How Buffer organizes company retreats

You’ve probably heard of Buffer before, but in case you haven’t, there's a few things you should really know about this company:

All of this makes them a great place to work and a company worth studying and learning from. If you’ve listened to our recent podcast with Stephanie Lee from Buffer, you know that Buffer’s retreats are one of the company’s most interesting elements. Today, we’ll find out why Buffer organizes retreats as well as all the details that go into organizing a successful company offsite experience.

Why Buffer organizes retreats

Even though remote work has plenty of benefits, one of the major downsides is the lack of time spent together. While the entire team communicates through chat and video calls, this can hardly replace spending time IRL with one another. So the company organizes retreats at least twice a year and these are the 3 main reasons why:

  1. To get to know each other personally, without the work environment. Retreats are even more powerful than seeing your coworkers in an office setting and once Buffer employees return to their homes from a retreat, their communication is vastly different. The reason is simple: they know the other person’s tone of voice and how they interact in a discussion.
  2. To work smarter instead of harder, which is one of Buffer’s core values. During retreats, they get to find out how to improve their lives and work processes to get more done in less time, with less stress.
  3. Tons of work gets done during the retreats. Even though the Buffer team enjoys lots of fun activities in their spare time, they also use their retreats to finish some of their most important work, such as launching new features and making important decisions.
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How often does Buffer organize retreats?

In the past, Buffer had a tendency to organize retreats as often as twice per year. As wonderful as this was for the whole team, it turned out that it wasn’t financially viable. The Buffer team is now 70+ people strong, but in the early days, if someone new joined the team just after the retreat, it could take up to a year until they saw their teammates. As such, more frequent retreats were necessary.

Nowadays, the team has one major retreat per year, with optional mini-retreats once per year as well. While the main retreat is meant for the entire company, mini-retreats are meant for specific departments to take. Ideally, mini-retreats happen in Q3 or Q4 and they are completely optional.

In this current format, Buffer has one to two retreats annually.

How Buffer budgets for retreats

Remember how we mentioned that Buffer is really transparent about everything they do? This is a prime example of transparency. In their blogs and official announcements, the company lists all of their expenses for a retreat, which:

  1. Proves retreats aren’t all that expensive
  2. Shows other companies that they can organize them as well

As a rule of thumb, Buffer sets their budget for the annual retreat at $5,000 per person and for the mini-retreats, $1,400 per person. Here is what goes into that amount:

  1. Airfare costs
  2. Accommodation costs
  3. Meal allowance
  4. Activity fund

There are a few things to note here. Buffer workers have almost all of their costs covered, but they can also invite a family member (who has to pay all the costs themselves). Moreover, employees are given full freedom in organizing their transportation. That way, they can get the flights they want and arrive and leave at the times they desire. Some team members come to the retreat location a few weeks earlier, others stick around after the retreat ends.

As Buffer team employees have said more than once, it’s important to be flexible with your budget, because there are unpredictable costs that creep up on you. With a set budget in mind, the team can start looking for a location.

Here's Buffer's budget for their 2017 retreat in Madrid:

buffer retreat budget

How Buffer chooses a location for their retreats

Organizing a retreat may seem like a ton of fun, but in reality, there’s a lot of work involved. One of the biggest challenges is finding a location that meets all of their criteria – it’s definitely not the same as picking a holiday destination for a family of four.

Here are the criteria for choosing a retreat location at Buffer:

  1. It has to accommodate the entire Buffer team (70+ people)
  2. It has to fit in the retreat budget (as mentioned above)
  3. It has to have a broad range of activities for the entire team
  4. It has to be safe for the employees and the family members they bring along

Besides these main considerations, there are other elements such as connectivity, climate, logistics, the difficulty of booking flights and more. As the company grows, Buffer is starting to feel the logistical challenges involved in organizing retreats. So for the company-wide retreats, they outsource to local experts like Surf Office to help them do the early research and groundwork for potential locations for large events.

Once a few final locations are shortlisted, the team sets up a poll for the entire company to vote on, and decide on the final destination. In general, Buffer chooses their location so that it’s affordable and has great Wi-Fi, everything else comes second.

There’s one thing that Buffer employees stress as very important – a scouting trip. If they have their heart set on a location, one of the team members flies in before the retreat takes place to scout the location and see if the venue(s) will live up to their expectations. It’s only a fraction of the entire cost of the trip, but it makes a huge difference in the final outcome.

For 2019, Buffer chose San Diego for their retreat destination and they shared the behind-the-scenes on their Instagram Stories:

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The schedule of the retreat

The standard Buffer retreat lasts about 9 days – five days to work, with the weekend before to arrive and get settled, and the weekend after to get some rest. How much work and how much rest happens within those 9 days is completely flexible and each retreat is different.

When the retreat happens is also a democratic decision. The admin team proposes a few weeks for everyone to choose from according to their availability. As it always happens, it’s difficult to have everyone on board and every time, it happens that some team members can’t make it.

At the very beginning, it became clear that there are different personalities on the Buffer team. It was important to make the schedules suitable for the introverts and extroverts while making it both structured and free-form at the same time. Needless to say, this is one of the hardest parts of organizing a retreat.

Here are the basic steps to have in mind when setting up a schedule for your retreat, according to Buffer:

  1. Determine which sessions are compulsory for the entire company
  2. Explicitly state which sessions are optional
  3. Post multiple schedules: one for the entire team, one for each department, so that no one gets lost
  4. Encourage time off for introverts within each day

Each retreat has been different in its structure and division of work/fun time, so any company looking to learn from Buffer can structure their own retreat as they see fit.

Here's Buffer's schedule for their 2017 retreat in Madrid:

buffer retreat schedule

Team activities

Besides working together and having lunch, the team at Buffer has a wide range of team activities at each retreat to make it more fun and get everyone involved.

The activities largely depend on the location. For example, the Buffer team has been to the city zoo in Sydney, watched an outdoor movie, had a team dinner and went on a catamaran cruise.

Besides the organized team activities, there’s something called Buffer Fun Fund. At each retreat, team members get a certain amount of money to dedicate to a fun activity of their choice. Using this fund, Buffer employees have gone sky diving in Hawaii, played bubble soccer in Madrid and went to visit a trampoline park in Singapore.

In many ways, Buffer is a pioneer in having a fully remote and fully transparent company that organizes retreats and gives new meaning to remote work. As Buffer grows, it will be more than interesting to see how their retreats evolve as well.

One thing is for certain – Buffer has set an excellent example that remote companies from across the world can look up to in many aspects, from organizing retreats, to organizing the company structure and culture.

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Retreat Budget Spreadsheet

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