Retreat first, ask questions later


Things I have typed into Google in the last few months:

What is a retreat?

Why do companies have retreats?

What do retreats do?

I wasn't sure what to expect from our first company retreat – if the Google searches don't make that wildly apparent.

But our little creative content agency has been up and running for three-and-a-half years and we've just gone through a growth spurt. We're not just a pair of people trying to get something off the ground. We have a culture, that thing that workplaces are obsessed with talking up, but what it means in real terms is an implicit understanding of how to do things even if I or my business partner aren't in the room.

And that's something I'm acutely aware of as we've gotten larger: we're not always in the same room (open-plan office aside). There are people who work here whom I don't get to directly work with, and everyone here has their own ideas and ambitions that I don't get to hear in passing anymore. But it's important to me that our workplace cultivates those things in our people. After all, we started Chello with a spirit of tenacity and imagination and that's something that we won't let go of.

That was reason enough to embark on our first retreat. Even if I was still Googling the whole time.

So I initiated (read: inflicted on myself) the booking out of calendars, the re-scheduling of dates, the calculation of how much food people could eat, and the coordination of cars. By the time we left Sydney for our luxe house on the beach – paella pan and beer in tow – I figured what we'd get was clarity and understanding around our future and purpose. These are things that all founders (and people, really) think about. It's not enough to just make cool stuff. Why are we doing it? How are we making the world just a tiny bit better? What legacy will we leave behind? These are questions that are worth posing to the people who work with us every day. 


We got answers. We got so much more than that too. We came up with new businesses ideas: from investing more in drones and hyper-personalised content to a system for bringing ambitious concepts to clients without them even asking for it. We found consensus on what we value most.

Our retreat magnified what is so amazing about our team. We saw them challenged in ways weird and wonderful, from eating doughnuts suspended by string and swaying in the breeze, to theorising what the future of creative content looks like. We saw people seizing the chance to teach us something new; people who are hungry to succeed – just as we were when we started this whole thing, and just as we are today. We had people tell us that they were really happy they took the job with us. Best of all, we saw a team who relishes being a team.

I'm convinced that the war for talent is the single largest issue facing our industry. It's easier to run off and be a freelancer now more than ever before, it's easier to move overseas and work, locally there are more smaller agencies doing incredible work and it's easier to be poached from a job too. Employers need to offer something better than all of those alternatives. We need to start treating about employees like themselves; creating spaces for ideas to ferment and opportunities to unleash them, we need to dream together and think about the changing role of communication and media in our daily lives. We, as founders, are only as strong as our team.


So what I've come to value most about Chello is that our people truly enjoy each other's company. Do you remember that idiom that you can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends? Even if you're not at the helm of hiring and firing: you choose your colleagues every day that you show up to work and don't quit. We spend more waking hours together than anyone else in our lives. That should be a really confronting thought, but it's probably half the reason we all show up. 

I don't take that for granted and, looking back, this retreat was a way of demonstrating that. It was letting our team be a team – without the work but still with a common goal. No projects, no clients, no dilemmas, no frantic deadlines. Just the pure enjoyment of each other's company and some serious thought about where we're going. Money can't buy a team who will come to the table with business ideas, or who will happily take a weekend off to hang out with their colleagues.

So to answer the question I posed to Google, what is a retreat? It's a rare chance to look back on how far we've come and where we're headed. It's a chance to celebrate the team of people right there next to us, who will grow with us too. 

William NghiemComment