Amazing, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, splendid, discombobulating, epic, unforgettable… These were just some of the words my colleagues used to describe our annual PSPDFKit retreat, which took place in Budapest, Hungary in late summer. And now that it’s been a few months since I’ve returned home, I’ve finally had time to come down from that post-retreat high and reflect on the experience.
To read about our CEO’s thoughts on the retreat, check out this post.
A New Approach
Last year’s retreat in Lisbon, Portugal, was a unique experience for a number of reasons, including the fact that it was our first retreat since COVID-19 literally changed all of our lives, and also because it was our first retreat with more than 100 people all in one place. The format had changed, the people were new, and it was all a lot to take in.
I’m happy to report that this year, there was a sense of “togetherness” among our group that I felt was lacking in Portugal. We’d spent more than a year in our current constellation as a company, and it started to feel more comfortable and cohesive than it had before.
Part of that reason (for me, anyway) had to do with my approach. Reflecting on last year, the one thing that bothered me the most was not knowing everyone, even after spending a week in the same place. So while on the train journey to Budapest, I wrote in the retreat Slack channel that my goal was to have a conversation with every single person there (the definition of a conversion is loose, and it could have meant literally introducing myself to someone I hadn’t met, or saying hello to people I already knew in passing at breakfast). I announced my intention and invited people I hadn’t met to come talk to me, and because I made it public, that meant I had to commit. I didn’t know if I’d be successful, but before the end of the retreat, I’d accomplished exactly what I set out to do.
There were two reasons I wanted to do this. The first was because I no longer wanted to be confused when a “new-to-me” face appeared onscreen in the company meetings or when someone I’d never interacted with chimed in on a topic during online discussions. Everyone has their own take on this, but for me, I feel disconnected from the work when I don’t know the people. In a social context, it makes it awkward when you don’t even know the name of the colleague you’re talking to. But in a work context, it might mean you don’t know who the best person to address a problem is, and you waste time or energy finding out who can help you with a task.
The second reason was because, as an extension of being more open to talking to people I didn’t know, I ended up spending quality time with people I don’t think I otherwise would have. Just like in the “real world,” the tendency is often for people to hang out with people they know and not necessarily seek out new ones. Within PSPDFKit, it’s the same: Many people spend time with the people on their teams or from their own countries or who speak the same languages, because it’s familiar (and humans are wired to cling to what’s familiar). However, as a result of my “experiment,” I spent a lot of time with a lot of different people and came away with some new friendships among colleagues who were previously acquaintances, or strangers.
Read about our 2022 retreat in Lisbon, Portugal.
This next part might sound blasphemous, but bear with me. Although, on the surface, retreats are about work, they’re really not. As a few people in the company reiterated over the week, there’s a sentiment of “It’s not about what you’re doing; it’s about who you’re doing it with.” In other words, retreats are about interacting, spending time together, and bonding. The work we accomplish, while important, is a bonus.
That said, I found a lot of value in the meetings this year. In the past, there were a lot of team meetings and presentations. Neither of these are bad in their own right, but only meeting with one’s own team can sometimes result in knowledge silos, and presentations are easy to zone out of since you’re already familiar with the topic. This year, we had a lot of cross-functional meetings with clear established agendas, and I feel like they were successful in ways that they aren’t online. Getting all the stakeholders of a particular project together in one room, in person, knowing we can’t do this all the time, makes it easier to sideline the little things and have the important discussions. Plus, there are no time zone differences or technological failures to get in the way, which made them feel efficient. Even if some meetings didn’t result in any findings or changes, we walked away with an idea of what next steps could be.
Read about our 2019 retreat in Vienna, Austria.
Activities and Free Time
There was, as always, a really good balance between work and play, and many of us took advantage of Budapest’s vibrant nightlife and visited the local ruin bars; most people knew they could show up on any given evening at Szimpla Kert or Instant-Fogas and find someone from the company there.
We also had a couple official dinners together, including a welcome dinner on the waterfront and a four-hour farewell gala dinner cruising on the Danube, complete with a DJ and dancing on the top deck of the boat… (and some of us really did have some moves)! On evenings that we had free, we often met up spontaneously and went out to eat in groups.
Additionally, we held the third semi-annual PSPDFKit Trivia Night, which was apparently the most difficult one yet and resulted in some pretty heated debate. That same evening, we also celebrated the first annual snack competition, in which people brought famous (and, in some cases, infamous) foods from their countries. Food was judged in various categories such as sweetest (a brownie from the US and ptasie mleczko from Poland) and saltiest (čvarci from Serbia). Meanwhile, there wasn’t any love for Twiglets (UK), nor for Salmiakki (Finland). But the winner was the especially deserving Croatian lemon Frondi.
We also curated time together on our own. There was a daily morning running group full of all the bright-eyed and bushy tailed morning people (aka not me), there was the annual evening boat ride crew, and there was always guaranteed to be one or more people commandeering the prime outdoor seating area at our hotel — if you wanted to find out what people were up to or organize a group of people to go grab food, this riverfront patio was the spot to go to find them.
Other excursions around the city included a soak in the thermal baths, a visit to the pinball museum, getting a feline fix at the cat cafe, marveling at architectural and culinary delights at the Great Market Hall, and even partaking in the opera.
On our free day, which was dedicated to exploring the city with colleagues, our only Hungarian colleague volunteered to take a few people from his team on a tour of the city, where he’d lived during his university days. Word spread, and what had started out as a small group of five or six ended up as a day-long walking tour with 20 or 30 people tagging along. Luckily Balázs was a gracious host and he did a great job wrangling us all as we went all over Budapest.
This year, we left Budapest not only having accomplished what we set out to do professionally, but leaving as a group of people more closely connected through our shared insights and experiences. Whether exploring a new city together, brainstorming about the future of documents, or just hanging out and chatting over drinks, the week we spent together continued to shape our perceptions of what a retreat is and can be. It was a celebration of our collective journey — of how far we’ve come, and how far we can go together.