Remote Retreats and Employee Engagement (w/ Stephanie Lee, Nansen)

Stephanie Lee, Director of People Experience at Nansen, shares the secrets to remote employee engagement, including remote team retreats.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
May 9, 2023
min read

Join us for the third episode of the Future Work podcast with our inspiring guest, Stephanie Lee in which we discuss remote employee engagement strategies, and in particular, remote company retreats.

Stephanie is the Director of People Experience at Nansen and an expert in remote work in Asia. Her passion is to help people bring their best selves to life and work, and she believes that the key to hybrid success is designing your operating system to be remote-first.

Stephanie has successfully built remote companies in Europe, the US, and Singapore and has helped businesses adapt to work-from-home directives by teaching effective implementation of remote work. In this episode, Stephanie shares her valuable insights on how Nansen approaches remote work as the first remote-first company of this scale in Singapore, with a workforce from almost 40 countries.

Her emphasis on team composition, cross-functional collaboration, and organic connections highlights the importance of building a thriving remote-first world. Join us for an inspiring discussion on how to make remote work, work for you.

Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite player.

Find Stephanie on LinkedIn and Twitter.


Daan van Rossum: To start, could you share a little bit about your backgrounds and your experience in the field of employee experience?

Stephanie Lee: My career in tech preceded the employee experience piece because, when I first joined tech from teaching, I was given a really cool title. I was called the lifesaver at Buffer, and my task/mandate was to see what's broken and fix it. Save lives, basically.

In the course of those operations, it became really clear that it was a pain point at Buffer because we were fully remote, coming out of the Teal organization flat structure. So they needed to build processes and stuff. I started there, and then I did finance for two years, and then I joined the people team and figured out what I wanted to do on the people team.

But in the course of that, I was also doing a bunch of the company retreats, and it became clear that what I really enjoyed was building the infrastructure around cool experiences for our remote team. That's how I became the team experience manager at Buffer.

Daan van Rossum: Yeah, you just floated along.

Stephaine Lee: I just floated along and did what was interesting.

Daan van Rossum: It just happened. You just ended up here. Hey, and maybe just to take one step back. So, you said that they were in a teal organization, which sounds interesting.

Stephanie Lee: Yeah. If you've read the book Reinventing Organizations, it's really this idea of not having hierarchy. It was really flat. This was before I joined Buffer, pre-2016. The idea was that we would move fast by having little task forces, kind of doing what they do best. Buffer, as a pioneer in remote work, was also really big on work experiments, and that was one of the experiments. When I joined, they were coming out of that experiment, really growing the team at that time.

Daan van Rossum: Interesting. Then you moved from Buffer to Cargo One?

Stephanie Lee: Yeah. From social media management to digitalizing air cargo, teams are still remote. That's the red thread. I really like that. It was a different kind of employee experience design because I was the remote lead there. And it was really about how we come up with a company operating system that works for a remote team across the world.

When I was at Cargo One, interestingly, I was on a head of remote panel at a conference, and one of the topics was, 'What is the future of the head of remote?'.

I was like, I think it's going to kind of branch out into head of workplace design and head of people experience kind of portfolios. Shortly after that conference, I got an opportunity with Nansen, and it was around people's experiences, and I was like, I called it. So that's how I landed where I am today.

Daan van Rossum: Makes sense. I remember the chief remote officer at GitLab saying the same thing. Eventually, this role will disappear. But for now, we still have to say remote because it's not the usual way, and so now you're at Nansen. Tell us a bit more about the company and your role within it.

Stephanie Lee: Nansen is a blockchain analytics company. We surface the signal in the blockchain world to help people make more informed decisions when they make investments, when they make any kind of decision to do with their crypto, or if they want to ape into what other people are doing with their transactions, they can just look at whatever dashboard gives them the information.

As you know, the whole crypto industry has been going through a bit of a winter lately, and we had quite a dramatic end of year last year. And the team's been amazing at shipping, with really cool features and products that help people live up to this mission. One of the cool things that they shipped was proof of reserves for the exchanges.

So it's been really fun to work with this team. They're so smart. They're at the forefront of technology. They're all across the world. We're 150 people now in 39 countries, last I checked. All kinds of cultures, all kinds of backgrounds, and all really excited to be building cool stuff.

Daan van Rossum: Before you share a bit more about your role, 150 people across so many countries. What does the working model look like? How is that being managed?

