Why We Gather: In Person Retreats for a Remote Company
Earthshot Labs is a remote company. We gather four times a year for in-person retreats. The rest of the year we use the full suite of digital tools to get work done, keep morale high, and feel connected to each other and our mission. In this essay we’ll let you in behind the scenes to the design of the July 2022 retreat. We'll disclose our internal process so that you may understand what we do together and how we’re strategically designing retreats to achieve our mission and deliver real world impact.
How We Gather: Our Experimental Designs for Bringing Our People Together
At Earthshot Labs we care about culture. Our gatherings weave a wide range of frameworks, practices, and digital tools to create an in-person workplace that can strategically carry us through our next stage of growth.
We have a scrappy People and Culture team that executes our retreats: Andrea Dennis, Lily Hoffman, Carly Visk and Armando Davila. Lily handles food, Carly handles logistics, Andrea sends the updates, Andrea and Armando design, facilitate and manage the retreat program. Our retreats have been incredible. Everyone shows up and we get a lot of work done.
Andrea and Armando (or more affectionately known as Dennis and Davila) utilized two frameworks to guide our July 2022 retreat design: Priya Parker’s Art of Gathering and Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects.
Priya Parker’s book “The Art of Gathering” proposes a specific disputable purpose for every gathering. This means designing a retreat that responds to the specific and immediate needs of the community being gathered. We didn’t design from scratch. We used feedback from the last retreat and a pre-retreat survey to gain insight from our team. We also talked with our colleagues to get a pulse from them directly. From this survey and our awareness of the needs of the organization we made an assessment on a specific disputable purpose to achieve with our retreat design.
This is what we identified:
Spoiler Alert: We didn’t achieve all of these purposes. Absolute spoiler alert: here's how people responded to the post retreat survey.
Once we landed on these purposes we then used our second design framework: The Work That Reconnects (WTR). The Work That Reconnects is a powerful tool to collectively and individually act on behalf of creating a life sustaining society. Please pause here and take the time to read this page about the Core Assumptions of the Work That Reconnects. The Work That Reconnects utilizes three stories of our times: The Story of Business as Usual, The Great Unraveling, and The Great Turning.
We spoke those three stories as a macro frame for our times but also applied them to Earthshot Labs as a microcosm. In our microcosm, we retooled the three stories to improve our workplace. Imitating the innovations in software we affectionately called our current work culture “version 1.3”. 1.3 because we’ve had 3 work retreats so far. For Business as Usual as usual we asked: what is our current operating system? For The Great Unraveling: we asked what are the challenges we face in working together? For the Great Turning: we spent time debugging the issues that were raised.
We’ve given ourselves 12 weeks between the July and October retreats to solve the issues that came up. The goal is to go through a full innovation cycle in our work culture.
As a design flow the Work That Reconnects goes through four stages: Expressing our Gratitude; Honoring our Grief for the World; Seeing with New and Ancient Eyes; and Going Forth. It’s effective poetry that creates a structure for the creative process.
Prior to the event we produced a 26 page facilitation guide, timed to the minute with a calendar that has all the facilitation in a spreadsheet. The program ended up being a combination of Earthshot “traditions”, WTR classics, facilitation moves we learned elsewhere, custom exercises we created for this retreat, and some emergent facilitation.
In building out a retreat of this size, we decided to push the limits of remote interaction and create 2 hour blocks of time for us to plan. This was much more effective than bursts of meetings where we felt crunched for time and didn’t have the space to explore various creative ideas.
The Design We Chose
The Gratitude Design we chose involved remembering the good that has occurred since we last gathered, touching in with our mission and vision, and hearing an update about our climate situation from our colleague Polly Buotte who is a former IPCC contributor.
We formed an earth shrine to honor the nonhuman beings impacted by the vision we hold for planetary land restoration and conservation. This process gave each team member the opportunity to share more about the ecology of their region (as we invited everyone to bring a nature item from their hometown). We invented a game “Organizational Charades” wherein everyone stood chronologically in a circle according to the hiring date and were invited to share their name, how they arrived at the organization and their role. After each person shared their story they were invited to enter the circle and mime their role with everyone who had already introduced themselves so we could see a theatrical map of the organization.
After lunch we had a workshop on Presence. We applied that by practicing meditation and keeping a shared eye on the quality and strength of our group container.
