I’ve mentioned before that the Open Knowledge Foundation is probably fairly unique in that it is a truly virtual organization. Our staff sit on 4 different continents and over countless timezones. We communicate primarily using online tools and face-to-face is rare for us.
So to offset our lack of physicalness we have all-staff meetups every six months. [Here's my post on the summer summit.]
These meetups, or retreats (the current word we are using to describe them) allow us to catch up on group meetings, chat to individuals about work activities and generally get to know each other better.
Hacking the agenda – not that dissimilar to a bank trading room! Video by Sander van der Waal.
Two of the days are usually dedicated to an all-staff session. During these days we are required to put away laptops and ‘be present’ by ensuring our full attention are on the tasks of the day. At last weeks retreat we were lucky enough to have the sessions facilitated by Dirk Slater, founder of Fabriders. Dirk has many years of experience supporting social justice movements, so really got our organisation. Facilitate is a word my community tend to use a lot, it is worth remembering that the true definition is to make (an action or process) easy or easier. Dirk definitely achieved that. He enabled us to be both honest with each other and incredibly productive – not an easy task.
I’m not going to document every minute of the two-days but wanted to pick out a few points just give a flavor of it all.
- I think what worked well was the swinging from focused tasks to bigger-picture thinking. I’ve been to many ‘away-days’ of this sort and there is always a danger that you will raise expectations and never follow-up on anything. Keeping it both forward thinking and practical made sense.
- We got to hack the agenda and say what was important to us. There is nothing quite like feeling responsible for your own schedule!
- There were quite a few sharing moments where we all got to say a few words or offer an idea. People felt included and everyone got to talk.
- Management worked at our level, they joined in the group activities and participated in the same way we did. There was no hierarchy during the two-days.
- We had a cheese competition – which was great! People brought cheese from their own country or region and then we got to taste and judge. All part of celebrating our diversity.
- There was a lot of love in the room. The retreat did make me feel incredibly British – saying awesome pains me and I tend to only hug after I’ve had beer. I also struggled with twinkling (apparently in California you can do a silent clap by doing a twinkle – holding up your hands and wiggling your fingers). However that didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the love. I’d much rather work somewhere where people show emotions that somewhere where they don’t. I can assume the ‘old skeptic role’ safely knowing that others are enthusiastic and inspired and will drag me along with them.
- Dirk kept reminding us to talk to people we hadn’t spoken to much yet. It’s amazing how keen people are to stick to what and who they know. Talking to colleagues you don’t know so well is important, it gives us new perspectives and stops us feeling isolated.
Having F2F events makes all the difference to us as an organisation. They are costly and time-consuming but they are what keeps us focused and united. Big thanks to all those who helped organise the retreat.
A quick plug. On my way back from the retreat I attended the Speakerthon day in London. The event brought together over 30 people to create voice samples from the Radio 4 archive and upload them to Wikipedia. The event was part of the BBC Voice Project initiative and organised in collaboration with Open Knowledge Foundation, Creative Commons UK and the Wikimedia community. I’ve written more about the day on the Open Education Working Group blog.