Stephanie Lee: We're remote first. One of the reasons why I'm really excited about Nansen is that it's probably the first remote-first company that's trying to build at the scale that we build in Singapore, and that's where I'm from. That was always my dream when I was building European and US-based remote companies. I always wanted to do it in Singapore.

Nansen’s makeup is really cool. Most of us are in Europe and APAC, and we are remote first, but we're also very sensitive to how fast we can go when we're all synchronous. So we don't shy away from synchronous work. What we do is try to optimize team makeup so there's as much overlap as possible, so people can move as fast as they want to move through meetings and stuff, but of course, we still endeavor to train them to do more async work. So it's not a hurdle.

We currently have four hubs where we cover people's one-month travel to each of these hubs in a year so they can meet their team. They can meet other people in the company and get that face-time, because that's really important. So, I think we're remote-first and hybrid-friendly.

Daan van Rossum: Remote first, hybrid friendly. What does the head of people experience at a company that has that kind of working model? What does your day-to-day look like?

Stephanie Lee: People experience has a few subfunctions within it or a few streams.

A big one is learning and development, because we're big on that. We focus a lot on individual development and manager development. Another part of it is being a culture champion. Last year, I shipped the culture playbook, which articulates what we stand for, operating principles, and how to use them in our day-to-day lives.

We also do engagements and events like the company retreat. We took 120 people to Bali in January from across the world. It was an adventure for all of us. Part of the engagement and events piece is measuring the results of that. So, we have regular engagement surveys and stuff like that.

Then I also partner with our operations team very extensively to build our people ops and experience infrastructure. How do we support people with our hubs program? How do we set people up for a seamless experience, regardless of where they are in the world?

So that's what people experience, in a nutshell.

Daan van Rossum: Super impressive. As the first real remote-first company born out of Singapore.

Stephanie Lee: I don't know how to say, real, but did I say real? 

Daan van Rossum: Hey, we can claim that right now.

Daan van Rossum: As a remote-first company born out of Singapore, what do you see and what have you learned along the way that you think most companies are getting wrong when it comes to remote work, hybrid work, and the way they deploy employee experience? What are some lessons that you can share with the audience?

Stephanie Lee: This is happening across the world. We tend to see them as binary, either remote first or hybrid first. I've always said, even when I was at Buffer, that I think the way to go for hybrid success is to design your operating system to be remote first.

There's no real reason why we should be afraid of in-person meetings; the big caveat is equity and employee experience, but there is so much power when you get people in the same room, and the energy is just unbeatable.

But what a lot of people have gone through from what I've seen post-COVID is that, especially the big companies, they've gotten allergic to remote first, and they're like, “Oh, it's not productive.” So, we'll do a hybrid where you can work in the office sometimes, on mandatory days, and then work remotely other times.

When I go to the office, I'm sitting on my Zoom call, and when I'm at home, the only time I get to do work is at home, which is ironic because showing that working from anywhere actually works in the office is not essential. That's because they haven't optimized for more async work and more cloud-based collaboration.

I think that's what we've gotten wrong a lot of the time. I don't know if many companies are being thoughtful about how to assemble teams with the understanding that time zones are a limiting factor. We do quarterly time zone audits at Nansen, and that's a very important thing for us to do because, if someone is managing his whole team from the opposite side of the world, it makes everything exponentially harder. So that's one thing.

Then, I think a lot of the struggle has also been how to have an authentic, virtual connection. We've passed on the idea of a happy hour. Nobody really wants to stay an additional hour after work to see their colleagues when they could be spending time with their family. How can we get people to engage human beings without feeling like it's additional work, without feeling like it's contrived, but still tie them through the in-person meetings?

I don't know that a lot of companies have nailed that; a lot of the big companies just kind of default to, “Oh, we'll just gather in the office.” But I'm sure we'll find a solution down the line.

Daan van Rossum: Totally. Especially with people like you in the world, I'm sure we'll get to a much better place.

You were talking about sometimes not being afraid of still meeting in person and not holding on too dearly to the idea of remote. You said the energy of having people in a room can be really important. How do you balance that with the fact that, like you said, you have a big global team and you're sitting in different time zones? Does everyone have to organize retreats in Bali to make it work?

