Establishing Culture? Get Outta Town!

Jeremy Morony ·

As Carbon Five grows, we experiment with different ways to define, elaborate, and communicate our company culture. One thing we do is organize semi-annual retreats, we call them summits, that rotate between our two main offices in San Francisco and Santa Monica.

These events are, first and foremost, about people. They are a way for our employees to establish a more personal connection with each other even though our offices are geographically separated.

The summits aim to be fun, light hearted, and not take themselves too seriously. We aren’t looking to hand down a set of values, guidelines, and rules that Carbon Five employees must follow. Instead we encourage people to discover and define our shared values by talking with each other: What is going on in the different offices? What is emerging across our design, development, and product management practices? What are the things that make coming into work every day enjoyable and inspiring?

We’ve been organizing company retreats for three years now. We thought it was time to share what what’s worked and what we’ve learned.

Get Out of the Office! Actually, go off the grid!


Ok, probably nothing that extreme, but we do find it helpful to get out of our normal surroundings. If possible, head somewhere with no wi-fi and no cell reception. The change of surroundings and lack of distraction is great for encouraging people to start conversations and connect with each other.

However, don’t make it impossible to get reconnected to the world. Even though we’re not asking people to disconnect for longer than an all day meeting, its comforting to know that connectivity is within reach for people who need it.

In the past, we’ve held summits at The Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, The Annenberg Community Beach House, and The Log Cabin

Provide Some Structure

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From that first point it might sound like our summits are totally unstructured. However, gathering a group of people around the vague notion of “communicating” or “building relationships” can feel daunting, so we try to provide some kind of agenda for the day. We’ve tried many different approaches, from unconference style events organized around a theme to a day of talks proposed by our employees.

Find Out What People Are Already Thinking About


Figuring out what to talk about during a company offsite doesn’t have to be a lot of work. The people at your company already have professional goals and interests. Ask them what they’d be interested in talking about with the whole company. Is there a topic they’d like to learn about? A coworker they’d like to hear speak?

One thing that hasn’t been effective is asking people to give a presentation. Presentations are a lot of work. While we give employees time at work to prepare, crafting a new piece of content can still be overwhelming. And public speaking isn’t for everyone — not everybody enjoys it nor is everybody a natural on the stage. It can be demotivating and exhausting (for speaker and audience) to sit through a day of lackluster presentations.

Instead, we’ve explored alternatives that make it easier for everybody to participate:

  • Do rounds of lightning talks. They’re short (5 minutes), don’t take long to prepare, and don’t require a lot of public speaking skills
  • Organize moderated discussion groups. Often you’ll find that people are interested in a larger, less understood topic. Ask somebody to gather a set of questions and pose them to the group to discuss. Take advantage of your company’s collective knowledge to start figuring out how to approach this topic!
  • Run an organized activity. If somebody in your company is experimenting with a new process, ask them to lead a workshop where everybody can try it out. This is an opportunity to both practice this new skill and everybody else learns something new.
  • Invite a group or a speaker to come and run a workshop. Maybe your company is interested in diversity, or how to improve communication. This is a good opportunity to have an expert come in and share their perspectives.

We’ve tried all of these things at different summits. We’ve taught workshops on developing an experiment plan for your website, invited Code2040 to help us start talking about our diversity goals, and had lightning talks on a diverse array of subjects ranging from building your own keyboard to visual thinking.

But Don’t Provide Too Much Structure


We find that most of the value in our summits comes from people talking, forming relationships, and discovering similar interests, motivations, and goals. New projects and initiatives may be born out of this social time. So don’t provide too much structure. Instead:

  • Set the start time later than your normal work day. Serve a light breakfast and let people ease into the day. Allow time for people to catch up with others they don’t get to work with regularly.
  • Make the lunch break long. Encourage people to relax or take a small adventure (like a hike) during this time.
  • Take an afternoon break. Give people a moment to digest the structured time you’ve set up throughout the day.
  • Plan an evening activity. This year we went bowling!

Introduce New Faces


As more people join Carbon Five we can’t rely on everybody being introduced to each other organically. We’ve had to think of ways to facilitate people meeting each other. Make these introductions fun and memorable.

This year, we arranged a game of Family Feud. Two teams of new Carbon Fivers tried compete to name the most popular responses to survey questions about popular long running debates at Carbon Five.

Work on a (not work) Project Together

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While talking is great, we find that taking some time to do new things together is good too. One way we do this is through a time bounded challenge. We form small cross functional teams and work on a fun project that lets us explore new technologies and ideas.

We want people who work in different offices to form teams together so they can build an in person bond. This helps us work better together the rest of the year when we’re remote. There’s a light hearted competition for a prize, but its mostly tongue in cheek. In fact, we encourage teams to share what they’re doing, bounce ideas off of each other, and help each other out if they get stuck with a new technology.

This year we formed seven teams and gave each a tessel. We asked each team to focus on making something that addressed education, transportation, or climate. The creativity displayed by each time was inspiring.

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Take a Moment to Talk About What Worked

When the summit comes to an end, we ask everybody to take a moment and reflect. People share what they liked and what they wish would be different next time. We solicit this anonymously. The feedback we receive is thoughtful and helps us tune what works and dump ideas that didn’t live up to our expectations. Best of all, people always walk away from the summit with more camaraderie and a few new things they can try in their normal day to day work.

Establishing a healthy company culture can be difficult because it is fluid and defined by relationships amongst (often) shifting groups of people. We do our best to nurture a consistent, yet necessarily bottom-up culture here at Carbon Five. For us, summits are just one component of culture building that provides space outside of the normal work day to facilitate building genuine relationships between our employees.