“Hello MURAL! This is your Captain speaking. Welcome to the MURAL World Tour. Your flight will soon be boarding at Gate B 118. We'll be embarking on a 3-hour flight around the globe, so get ready to turn your party lights on after the announcements.”
This is what over 250 employees at MURAL heard on Zoom when they turned up to our first virtual retreat this summer. Like many companies, we had to pivot our plans after COVID-19 travel bans cancelled all possibilities of meeting in-person. Last year, we held our annual company retreat in Argentina but this year we had to get creative with our reunion.
So what exactly happened? In August, our Leadership team received the confirmation that we had successfully raised a Series B funding and wanted to celebrate it with the team before making it public. With only two weeks notice, I was given the task of creating a unique online event to celebrate our huge achievement, bond with new team members in our fast-growing company and of course, have a fantastic time together.
Here’s how we did it (and how you can do it too).
For more information on how to plan holiday company events remotely, check out this post.
Don’t go it alone, find your crew
Even though I tend to organize many online events at MURAL, there was no way I was going to do one for so many people on my own. I had to find a group of motivated people who were willing to commit extra time and help me come up with ideas and execute them. A call for volunteers was posted on Slack and we had a group of 12 volunteers from across the organization ready and willing to help.
To gather ideas, we all brainstormed on an agenda and potential themes for our event in a mural and kept the discussion going in Slack.
Our team’s suggestions ranged from entertainment (disco, music festival, rockstar, movies) to the classic decades (‘80s, roaring ‘20s), but the most prevailing themes were foreign destinations, likely because we all craved being somewhere else during the lockdown. This gave us a concept: If we weren’t allowed to travel in real life, we were going to create a world where we could do it virtually!
🚀 PRO TIP: If you already know there are some passionate team members who love organizing work events, make sure you reach out to them to see if they want to get involved. Even if they’re too busy to share advice or feedback, they may want to help moderate on the day.
Find a theme and focus on the details
And that’s how the MURAL World Tour was born. The idea was to take MURAL employees on a three hour, virtual trip across multiple locations and let everyone pack a few things for the journey. We would start the expedition in an airport lounge before heading for snowy mountains, then relax on a tropical island before ending in outer space.
To get there, we had to figure out some details:
- How would the experience look and feel like for a “passenger?”
- How could we combine role playing and facilitation to guide everyone along?
- What props (digital and physical) did we need to make it more real?
We split the tasks into three groups and asked volunteers to vote for the ones they were most interested in.
Once we agreed on our roles, we set up regular meetings to update each other and iterate, while content creation was done individually or in smaller groups. Considering we had less than two weeks to create everything, we paid attention to details but tried not to get lost in them. Major decisions were made by myself and two other people, then communicated to the rest of the group. This was easier than getting all volunteers involved in giving us feedback at each step otherwise it would have slowed us down.
🚀 PRO TIP: If you have a short timeframe to prepare, don’t try to incorporate everyone’s inputs but make sure you share how decisions are made.
Bring reality to virtuality with imagery and props
A key goal of this virtual experience was to make participants connect with each other and feel fully immersed in the destinations that we were transporting them to.
First, we provided the same Zoom backgrounds for participants to use at each location. This created the illusion that we were all in the same place. It was fairly easy to find beautiful images online and bundle them up in a Google Drive folder for everyone to download ahead of the event.
🚀 PRO TIP: If you’re struggling with finding high-resolution images, check out Unsplash.
To make the experience come to life in a tangible way, we sent everyone physical party props: disco lights and glow sticks to celebrate, sleeping masks for the flight, lip balm to protect against the icy wind in the snowy mountains, sunscreen and a fan for a hot tropical island, and astronaut snacks for in-flight meals on our way to outer space.
What we hadn’t predicted was the logistical nightmare of ordering and shipping all these items to a global workforce during a pandemic. This was no small feat: our team was spread across Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia. It took a painstaking 15 hours of making orders on Amazon to get these shipped to most countries. The only exception being Argentina, where one of our volunteers ordered props in bulk from local vendors, redistributed them in individual parcels at her home and used local delivery services to send them to our Argentinian team members.
🚀 PRO TIP: if you have more time to research, definitely outsource this part of the event preparation so you can focus on the actual event.
The reveal should be part of the experience
For 10 days, our amazing team of volunteers managed to keep the theme a secret. On the day before the event, we revealed the upcoming MURAL World Tour on Slack with a boarding pass invitation.
The QR code redirected to an unofficial 2020 Retreat Sponsor video that kept us buzzing in anticipation for the next day. By then, most employees had received their party props (with a few unfortunate exceptions) and were wondering what was going to happen on the day. They were given a clue when we shared the incredible itinerary that they were about to embark on.
There were three crucial things people needed to do before joining the virtual retreat:
- Complete their virtual passport (from a MURAL template)
- Pack their bags (open their props and have them ready)
- Download the Zoom backgrounds
As a bonus, we also encouraged people to dress for the occasion by using the itinerary as inspiration: Parkas, beachwear and astronaut suits were all welcome!
For our volunteers who were going to facilitate the event, we had also prepared a separate mural with the links we needed for the activities as well as a script to guide us on what we had to say, when to switch Zoom backgrounds, which sound effects to play, and when to use our props. We did a quick rehearsal before the event to test out the flow and the sound effects that would make the experience more realistic: airport background noises, airplanes taking off, windy blizzards, waves lapping on a beach, and even sounds from the galaxy (yes, there are sounds in outer space!).