Stephanie Lee: I would say if you can really set aside a big part of your employee experience budget to run a company retreat, the payoff is incredible. You won't believe the number of conversations I've had post-retreat where they were like, “Oh, now I know this person.” I've hung out with them. I've had a beer with them. We've gone hiking together. I can just tap on their shoulder and slack and be like, Do you want to help with this community activity? Or if I have this project in mind, would you be keen on giving feedback, helping me run it, or collaborating on it?

These are things that are much harder if you've never seen someone in person. The payoff of a company retreat is just amazing because there's also something to be said about shared experiences that build a sense of identity and belonging. Retreats are really good for that.

Some companies do it twice a year. I feel like if you don't have a dedicated retreat person, it's a lot of work. It's a huge amount of work. Once a year is great.

We've recently launched our hubs program 2.0, which is folding teams off sites with our hubs program. So, we cover a month for people in any of the hubs, but we ask that they meet with their team during that time. And this is really to try and find that happy medium where people have flexibility but they still sit down together, go for Paella somewhere, or fish and chips in London. The London team is going to hear this and be like, Steph does not know what's going on here.

There's just something that's special when people are in the same room together.

Daan van Rossum: I love that idea that suddenly, after meeting people in person, it's a little bit easier to tap them on the shoulder virtually and say, “Hey, can we collaborate on this?” Because maybe you wouldn't feel comfortable or safe enough to reach out to that person. You don't feel like I know them personally. So there is still something about this whole in-person thing.

You mentioned the retreats a few times. So that's something that you've done now across multiple companies. It's something that costs a lot of money, but as you said, if you just bundle all the money that goes into other things that may be a bit more forgettable for people and maybe not as meaningful, you can organize them. What goes into a good retreat?

Stephanie Lee: I think what goes into a good retreat is thinking about what your company needs at that point in time. So, the demands of the experience differ depending on what your company's made up of? Is it a bunch of tenured people that have worked together for a long time? Or have you had a hiring surge and need to build connections? Or have you just gone through a really tough market and you need to reward people and help people feel more rested and recharged?

Building in time to meet those needs, like structuring your company and your team sessions around those needs, is very important, as is building in time for people to know that you're not planning anything. So being intentional about protecting decompression time—time for organic connections—that's really important when you've brought everyone across the world to me. Otherwise, you're just shuffling people from room to room, and then you'll be like, What just happened this week? I wanted to talk to that person, but I didn't get a chance to.

That's really important. Then kudos to my operational start in tech. I'm always a big fan of making everything so seamless that nobody has to worry about how stressful international travel can be. So that when they land there, all they need to focus on is showing up for the sessions. They know exactly where they need to be and who they're connecting with. And they can fully show up.

Another thing I've learned over the years that's really important is setting expectations and the tone at the start. So saying, this is a work event, be fully present; this means you don't have to be in the customer support inbox 24x7, for instance.

If you need to go, go take a nap, but come back and be here with us. Expectations like that need to be communicated, or I can guarantee you, your introverts are going to be burned out, and they're going to be like, This was the worst week of my life. It was the best and the worst.

Daan van Rossum: As an introvert, I can only agree.

Stephanie Lee: A hundred percent.

Daan van Rossum: This sounds really interesting. You do a retreat, not just to get people together and not just to have fun; you really focus on a strategic priority for the company and then build a program around it.

I also like this idea of building space for organic connections. I think something that we do very organically in the office is run into people and have small chats. If you program the day from 8 a.m. until late at night, then obviously there's no opportunity for that. So building in that space is really great as well.

Then there was the idea of setting expectations at the start. Basically, yes, you're here; for some people, it was a short trip; for some people, it was a long trip, but here's what you can expect from us, and here's what we can expect from you.

Is there something in all of that that we can learn for more frequent meetings, even if they don't happen in person? Is there a mini-retreat that we can do multiple times a year, even if that doesn't happen again in person in Bali?

Stephanie Lee: I think it's always helpful for teams to block off certain parts of the year; it could be at the start of your planning cycle or at the end to wrap up, really depending on what you need to take yourself out of doing your day-to-day business as usual to work on the business. For instance, our senior leadership has their summits, where they sit down and plan and review how things are going. The people team in the incentives meeting in the middle of the year should do just that.

