As a remote-first, fully distributed team at Thorn, we connect virtually every day with tools like Zoom and Slack. But at least twice a year we get the whole team together for in-person meetings that provide critical team bonding and planning.

One part of my job as People Operations Manager is to put together thoughtful and engaging events for the Thorn team meetings. Yet two weeks before we were all meant to fly to Washington D.C. for our first in-person meeting of 2020, COVID-19 changed our plans.

We’ve been growing quickly and needed that time to connect and to build out the next phase of strategic planning. Suddenly, we had to cancel everything and start over, while still providing those critical intangibles our in-person time normally does.

Change is hard, but we are all doing it, so I wanted to share how we changed, how it went, and confirm that for anyone changing everything to make their team’s work better — you can do it.

How we responded

Our leadership team decided early and decisively in the spread of the coronavirus that we would cancel the in-person summit and ground all work-related travel. We did two critical things to make this pivot a success.

First, we communicated the change of plans and the reasoning.

Second, we named the new normal that our team would be dealing with:

1. A pandemic is an unprecedented event, and everyone will be handling this differently.

2. Staff need extra flexibility to care for themselves, and any family members who are newly reliant on them – children, parents, etc.

3. Building connections between staff is a key effort in our work to build resilience, and we needed to find a new way to do that.

What we changed

What I love about the culture at Thorn is that when the situation changes, you’re encouraged to change with it. It’s OK to throw everything away and start over. It’s terrifying, and it’s a lot of work, but it also gives the freedom to not only do the right thing but the best thing.

Keeping our three points above in mind, we reimagined our team event as a virtual summit, filled with the joy and inspiration we’d been planning to bring all along.

When I thought about what I was most excited for with our original, in-person meeting, it was the opportunity for small group connections and team surprises. Somehow, I wanted to try to bring these same experiences to our virtual summit. Here’s how we did it;

We protected our time. We’re still hiring and doing a million other day-to-day business tasks. We pushed ourselves to leave those tasks for the week after the team summit, just as we would have if we’d been in person. To help do that we made a standard out-of-office response for staff to use and encouraged everyone to turn on their OOO auto-responder for the entire week.

We kicked off by setting the tone. Conversations with our co-founder and a board member who’s been a leader in child safety for decades created the backdrop from day one. Their message was clear: this situation is challenging, we will adapt, and we will find a path forward. Whatever the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be, they’re real, and we can’t put our lives and our work on hold until we know every detail. We have to set up our new normal to continue Thorn’s mission: to build the world we believe in, where every kid can be safe, curious, and happy.

We shortened everything. We went from three full days to three days of three-hour blocks where most of that time was optional. We also scheduled many breaks. This accommodated different time zones, shifting work priorities, and acknowledged all the family care our staff was navigating.

We made new digital spaces. New Slack channels, one for logistics, one for sharing screenshots of funny moments from the event, and one with daily prompts for staff to reflect and share back with their team.

One difficult part of being a distributed team is that it can be extremely challenging to create an impromptu connection, like you might when casually sitting down to have lunch in the office or passing someone in the hall. When everything has to be scheduled, and is on your calendar or written down on a company tool like Slack, it’s hard to make things feel organic and informal. New, dedicated channels and processes really helped.

We couldn’t bring people to an event, so we brought physicality to the team. We did this by shipping three boxes to everyone on staff:

Day 1: The first package contained printouts of our most used Slack emojis so people could really get into reacting exuberantly while on our Zoom calls.

Day 2: A candle so we could all celebrate the birthday of one of our products together.

Day 3: A new-swag care package to make those long days from home a little more comfortable and a little more connected. Plus, an inspirational note to remind everyone of the importance of their work and their commitment.

A big goal was to have fun, so we made sure to have some. We decided to hold several employee-led workshops, and they were amazing: A serious review of the Cats movie, a quarantine bake-off, a pet talent show, an MTV cribs remote work tour, a learn to draw session … I could go on. 45 minutes of jokes, and getting to know each other outside of the skills we do every day was hilarious, fun, and totally what we needed.

How did it go?

Let me start by saying that things broke. Zoom broke. Surprise guests were late. A kid (many kids) had a question that they couldn’t hold. And you know what? It was fine! Because we had our dedicated Slack channels for this event, and everyone knew where to ask questions and how to problem-solve.

I am so lucky to be able to work for this team. My Slack direct messages are filled with thoughtful notes from the team that the first-ever Thorn virtual summit was a big success.

It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t all on script, but it was perfectly us.

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