For Honoring Our Pain we did two stages of processing. We honored our pain for the world by doing a practice from the Work That Reconnects called the Truth Mandala. The Truth Mandala involves an emotional story telling of the pain we experience in the world through a moment of public truth telling.
In the afternoon we did a 4 level facilitation design where people shared their individual challenges, team challenges, interteam challenges, and we collectively identified our systemic and structural issues as an organization. Notes were taken on all four levels in Notion.
For Seeing with New Eyes, we spent time solving for the issues that came up the previous day. In the afternoon we held a Storytellers Convention. Each team presented their work. We listened for the qualities of the great turning and shared those qualities with the speaker.
That evening we had a delicious dinner, dessert and a science conference. The Science Team presented the work that they’ve been doing, bringing posters, and stood for Q&A. It was inspiring, bonding, and educational.
Going Forth, on our last full day, we went on a hike in the Hendy Wood State Park, an old growth redwood forest. Afterwards we cleaned up, put on our party outfits and did what is now a traditional practice for closing of our retreat called a Way of Council. Everyone goes around and is provided time to speak to the whole group.
Once our Council ended we partied! We laid out under the stars, folks played guitar, sang songs, and told stories by the fire. Our life as co-workers was temporarily backgrounded. In the foreground we were people bonded through our shared time together enjoying a beautiful evening. The next day we said our goodbyes and we all departed.
The Art of Facilitation
As facilitators we get nervous before we step on the stage. We rehearse our parts. We are constantly shifting things around to make the experience more graceful. It’s a pleasure to watch our facilitation go well, and it's disappointing when something falls flat or we fail to execute a specific section the way we wanted to. Our retreats are powered by custom facilitation. This requires creativity that draws on a wide range of practices and experiences. Much of facilitation is holding a group through a designed experience.
The logic and meaning has to make sense to us and the flow of events has to make sense for everyone. When we’re in front of the room we are asking for trust, asking for a group of people to do something risky, challenging, or creative. People can perceive gaps in our presentation and changes in our mood or delivery, which is why facilitation is a craft that requires a lot of practice.
While our company is in its early stage we have had the luxury of having a small team. Small enough wherein we can cook meals together, understand the core dynamics in the organization, and have a high familiarity with most of the people on our team. As the company grows, we’ll need to codify a lot of processes while keeping the vision of our culture intact and impact of our business activities grounded in a pure ethic of doing good.
The Challenge of Carbon Justice
Corporations relating to international communities near “resources'' have a long history of predatory behavior. At best the carbon market can fund local communities worldwide to restore nature, stabilize communities for their climate adaptation efforts and increase the global capacity for sequestration as the world rapidly decarbonizes. It cannot protect us from the radical systemic change that is required to reverse global warming through a just transition globally.
As a new, predominately white for-profit company (B-Corporation) from the United States of America we are aware that we have to unlearn common patterns of abuse, build bridges where there haven’t historically been any, and proactively decolonize our culture while succeeding as a business providing excellent products and services that elevate the opportunity of carbon markets to something we can all be proud of. This is a real challenge.
We are trying to create an internal culture that doesn’t replicate the unjust and unsustainable outcomes of business as usual. We do not want to be disassociated from our own truth or entertain delusions about the impact we’re having on the ground. The first place we can practice justice and restoration is in our workplace.
Our Vision For Our Regenerative Future: The culture at Earthshot Labs will continue to root and evolve. The Founders Patrick Leung and Troy Carter offered us a variety of regenerative practices including: council practice, meditation, a teal inspired organizational model, and company retreats with a specific transformative flavor. We are aiming for a breakthrough culture that can set the stage for the post transition sustainable and just world we all long for. Our goal is to accelerate the power of organizations around the world to implement ecological restoration projects. We provide a full suite of technology and project development services to ready our restoration partners for investment, secure their funding and ensure they have everything they need to be successful. Our global crisis isn’t unidimensional. That is why we are committing to doing the deep internal work required to elevating the carbon market to focus on the needs of intact ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Our culture is ultimately in service to providing a pathway for vast amounts of capital to empower communities around the world to restore nature with ethical integrity.
If you want to stay tuned to how things are evolving at Earthshot Labs, subscribe to Substack and consider attending one of Nature X Carbon events.