I think the value of that on the work and collaboration side is that you get things done when you're in the same time zone. When you've mentally blocked off time to be like, this is what we're focusing on. We don't have to worry about requests so much this week. Because you're in person or you've blocked off that, you bracketed that spot in your calendars. You can also spend more time doing fun things together and not be like jumping in a 30-minute call and trying to be like, How's your dog and how's everything? but also because we have this work that needs to be done. You can go to an escape room together. You can go for a picnic or to the museum, depending on what your team likes, or go to the spa. I don't know if the spa is a very unifying experience, but it's like signaling that you're unwinding together.

It's so valuable to protect some bits of time to do that. It also throws off the monotony of the year, which a lot of us, especially remote people, can sink into when you're like, “Oh, it's another cycle.” It's the same thing. The same slack. It's the same inbox, just throwing things off and making it interesting.

Daan van Rossum: Interesting! That idea that every day starts to feel the same a little bit and goes through the motions.

Really fascinating! I think there are a lot of good lessons here for everyone who wants to be more remote friendly or who was thinking about a different kind of working model. To wrap it up, what kind of advice would you give to HR leaders who are just starting to think about enhancing the employee experience in a remote or hybrid environment?

Stephanie Lee: I think they can start by doing a gap analysis, like a really honest review of where they're at. I hesitate to say, Do this one thing, and it's going to improve, because I'm 100% a fan of measuring what matters and coming up with solutions for your company at whatever point in time you are. So, if it's a matter for company A, if they find that maybe their employees in certain parts of the world are not as engaged as others, then they can think about what they can do to engage those employees or figure out the reasons why.

If it's about people feeling burned out, then your strategies and your approach would be quite different, or if it's about people just getting super bogged down with busy work, then maybe what you can do for employee experience, even though it's not business operations, is to partner with business operations to be like, “Hey, how can we make things smoother for our folks?” So they feel like they can bring their best performance to work.

I think a key thing I've learned from employee experience, especially at Nansen, is that you deliver your best work when you reach out cross-functionally and partner with other parts of the business, because otherwise we're just doing some work for some other company and we may not actually have an important impact.

Daan van Rossum: Beautiful. So, it's not just one thing to do and then everything will be perfect; it's three things to do.

First, you do your gap analysis. You identify the main issues or the main opportunities within your specific company. You then create a strategy and an approach to try and solve those issues, and you have to work cross-functionally and make sure that it tailors to what the company needs.

I think those are very helpful and applicable points for anyone to build a better employee experience for a remote company or a hybrid company.

How do you then measure it? Because you're in a very data-driven company. Of course, the question is going to come up. Is this all worth it? Is it working? How do you measure it?

Stephanie Lee: We introduced engagement surveys three quarters ago. We either run a full engagement survey like that once a year, or we do pulse surveys throughout the year. I think a good metric that a lot of companies already use is the eNPS. But it's also helpful to measure other kinds of engagement indicators.

Do people feel excited to turn up to work? Do they feel heard? And stuff like that. One thing that we're looking at as well for the next quarter is figuring out how to measure psychological safety in the company. Not to dox anyone, not to say, “Oh, this team is not doing well.” But to give us a very clear snapshot of how the teams are doing honestly and whether we can zoom in to support some particular teams.

I think that's a good way to track it. You can also track if people are taking sick days and they're burning out. That's a good metric that a lot of people don't look at because a particular team is taking a lot of sick days. I think that's a good indication that something's happening, especially if it's remote and there's not a bug in the office.

Daan van Rossum: Yeah, we cannot blame the colleagues in the office for something that is going around. It definitely came from your own environment.

Amazing. This is really, really helpful. I think this is a great conversation about your experience, how you're running things at Nansen, and also what other people can do. I'm sure people are now super excited to plan the next retreat, as long as they have good operational people to help pull it off. But at least start to do surveys, create that gap analysis, and form a better employee experience strategy.

So Steph, thanks so much for being on the program today. Where can people find you if they want to follow more of your thinking and doing?

Stephanie Lee: I am at Steph_Lee. Pretty much everywhere. So that's Twitter. I think LinkedIn is Steph-Lee. But if you look for Nansen, you'll find me. I've been meaning to speak a bit more about all this stuff on social media. So, I feel like this is the nudge to do that. 

Daan van Rossum: Commits. We're going to hold you accountable. 

Thanks so much for being on.

Stephanie Lee:  Thanks for having me.

Daan van Rossum: All right. My pleasure.

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.