture, we changed the concept and pivoted our approach significantly.

Last year, we rented a castle in Bordeaux for two weeks. Colleagues came and went as they pleased. Besides a strategy day and a team day, there was no fixed agenda – it was business as usual. The only real difference was that we were in an enjoyable remote setting (living that pseudo-medieval life!). And we were able to easily connect with our rarely-seen colleagues.

This was definitely a nice experience. But the most-common feedback afterward was that we missed out on an opportunity to actually work together as one team and benefit from each other’s expertise.  

This year, that changed. We made the experience shorter, reducing it from two weeks to one, ensuring the whole team could be there from start to finish (yes, including the New York BOIs) as this gave us additional collaboration and connection opportunities. 

We also decided not to do client work this time (#sorryagain). Instead, we ran 3-day sprints in small, cross-team groups on internal content or projects. The topics ranged from improving the wellbeing of our team and up-leveling our innovation strategy to validating a potential new offering. 

Along with this clear set of sprints, we wanted to give our hard-working BOIs an explicit opportunity to breathe and recharge. Many colleagues translated that into doing sports daily: surfing, obviously (a few of them went at 5.30 am in the morning!), as well as yoga, skateboarding, volleyball, and running. And games were a thing. I personally didn’t realize we had so many game-geeks in the company, but it was amazing to see people slamming cards onto the table at breakneck speed. Though, I’m not sure games like Saboteur – which involves uncovering secret saboteurs within the group – were ideal for colleague relations. On the weekend, people went city tripping to Biaritz, booked on-site massages (glamping has its perks), read books, and spent time at the beach.

Finally, we went from an isolated castle with a pool and rooftop terrace to living life outdoors 24/7 at a busy campsite next to a beautiful surf beach. That’s quite a difference, too. Some people assumed we switched the setting for budget reasons, but the price per person per day was almost the same. No, money had nothing to do with the change – our goal was to switch up the environment completely in order to deliberately create new experiences.

What we learned.

So, how did it go in the end? Was it successful? Did this opportunity for teamwork enable us to overcome key business challenges as we’d hoped? What worked and what didn’t? Did our colleagues like it?

We asked the team all of these questions and more in our post-surf-camp survey. These are the main conclusions:

#3 On-Board

A number of team members agreed that they gained a much more in-depth understanding of the company’s overall strategy and culture. Why? Because they were able to have engaging discussions with long-serving BOIs. They feel more in the loop, part of the vision, and on Board.

#2 Tactical jogs?

The internal tactical sprints led to some concrete results, clear outcomes, and deliverables. However, opinions on using our limited time together for this purpose were mixed. Some people relished the opportunity to work cross-circle with team members they aren’t necessarily used to collaborating with. Whereas others would have preferred to focus even more explicitly on strategy, team-building, or culture. Which leads us to our main learning…

#1 Team-building

Everyone – and I mean everyone – pointed out how extremely valuable it was for them to get to know their fellow BOIs. They created meaningful connections with coworkers – something they felt was very important now that there is a Board of Innovation office in North America. Overall, this experience really benefited team dynamics, which is definitely our number one outcome. Because of that, it’s clear to us that a summer office is definitely worth the investment of time and resources.

Can a campsite function as an office?

Of course, in theory, these results can potentially be achieved in any location. So, did hosting ours at a campsite make a difference?

For one thing, everyone really appreciated the setup from an aesthetic point of view – the campsite was beautiful, the sunsets were mesmerizing, and the food was great.

But there were challenges.

It rained one day (we haven’t helped clients develop waterproof laptops – yet) and gave us a heatwave the next. We didn’t have real desks, and the Wi-Fi was a challenge (apparently you CAN run out of ‘unlimited’ data). Some team members were also disappointed to learn that the local two-inch beetles have little to no regard for personal space.

But even with these practical difficulties, people valued the opportunity to work in an entirely new context. The environment granted them a new perspective, and the fact that we weren’t completely isolated at a remote castle together was nice – the team could mingle with non-coworkers in town (at the bar), go to the beach, or for a solo walk when the desire arose.

How about the actual work, you ask? Did we achieve more by conducting the sprints in this unique remote-office setting?

As we mentioned earlier, bringing the entire BOI team together for dedicated sprints meant we got things done that would have otherwise taken weeks (and endless video calls). So yes, we did! However, client work kept appearing for some people, and a few consultants felt the trip caused their other tasks to pile up. Also, the sprints led to additional follow-up work being added to already-full plates. Sadly, this resulted in a few BOIs actually feeling more stressed after the trip as they came home to a daunting backlog. So I guess despite several very positive outcomes, there are clear lessons to learn as well.

The burning question is:

Will we do it again?

If you ask our team (and obviously, we did), the answer is, luckily, a clear, resounding, overwhelming yes. In fact, *95% of our current team answered “hell yeah” to this question. So it looks like our Sharpies and Moleskins might be going on another trip next year. 

And obviously, we’ll continue to learn from past experience to ensure each future summer office (or winter variant, who knows?!) is even more meaningful and valuable than the last. 

Next time, my mantra when planning the trip will be ‘less is more.’ I mostly learned that we tried to achieve too much in the space of a single week – sharing strategic updates, aligning on important topics, conducting tactical sprints, and building and strengthening team dynamics all while trying to give people time to recharge… yeah, that was unrealistic. If we decide to run a summer office in 2020, we’ll pick one or two simple goals and design accordingly.

Want to be around when it happens? Apply here!

Thanks!

I’m Nele Van Hooste, People & Culture Lead @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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