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Remote Summit 101: Bringing 100 People Together

As Rich mentioned in his post about life as a remote CEO, one of the best parts about working for a company with a remote culture is the freedom to work from anywhere in the world. Our employees are encouraged to embrace the digitally nomadic lifestyle as much, or as little as they want, and it’s amazing to see our company world map filling with pins as people dial into Zoom calls from far and wide.


That said, the team can hardly wait for that time of year when MetaLab Summit rolls around.  Summit is our annual, company-wide retreat where every employee travels to the same place and is together for three days. In the days and weeks leading up to Summit, the excitement in the offices and on the Slack channels is palpable. 


Summit has become such a huge part of our culture over the years, partly because of the epic karaoke battles that go down, but mostly because of the infectious, positive energy that emerges when we’re all connecting and exchanging ideas in a shared space. With 33% of MetaLab employees working remote and our two HQ’s being separated by a beautiful (but 90-minute long) ferry ride, it’s vital that we all gather once a year to reconnect, realign and let our hair down.

The MetaLab team at our Remote Summit in Whistler
The gang at Summit '18

This was the 4th annual MetaLab Summit, and the first year we were completely offsite, so planning it was a big deal! Previously, we’ve relied on having either our Victoria HQ or Vancouver HQ as a gathering place, so planning to be in Whistler without that safety net of being near anyone's home turf raised the planning stakes to a whole new level. 


Not only did we need to find a place for 100+ people to stay every night, but we also needed a place that could host 100+ people during the day for a variety of meetings and activities. Oh, and we had to do all this planning remotely—talk about putting remote culture to the test!


Spoiler alert: We pulled it off. Keep reading for a glimpse into how we did it.

Location, location, location! 

We decided that the world was our oyster for Summit 2018; Hawaii and Mexico topped the list, but timing and logistical realities meant these dream locales would have to wait for another year ;-) 


In May of 2018, the Summit planning party officially kicked off: we zeroed in on Whistler as the location finalist, since the fresh mountain air and spa-time vibes were definitely calling our names! Now that Summit is over, we learned that the energy for the off-site is even better when the entire team is away from home.

The MetaLab team walking over to Remote Summit day 2 in beautiful Whistler
The Whistler views were not bad at all

Save the Date 

Typically, the timing of Summit has always been determined by hotel availability.  And since we weren’t wedded to any particular month, I really wanted to aim for September to catch the lovely fall weather in British Columbia. (Summit ‘17 in September was a personal favourite…)

Putting together the perfect proposal

Once we landed on the where and the when, it was time to get the budget proposal underway. Starting 3+ months before gave us enough time to plan. We’re talking spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets. Luckily, we got the pros at HelmsBriscoe to help us gather proposals from different hotels and event spaces, which saves a ton of time (and at least a dozen headaches). 


Pro tip: enlist a pro; it takes a village to host a village, so don’t be afraid to outsource some of the tougher to-dos!

A recipe for Summit success

Strike the right balance.

Agendas for a 3-day all-hands schedule is a huge undertaking because we want to ensure we’re balancing between having fun and having a chance to mind meld on how to make MetaLab better, together. The key is a little work, a lot of play, and a focus on making sure everyone is enjoying each other’s company as much as possible. 


MetaLab goes ATVing in Whistler for Remote Summit 18
SOME OF THE TEAM WENT ATV-ING IN THEIR FREE TIME

The more you can bring in the leadership team from the beginning to make it a collaborative effort, the easier it becomes to carry the schedule over the finish line and get official sign-off. I ensured our leadership team started formulating day-by-day agendas at least 2 months before Summit to ensure they thought through all of the angles and items different teams would want and need to cover.


One thing we worked hard to do more of this year was to give everyone more downtime. It’s easy to assume everyone wants to be together at all times, but this year we were conscientious of people’s need for downtime to recharge between events.

Encourage mingling.


MetaLab's engineering team making marble runs at Remote Summit 18
Marble runs with the engineering team

Since Summit is one of the only opportunities for everyone to bond within their department and collaborate on cross-functional activities, it’s crucial to reserve time for departmental breakouts, team building exercises, and learning and development conversations. For many, it provides eye-opening insight into how projects are actually run and how people approach their work. After almost 4 years at MetaLab, I finally learned what a detailed project structure actually looks like! Who knew!

Let the creative juices flow.

One of the main activities that people look forward to the most is our #MakeItMetaLab competition. This is where we break everyone into cross-functional teams and give them the afternoon to design and present a concept for a dream product they’ve always wanted to build. It’s fun and playful, but challenges people to think outside the box and get to know new faces. Not only were this year’s presentations innovative and well-executed, but they were an inspiring reminder of what an incredibly talented and collaborative group our MetaFamily truly is. All the feels <3


Balloons being popped during the breakout sessions at MetaLab's Remote Summit
Balloons were popped during Make it MetaLab

Bring some outside perspective.

In the spirit of keeping things fresh and different, we decided to have a guest speaker at this year’s Summit. Meghan, our Director of Client Services, raised her hand and suggested Irene Au, Design Partner at Khosla Ventures, one of Silicon Valleys top VC firms and someone we work closely with often. Irene agreed to fly up to Whistler, and we were all lucky enough to hear her story and jot down some notes on grace, self-determination, navigating the tech industry, and her love of teaching yoga as well. *prayer hands*

Third times a charm!

This was my third year planning and coordinating Summit at MetaLab, and I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work over the years. The TL;DR? Planning well ahead made this year’s Summit the one to beat. Am I biased? Maybe a little. But in our post-Summit company-wide survey, 99% of the entire company said they loved the experience and viewed it as in invaluable part of what makes MetaLab such an awesome place to work. 


The epic karaoke battles at MetaLab's Remote Summit
And of course—karaoke battles all night long

If I had to summarize what made this year so special, I think it would be the trifecta of:

  1. Everyone being offsite in Whistler
  2. The entire team being “tools down” for 3 days
  3. The stronger balance between work and play


Plus, being in a location as beautiful and varied as Whistler, providing discounts on extracurricular activities, and letting loose at dinners and post-dinner shenanigans make it really, really hard to not have a good time.


It’s been an incredible year at MetaLab and I’m already looking forward to kicking off the planning for Summit 2019—Hawaii here we come… kidding, kind of ;-) But first—get ready, here comes the Oscars speech—I have a few people I need to thank: thank you to my fellow Ops folks, the entire leadership team, all the other MetaLabbers that sprinkle their hilarious magic into these three days, and the fantastic team at the Delta Whistler & Whistler Conference Centre who made planning this from afar so easy. A million Bonusly points, all around!


Phew.


Now let’s do this all over again in T-minus 11 months!