When my flight first touched down in Vienna, I was a complete bundle of nerves — and not just because I borderline hate flying. Rather, I was nervous thinking about what lay ahead: the annual PSPDFKit winter retreat. An entire week of hanging out, working hard, strategic planning, team bonding, and local activities with ~35 other humans. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? It did for me too. But as someone who also experiences mild anxiety, the unknown was terrifying for me. What if things are awkward? What if people are mean? What if everyone hates me? I couldn’t stop the irrational thoughts from taking over.
A bit about me: I’m the resident wordsmith at PSPDFKit. I’ve been working with the company since October 2017. While I was initially brought on to edit the backlog of guide articles and blog posts, more and more tasks were sent my way until I ended up being responsible for pretty much every form of user-facing text on the website. I don’t do much writing (which explains why most readers of this blog have no idea who I even am), but nothing gets published without first being subjected to my rigorous editing process.
I occupy a unique space at PSPDFKit, in that I work closely with almost every single person. Most of the teams are self-contained, with the occasional crossover, whereas I edit the work of everyone. But I’m also a freelancer with a full roster of other tech clients, which means I exist in that weird space where, despite my immediacy to everyone, I’m not technically a full-fledged member of the company, and I’m not part of any of the teams.
But it’s directly because of this dichotomy that it made sense to fly me out for the retreat to meet everyone. While PSPDFKit prioritizes effective communication, many of the methods used within the company to promote cohesion and facilitate openness are things I don’t take part in (for example, the Monday meetings and the Know Your Company questions). Add in the fact that there have been a handful of minor misunderstandings between myself and my colleagues (as can easily happen when people communicate almost entirely in writing), and it just made sense that I should meet everyone, and they me, so that we could work to bridge the gap in communication and grow to better understand each other’s personalities and intentions.
I took the time during the 45-minute ride from the airport to the hotel in Neubau to zone out a bit and let my fears wash over me. After arriving in my hotel room, I dropped a quick message in the #retreat Slack channel announcing my arrival and asking where everyone was, and I felt lucky (relieved?) when one of the few people I already knew personally told me he was in the hotel and would walk with me to the office, where most of the out of towners were hanging out.
We met in the lobby a bit later and caught up on what we’d been up to in the six months since we’d last met up, back in Berlin. And then I confided in him that I was apprehensive about meeting everyone in a matter of minutes. But he reminded me I wouldn’t be the only one on my first retreat — and then he told me that even though it was his eighth retreat, he still gets overwhelmed at the initial reunion because it’s just so many people at once… and that made me feel a bit more at ease.
In a matter of minutes, we had arrived. We rang the doorbell, and as we were buzzed into the building, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for what awaited.
Upon entering the office, I was greeted by handshakes, hugs, and smiles from all directions. I’ve met people from the internet before, but never so many all at once. Yet what was most surprising to me was how natural it was; it immediately felt like walking into a room full of old friends — the kind you pick up with right where you left off at, regardless of how much time has passed in between. The extroverted introvert that I am, it wasn’t long before I was deep in conversation, my fears long forgotten. And by the time I arrived in the office the next morning for the official retreat kickoff, put on my slippers, and helped myself to a cup of coffee, I already felt, quite literally, at home.
Though I immediately felt at home on the retreat, there were definitely plenty of moments throughout the week that pushed me even further. We were assigned to a different lunch group each day as a way of forcing us out of falling back on whatever felt most comfortable, be it eating with our teams or passing the time alone. We also took part in team-building exercises, like an escape room challenge (which my team won first, naturally 😉).
We had fun local activities, such as wine tasting in a cellar in the first district, eating traditional Austrian food one night and giant pizzas another, and the final dinner at Feuerdorf (which included curling and a pub quiz). Naturally, many of us hung out with one another well beyond the timeframe of required and planned activities; I can’t speak for the others, but for me, remote work can get lonely, so I relished in having a built-in social group for a week, and I wanted to make the most of the time together.
We also got lucky with mild weather (by February standards), and that, combined with the walkability of Vienna, meant we spent a lot of time getting from point A to point B on foot, which fostered some wonderful conversations about things you just wouldn’t think to talk about in a Slack channel.
But it wasn’t all fun and games: There were also roadmap meetings, product brainstorming sessions, and even an AMA session. While they were all designed to help the company move forward from a business perspective, these all challenged us, a group of people largely working remotely, to communicate openly and honestly with one another.
It has now been a couple weeks since the retreat ended, and most of us are back in our respective cities and countries, hard at work. For me it’s the same: business as usual. And yet… I can’t help but feel like I’ve hit the fast-forward button, moving another six months to a year further in my individual relationships with everyone else. I for one am glad we didn’t have to do trust falls to get to this place (sorry, no way, no how), but the friendships I formed, the relationships I deepened, the understanding I gained, the laughter I shared, and the unmistakable feeling of belonging — well, let’s just say those initial nerves are nothing more than a silly afterthought.