By Liz Osterloh, on Aug 30, 2019

One night in Brandenburg: A newbie’s-eye-view on the 2019 Contentful offsite

It’s a bit daunting to spend 48 hours trapped in a hotel in the middle of the German countryside with 200 people you don’t know that well. This is the idea behind the tech company tradition we all know and love called an “offsite”: Get everyone in one remote place, mix in a few drinks, a few workshops, maybe a pool. And either magic happens and everything gels… or you want to back away from the company, slowly, into the bushes, Homer Simpson style.

For me and about 15 others, it was also the first time we met most of these 200+ people – because the 15 of us joined Contentful within a month of the offsite.

The question is, does it work? Can you bring absolute newbies into the fold within just 48 hours? I went to the source and asked the members of my cohort how they felt.

Touchdown in Berlin

The event brought together not just the 150 of us from Berlin, but also our San Francisco-based team and remote colleagues from around the globe. A few days before the offsite, more and more new faces were showing up in the office. As an American who has spent their entire adult life and career in Berlin, I felt a strange twinge of reverse culture shock when the Silicon Valley crew landed. I found myself asking, where do I fit in?

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Alyson, a Bay Area native based in Berlin, felt more at home:

I'm so glad to have joined Contentful right as the offsite festivities were kicking off. It was great to have so many SF folks visiting since I'm from the Bay Area. It was like a small piece of home coming to Berlin. – Alyson Boehm, Senior Recruiter, BER

But I wasn’t alone in my worries. Some of my new colleagues from across the pond were as tentative as I was:

The thing I will remember most is how nervous I was to go, and then getting there and realizing that everyone, shockingly everyone, was really nice, helpful and warm. – Chioma Ekeh, Workplace Experience Coordinator, SF

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Lucky for us, our HR, Events, Agile, Workplace and Management teams put in a staggering amount of work to design these two days so we could connect, smooth over the bumps and figure out how we fit together.

What is culture anyways?

Culture is a messy thing. It’s a hard-to-define topic in itself, and even if you assume a company has one shared culture, it still changes over time and shifts based on your perspective. A big chunk of both days was dedicated to gathering input on how all of us actually experience our work culture and recognizing where we still have work to do.

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I found this a refreshing alternative to accepting values as law from a voice on a mountaintop. Some of my fellow new joiners are in management positions, and they were right in the fray with us:

I spent the first day in the culture workshop. As the company grows, it’s important to keep our identity but also adapt it to our size. The fact that the company cares enough about culture to invest in it is incredibly important to me and one reason I decided to join. – Jeff Glasson, VP Engineering, BER

I really enjoyed the sessions on day two that dug deeper into the values of Contentful. It was interesting for me to see my colleagues’ minds at work, sharing their ideas about the future direction of the company and collaborating in an open and transparent way. – Anna Richardson, Director of HR EMEA, BER

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Dropping the act

On the micro scale, one-on-one, things got deep really quickly. This was also by design: The organizational team invited coaches from the School of Life to run intimate sessions that got us talking with each other about life, the universe and everything within 30 minutes. The newbies’ favorite by far was the workshop on supportiveness:

I had a short and very impactful encounter with another newbie from the San Francisco office during the “supportiveness” session. Listening well to somebody creates confidence and openness, even if you don't know that person at all. – Rainer Duda, Senior Strategic Partnerships Manager, BER

The one workshop that impacted me the most was the supportiveness session. It was all about active empathetic listening and how to apply it not only in your personal life, but also at work. I realized how many mistakes I’ve made by trying to offer solutions too early in the conversation, or by not reflecting on the kind of emotions people may have while discussing something deeply personal. – Karol Jarkovsky, Group Product Manager, BER

I found myself talking to people on a level of depth I rarely do with friends, let alone colleagues. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing at first to jump straight into questions like: “What’s causing you pain in your life right now?” But after the first five minutes I found it incredibly freeing to shortcut past the chit chat and talk about something real. It set the standard for the rest of our time together: meet people as humans, not just coworkers. And we did:

I’m so excited to have met Charlie. He and I share a personal and unique trait – we both have Type 1 Diabetes. While that may not sound very pleasant, it's actually really awesome. We were able to geek out and learn a few things from each other, share experiences, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing there was someone around that was "just like us". I'm super excited to keep learning from Charlie, especially about the open source projects he's working on (including LOOPING). – Adriana Soliz, Customer Success Manager, SF

Just let go

At some point in the evening of the first day, I threw my skepticism straight out of the window and jumped in, flying my weird technicolor flag high. And so did 200 other people. It may have been by design, but it was also genuine and fun.

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It was an amazing opportunity to get to know my new colleagues in different settings, structured and unstructured. In particular the heated salt water pool with our giant unicorn floatie in the middle! – Saood Shah, VP Customer Success, SF

The warm, welcoming people, the picturesque location by the lake and the joyous spirit of the event all contributed to the overall vibe. I was left with the impression that Contentful is a company that’s focused on a big, exciting future while simultaneously making sure everyone has fun achieving it. – Georgina Linnell, Solution Architect, BER

Everyone was totally game, and by the end of the night, we were all rocking out to Contentful’s own in-house band.

Coming back to earth

By now the dust (and glitter) have settled and we’re back to daily work. My lingering impression of the two days is definitely more paradise island than escape room. But was it worth it?

At the offsite, there was a palpable sense of family and fun that I haven't seen back in the California startup scene in a long time. It definitely confirmed for me that I'm at the right place at the right time. – Anthony Poliseno, Senior Product Marketing Manager, BER

A whole week away from my family is a big ask, but I’ll remember it as being well worth the time. I felt the event had the perfect combination of professional workshops and personal time, great food, great venue, and great people. – Sam Gentry, Senior Field Marketing Manager, SF

I might still be finding my niche, but now I see how the pieces fit together. I’ve got some new friends and a solid start. And an added bonus: story ideas that will tide me over into next year!

Liz Osterloh

Technical writer at Contentful and friend to engineers. Liz has spent the last 5+ years turning tech and data-heavy topics into stories that speak to both developer and non-developer audiences. Find Liz at Contentful community meetups reporting on your awesome projects.