Night kayaking and rainforest zip-lining in Puerto Rico. Racing go-karts and launching cooking competitions. Building dog houses in the Arizona desert. These are some of the in-person activities Trello organized in the before-COVID times. Expectations were high when the company scheduled its annual corporate retreat for 2021, since this time it would be in a virtual world.
Trello has embraced remote work for most of its 10-year existence, according to co-founder Michael Pryor. Like many remote-work companies, Trello organized yearly retreats to turn co-workers into friends. Called "Trello Together," everyone would gather for three days to chat and have fun. With the pandemic, they had to get creative.
Liz Leary, Trello's employee experiences manager, has been the brain power behind "Trello Together" since it began five years ago. Around Christmas 2020, she joked with a colleague about him buying her an Oculus Quest 2 headset so they could hang out together in VR. Trello's leadership team had already been holding VR hangouts every Friday.
"We just thought, wouldn't it be funny if we got our entire team Oculus Quest 2 headsets so we could all hang out in VR and start building that connective tissue back up?" Leary said.
Trello leadership, including Pryor, agreed. Virtual-reality games can serve the same function as a happy hour drink post-work, Pryor explained. Ostensibly, you go for the drinks, but in reality you're there to have fun and bond with your coworkers. "You're playing VR golf, that's the primary purpose, but you spend half an hour shooting the shit about random stuff," Pryor said.
After the holidays, Leary dove deep into planning for the April 2021 event. She helped coordinate the purchase and distribution of about 275 Oculus headsets — in secret, no less. Everyone at Trello unboxed them over Zoom together. During the actual event, employees walked through a virtual replica of Trello's New York office, built with the help of Frame, an immersive meeting platform from Virbela. After, the team split into groups to compete in a mini-golf tournament. Along the way, Trello managers learned quite a bit about how to pull off an effective VR company retreat.
Add in the personal touches
Getting the virtual office right was crucial to Leary. She worked closely with Frame's engineers, who were receptive to the small, Trello-specific details Leary wanted. The virtual office contained replicas of Trello's murals and the all-important espresso machine. Most importantly, it featured a tribute to a beloved Trello employee who passed away a few years ago.
Newer employees got to know an essential part of Trello's culture, while long-term employees reveled in the familiarity of Trello's office. "I wanted something that was going to evoke the connective feeling that we were all missing," Leary said. "The New York office is the birthplace of Trello, and it just makes sense for it to be there."
Understand that VR isn't for everybody
"There are many different reasons why somebody wouldn't want to use a headset," Leary said.
VR can cause motion sickness, more often with women and people over 40. Trello leadership took this very seriously while planning. This is part of the reason Leary chose Frame to design the office, because it allows users to access their world on browsers. She also streamed the mini-golf tournament finals for Trello employees to watch later. "I tried to be very thoughtful in making sure all the events were inclusive," she said. "There are many reasons why someone wouldn't want to use a headset."
Some people may be excited by VR tech but have little experience. Leary said she communicated with staff frequently to ensure everyone was ready for the event. She put together training materials in Confluence, the corporate wiki made by Trello's parent company, Atlassian. She set up Trello boards tracking progress and planned demo sessions for employees to come and try out their headsets.
Despite your best efforts, some employees inevitably miss preparation opportunities — glancing over training emails is in our DNA. "People are just going to be people, and when you have 200-plus people, they're just not going to do it sometimes," said Trello employee Tammy Lam. "The day of, there was a scramble when it was time to log in."
Brace yourself for technical hiccups — even within a tech company
Some Trello employees found themselves floating by the ceiling and unable to get down when they entered the virtual office. Others had trouble even accessing the space. "Assume positive intent going into this, because it's very early stages," Pryor said. "Don't assume any of this stuff is going to be super easy to use: It's not at that consumer level yet."
When people had trouble getting into the VR world, they turned to their co-workers for help. This is why it's essential for someone to stay in the real world and help those who need it. Leary stayed outside of VR for almost all of the event so employees had someone to turn to if they faced technical difficulties. "You need somebody outside of VR watching Slack," Lam said. "Once people get booted out of VR, they have no way to communicate that they need help other than in the physical world."
Leary conducted a survey after the event, and one major takeaway was the necessity of a Zoom running parallel to the event. It can serve as technical support, but also as a break for people overwhelmed by VR. "People are able to come in and recharge their batteries, both personal and headset," Leary said.
No work. Just fun.
A company VR retreat should have nothing to do with work. That goes for in-person retreats, too. It's the best way to foster meaningful bonding. "You let people relax and chit-chat," Leary said. "You're not forcing people into awkward team-building and awkward icebreakers." When people are comfortable with each other, creative collaborations follow.
When designing an event like this, the goal should be serendipitous connection — those sought-after interactions we lost when the pandemic made in-person meetings unsafe. Pryor said while the virtual office created a sense of togetherness, it was harder for people to naturally spark up conversations. Which makes sense, he said, because in the real world, coworkers may bond more comfortably outside of the office. The mini-golf tournament was more conducive to casual conversation.
Buying Oculus headsets for every employee may not be feasible for a company, but Leary still urges companies to "spend the money" — not necessarily on Oculuses, but to invest in well-coordinated employee retreats in general. It's always worth it, she said.