🚀 PRO TIP: Plan time for a dry run with your organizing team before the actual event to test zoom links, audio, etc. so you aren’t caught off guard on the day. This also helps your volunteers feel more confident about their individual roles.
Have a back-up plan for technical issues
The next day, more than 250 employees came on Zoom with their airport lounge backgrounds on display and their props close at hand. Our air and ground crew (our team of volunteers) were dressed for their parts as pilots and flight attendants. We were ready to launch our MURAL World Tour.
Once we welcomed everyone at departure Gate B 118, our CEO announced the reason behind this event: MURAL had successfully raised $118 Million in Series B funding (by the way, the clue was in the airport gate number all along!). After the speech, we asked participants to turn on the disco lights and glow sticks they had received — with all the flashing light effects and the same backgrounds, it really felt like we were celebrating in the same place.
Now it was time for our flight attendants to announce that MURAL Airlines was ready to be boarded. All passengers were asked to change their Zoom background to the airplane seat, while flight attendants updated theirs to an airplane cabin and pilots replaced theirs with a cockpit.
Our flight crew demonstrated the “safety first” steps, reminding everyone to head to a new #lost Slack channel if they needed help or got lost during the virtual trip so that someone from our ground crew could come to their rescue. With that out of the way, everyone was invited to put on their sleeping masks before arriving at the next destination so our crew could discreetly switch their Zoom backgrounds.
🚀 PRO TIP: If your event has a lot of logistics, have a back-up plan (or designated Slack channel) for participants who aren’t sure where to go. Or designate one event planner as the point-of-contact for technical issues.
Icebreaker activities are key
After a short 45-second flight (shortest flight in history), our crew announced we had arrived at our first destination of snowy mountains as we stepped virtually outside to a temperature of -10°C/14°F (in other words, we changed Zoom backgrounds). Luckily, we had just the right activity to warm ourselves up in the white wonderland--Zoom breakout sessions.
With so many new hires joining the company since our last retreat, this was an opportunity to meet new faces. It can be awkward to meet a group of people on Zoom for the first time, so we created a group activity with a challenge.
Before the retreat, every person created their own virtual passport from a template. The aim of this group activity was to speak to as many people as possible and add a stamp in the passport for each person they spoke to.
We split into 50 breakout rooms with three to four people in each room. They had about 10 minute to ask each other a few icebreaker questions, find out what teams they were on, and add stamps to their passport. In total each person entered two 10-minute breakout sessions, allowing them to speak to roughly six other people at the company that they had potentially never met before.
🚀 PRO TIP: Make sure to plan an initial icebreaker exercise to encourage employees from different organizations to get a chance to meet.
Make your group activities on-brand for your company
Even though we managed to break the ice in the snowy mountains (get it?), we were ready to move on. Our crew called us on board, we changed our Zoom backgrounds back to our airplane seats, put on our sleeping masks and shortly after landed on a tropical island at a warm temperature of 35°C/90°F. It was time to change to a beach-themed Zoom background, whip out our sunscreen (for that delicious coconut smell) and turn on our USB portable fans to feel the warm breeze.
It was also time to solve a few puzzles together by entering four impressive escape rooms built entirely in MURAL. For this game, we were split into bigger teams in Zoom’s breakout rooms with the goal of finding hints inside the murals that would give us a code word. That word would then be introduced into a given URL that would take us to the next escape room in another MURAL template.
🚀 PRO TIP: Plan some activities with larger groups that are on-brand for your company or group in order to foster a sense of community despite not actually being in the same place.
Plan time for an entertaining break mid-event
By this time, our brain power was gone. Everyone needed a break but first, they got another surprise. A performance by our newly formed MURAL Band.
Knowing how many music aficionados we have at MURAL, during event planning I asked who might want to get together to create a band and play some music for us during the event break. With the magic of Slack and Zoom, a group of talented musicians came together and recorded themselves singing a song from their homes during lockdown. They edited both sound and video to create an impressive cover of Everlong by the Foo Fighters.
The virtual crowd went wild. It was such a hit that the MURAL Band announced they were going to release a new cover song each month for our employee newsletter. So far, they haven’t missed a beat!
🚀 PRO TIP: Encourage groups of like-minded coworkers to put together some form of entertainment for your event, or even put together a talent competition as part of the event itself. It’s a great way to encourage remote collaboration outside of day-to-day work in a fun way.
End on a positive, inspiring note
After the musical interlude, we ditched our airplanes for a rocket ship. We all came aboard and upgraded our seats to a new Zoom background (we knew the drill by now) with stellar views to the galaxy. We unpacked our astronaut snacks for our in-flight meal, and sat back as we blasted towards Planet MURAL.
While cruising in outer space, we explored the idea of building a virtual MURAL Campus as we acknowledged that our distributed team will continue to work remotely for a long while as a result of the pandemic. Yes, our offices are still there but it’s unlikely that we’ll return to them any time soon. In the same way that tech giants succeeded in building their physical campuses that attracted great minds from all over the world, we imagined what it would be like to create our virtual space for MURAListas working from anywhere.
More than anything, this final destination was a metaphor for what was to come: We were all on this rocket ship together, heading out into the unknown to build our planet in this vast universe. The funding has provided us with the fuel to keep going, but we haven’t lost sight of our vision and we all need each other to continue to play, and have fun.
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