Prioritizing in-person connection at Candid’s all-staff annual gathering
Why even consider an in-person gathering when connecting remotely is enough to get the job done? That’s what we asked ourselves at Candid as we considered re-starting Candid Convene, our annual, all-staff, in-person retreat, last held in 2019. Candid believes remote work is valuable. We offer a flexible work-from-home policy and a third of our employees are entirely remote. That said, we also value the unique opportunity to connect in-person to further build and maintain relationships, break silos, and increase employee engagement.
We’re sharing lessons learned from our experience organizing Candid Convene in Philadelphia this September, with the hopes of helping other nonprofits struggling to decide if an in-person gathering is the right choice for them.
1. Have existing agreements
First, it’s important for your organization to establish agreements on core values and hybrid work and use those agreements to guide decision-making. For example, we relied heavily on Candid’s already established return-to-office plan, created based on employee feedback. The plan provides flexibility for remote work but also prioritizes activity-based gatherings and an annual all-staff event.
In her blog about how the plan came together, Sarah Sprott, VP of Talent writes:
“Although there was limited interest in coming back to the office full time, staff expressed a strong desire for opportunities to connect in person to build and maintain relationships…. For the first time since 2019, we’ll come together for an all-staff gathering this September. This came after learning that 83% of survey respondents indicated an interest in attending an in-person retreat.”
2. Prioritize the in-person gathering
When considering the right balance of programming, it’s crucial to first assess the cost and value associated with a hybrid or in-person gathering and see what makes sense for your organization.
We knew we couldn’t livestream the entire event. There were too many sessions to offer remotely, and the cost for the technology to do so would have been staggering. In the end, we livestreamed and recorded general sessions, while breakout sessions were exclusively in-person or exclusively virtual.
Candid chose to prioritize the in-person experience at Candid Convene over remote participation. Both were important but we had to get real about capacity and financial limitations. We decided to focus on what makes face-to-face connections so impactful. As one colleague shared:
“All the small moments with colleagues, walking to our activity, having dinner, laughing over going up on the elevator instead of down, comparing room views. The immense care taken for the overall experience. Candid Convene made me feel valued as an employee.”
3. Invite staff to co-create the in-person gathering
Staff volunteers were responsible for organizing operations and communications, but we wanted all staff to feel invested in Candid Convene. We put out a call for “staff-led” programming, in which staff members (including virtual participants) could organize and host a session, activity, or dinner. This inclusive component allowed staff the opportunity to share their professional work and personal passions to deepen connections beyond our roles within Candid.
Ultimately, staff led half of the programming. And people came up with amazing ideas including a trolley ride around the city; a tour of the Free Library of Philadelphia (a Candid Funding Information Network partner); a mural tour with Mural Arts Philadelphia; a and a wide selection of staff-organized dinners. Staff generously traded in their own participatory experience for the opportunity to create some of the most organic human connections. Feedback showed staff-led programming was a major factor in Candid Convene’s success.
4. Expect COVID and be prepared
Our top priority was to ensure our team’s continued health and safety. For that reason, Candid required in-person gathering participants to be fully vaccinated. We had a rigorous yet realistic COVID protocols. In-person attendees took a COVID-19 rapid antigen test 24-hours before travel, immediately upon arrival, and two days after arrival, as well as to communicate results privately with HR.
These days, it’s common to wonder, what happens if I test positive during a work retreat? Candid set these protocols for testing positive, which were communicated in advance and executed accordingly:
- Please do not attend any sessions or activities in-person.
- HR will work with you to arrange alternative travel, if applicable.
- Candid will cover required isolation expenses, if applicable.
Consider what protocols your employees would benefit from and what on-site resources are needed. This may include delivering meals, extending hotel reservations, and periodic monitoring of individuals’ health status.
5. Encourage boundaries
The importance of boundaries had been casually and consistently brought up throughout planning. Boundaries for Candid Convene were thankfully solidified on the first day of the retreat, when CEO Ann Mei Chang opened the morning session stressing the importance of active participation and self-care. We encouraged total program attendance, but was not mandatory. The message was clear: it was ok to decompress instead of, say, joining a dinner. It was ok for an inspiring side conversation to last well into the next session. Most importantly, it was ok to feel excitement, stimulation, and/or exhaustion, and it was encouraged that we give ourselves what we need to feel nourished and healthy, both emotionally and physically. Staff-led yoga classes certainly helped with that!
It’s no surprise that Candid Convene 2022 was initially met with much anticipation, curiosity, and to be frank, trepidation. Even with hotel rooms reserved and tickets to Philadelphia in hand, we were ready to pivot—and pivot we did— for the opportunity to connect in real life. When asked about the most memorable moment from Candid Convene, one colleague wrote:
“As a full time remote worker sometimes it’s easy to think of work as just a job that’s easy to log out of every day. While this is healthy, meeting everyone and connecting in this sort of way made me feel so much more connected to my work and so excited to see what is to come!”