How to plan a family-style retreat with Linda Koenig

It’s no surprise that Cardiologs collects a lot of feedback around their team retreats. Cardiologs is a medical technology company that uses AI to improve cardiac diagnostics. The team is largely based in Paris, although some members work remotely in Boston. Linda Koenig organizes the company’s annual retreat. In 2019, the team joined Surf Office at our Valencia location. We talked to her on today’s podcast about her planning process, offsite agenda, and retreat follow-up.

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Pre-retreat preparation

Linda takes a very intentional approach to planning the Cardiolog offsite retreat.

She starts her preparation with a questionnaire. This questionnaire covers both logistics and content. She asks the team to share their expectations, special wishes, concerns, and what content they would like to cover. Linda says some of the questions also cover logistics. If some people want to spend extra time in the destination, she includes those details in the pre-retreat questionnaire.

This survey helps guide the agenda for the retreat. Linda says the management team has certain points they want to cover as well. The result? A schedule that includes a healthy mix of mandatory points and subjects that the employees are interested in. Her goal is to keep the schedule simple, focused, and straightforward. In Linda’s experience, organization is key. “If you have too many goals or too many brainstorming sessions in place, you don’t spend enough time on any one topic. I think it’s better to keep things less complex,” Linda explains.

Cardiolog also makes an effort to make the retreat a normal part of their workflow. Linda says the team starts having conversations before leaving and carries that momentum through. “We have a lot of meetings internally, even when we’re not on an offsite. We bring our culture and open communication through the retreat,” she describes. If teams are having trouble working together, they take that feedback and tackle it head-on. Focusing on a specific goal that everyone shares is an important aspect of the retreat.

Linda also makes an effort to build excitement before the retreat. “We had a Slack channel for the offsite that had a lot of fun content. I started teasing the location before it was released. I shared images of the city, some quiz questions, etc. As we got closer to the event, we had more and more teaser content. It was a very busy channel on Friday afternoons especially,” she says.

Setting the agenda

It was important for Linda to set aside time for people to hang out and just talk. She didn’t want the entire time spent on brainstorming or forced team bonding activities.

“We try to give as much free time as possible, depending on the content of our meetings and workshops,” she says.

Linda organizes some special activities for the group to experience together. She says she likes to make sure there’s at least one offsite dinner or evening activity that’s a surprise. “I like people to be catered to a little bit, it’s always nice to feel taken care of. We try to change it up a little and keep things interesting, create moments for bonding,” Linda adds.

Otherwise, it’s about finding the right balance of free time and work time. She says like most start-ups, it can be difficult to keep the business running while still taking time away. “We first try to look at what’s logistically possible for the team. I see how much travel time is involved for everyone to get where we’re going. We make sure the event is within weekdays so people can be home by Friday night. Then, we see what the content of the seminars will be.”

Linda leaves plenty of free time for natural bonding and connection outside the seminars. The location does the rest of the work.

How do you pick a location?
Cardiologs started their team building retreats when the company was just five to ten people. They would use the retreat as an excuse to leave Paris in the heat of summer – and head to the beach.

“We went to the beach in France just to get some air! Since the early days, we’ve carried this forward and try to always be near the beach,” Linda says.

Their retreats have become a little more focused, but the ocean is always a big theme. “Originally, my task was to find a place by the ocean. We might not be right on the beach, but we will be in a location where the beach is accessible, We will always have at least one outing to the ocean,” says Linda.

Secondly, she always looks for something intimate. The location needs to feel like home away from home, no matter where it is geographically. Linda uses a French phrase, “coup de chaleur.” It doesn’t translate perfectly in English. The idea is similar to love at first sight, but for a location. It means seeing something and becoming instantly smitten. This is the feeling Linda wants when she searches for a retreat location. Only after she falls in love with a place does she consider her budget.

The perfect location for Linda is a place where everyone can stay together. She tries to avoid separating the group as much as possible. “ We’ve managed to stay away from hotels and get a house to create that feeling of family. We might stay at a small hotel but keep it only us. It’s better to let people stay together in one house with one pool, without splitting up into smaller groups.”

Closing the retreat with a plan

Just as Linda uses a survey to plan the retreat, she also uses one to close out the agenda.

After the retreat is over, she sends a questionnaire to recap the event. “We ask very specific questions around travel time, accommodation, activities. We ask for detailed feedback circling back to the pre-retreat questionnaire. Were the topics you wanted to cover discussed enough at the retreat? Were there things you wish we had talked about more? Do you feel clear about the company goals?”

In addition, Cardiolog continues with a series of workshops following the retreat to keep the momentum going. They create “work groups” assigned to specific topics that continue working together. The goal is to make sure all issues are addressed and finalized to everyone’s satisfaction. “An offsite is not just a vacation. It’s a good tool for management to make sure we follow through with what we discuss and what we decide. It’s important that people make sure they feel like something happened,” says Linda.

We love Cardiolog’s intentional approach to planning and managing their offsite meeting. It was a pleasure to host them in Valencia. We look forward to seeing their team at the beach again.

Listen to more stories on remote work, retreats, and company culture. Download Surf Office’s podcast, "More Beach Meetings" or subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

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