By S. Mitra Kalita

I recently wrote a column for Time magazine on the key to holding a good offsite or workplace retreat, in this age of Omicron and telecommuting. Because Team Epicenter strives to be of service and value to New Yorkers, I thought it might be helpful to share what worked and why as we held our first hybrid (a mix of in-person and remote) work session since our founding in July 2020. 

The Venue: Spaces in the Falchi Building in Long Island City
You don’t need a membership to book these co-working spaces; there are literally hundreds around the world. I love the LIC location because of plenty of dining options indoors and nearby, a hipster-industrial chic vibe and not really the feeling of working in an insurance office. We paid $345 for a private conference room 8:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. Warning: They really stick to those hours, cutting off your internet when time’s up. 

Our mask, test and vax game is strong. Photo: Epicenter NYC

Covid-19: Staying safe
We had six staff in person and two virtual. Those in person stayed masked and were greeted by two Binax tests, a pack of N95 masks, some Epicenter stickers and a kazoo. Once everyone tested negative, we took off our masks. The second test was to test upon return home, whenever deemed necessary. 

Photo: Epicenter NYC

Getting Vulnerable: Kazoos
We’ve done virtual icebreakers before so wanted to try something different to set the tone for the day. Nitin Mukul, our creative director, came up with this idea of pre-ordering these kazoos ($9, Amazon) and asking each person to write down three songs and take turns performing them (hum don’t blow) while the rest of us tried to guess the tune and the artist. So. Much. Fun. 

Community manager Daniel Laplaza and creative director and co-founder Nitin Mukul. Photo: Epicenter NYC

The Food: Bagels, tacos, drinks, Greek
You know by reading our newsletter that we take our food really seriously on the Epicenter team. We wanted diversity and simplicity and deliciousness. Our menu for the day: 

Bagels, coffee and breakfast sandwiches from Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Co. (picked up from Astoria).

Tacos from Tacombi (we ordered in but if you want a lunch option to walk to, highly recommend Adda, a big supporter of Epicenter and vice versa since we helped its staff get booked for vaccines).

Drinks at Gantry Bar & Kitchen (it’s just a mile away and was freezing that night so we took rideshares; they had arranged overhead heat lamps but we ventured inside since it was near empty at 4:30).

Dinner at Bahari Estiatorio in Astoria

Virtual: Be inclusive 
Community manager Daniel Laplaza and operations manager Janelle Zagala forced us to do some homework before we gathered. Our offsite was designed over multiple pre-meetings with tweaking of questions and wording. This proved to be so valuable for a few reasons. Two of our Epicenter teammates were remote so we took to virtual but synchronous brainstorming on Miro. The homework exercises gave us a guide for impromptu discussion that wasn’t just random and riffing but truly thought out. We also got to share and see each other’s answers so challenges, say around workflow, were no longer one person’s problem but able to be solved collectively. Finally, the homework enabled everyone to have something to say when we went around the room; some people read from notes while others gave impassioned speeches (guilty) but it didn’t feel like just a few people were vocal. Everyone had to participate. Importantly, everyone had prepared to participate. 

Community reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado and community manager Daniel Laplaza. Photo: Epicenter NYC

The Agenda: Bonding
It took us a bit to set up our remote staffers with the right microphone and camera angles to see the room. I could feel myself getting agitated and then said out loud, to everybody but really myself: “This is the work. Helping people get equipped and comfortable to participate is at the core of our work to build both our team and our communities.” And then I said to relax on cramming through the agenda because we would schedule monthly follow-up anyway. I think that changed the tone to one of supporting each other and understanding who was in the room (real and virtual). 

Transitions: Stretching and Silence
We had planned an icebreaker for before or after lunch: Make everybody shift spots and sit next to someone new. We accidentally skipped that one but Nitin did lead all of us in a series of stretches in the late afternoon. And finally, I abridged an exercise for a half-hour of silence into just 5 minutes of quiet at the end of the day. We sat still, no devices or music. Some people closed their eyes, others watched each other. Then we hit the bar.

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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