Two weeks ago, we did something crazy. We unplugged our computers, threw a bunch of guilty-pleasure snacks in the car, and carpooled a few hundred miles north to the Sierras to check into the Seven Circles Inn for a two-day company retreat. To top it off, most of us spent the weekend backpacking through the High Sierras for two days prior to the official retreat. Needless to say, there is no more efficient way to bond with your colleagues from across the globe than not bathing, sharing nature’s bathroom, and commiserating over irrational fears of bears for two and a half days straight. On the whole, it was…pretty fabulous.
Last time we headed out for our company-wide retreat was 18 months earlier in Joshua Tree, and after a long, busy stretch, we were overdue to step away to regroup with ourselves and each other. Just as we always talk about with our clients, it’s equally critical for us as an organization to remember why we’re here, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. And what better place to do this than surrounded by nature. (Fortunately, the urge to commune with nature is something pretty much all of us at A Hundred Years has in common, though only one of us has taken it the next level by spending a month on the John Muir Trail; looking at you, Marc Mertens).
During the three days, we talked a lot about the idea of transformation—personally and professionally, and both inside and outside our organization. So often our clients come to us on the brink of transformation, and our role is to help shepherd them through that process. As a company, we put ourselves through the same transformational work, recognizing how elements of our culture and approach must evolve, both as we grow and as we continue meeting the changing needs of clients and employees. As a result, we’re more empathic to our clients and partners.
Two weeks later, we’re all thinking about how to apply what we took away from this experience to the coming weeks, months, and year ahead. We asked a few colleagues to share their reflections.
A special thanks to our fearless leader, Marc, for seeing the value in this kind of shared experience and to Maya Cohan, Heather Mertens, and Tess Feigenbaum for making it happen.
Jessica Herman, Communications Strategist
Before heading out to the Sequoias, we were each invited to share a story, lead an activity, or prepare a dish for the group. Honestly, I didn’t think too hard about it, and chose to lead a short exercise in plein-air watercolor—something I know next to nothing about formally but have picked up in the last year as a relaxing alternative to scrolling mindlessly through Instagram at the end of the day.
I didn’t fully appreciate the color that each of these contributions would bring to the retreat experience until we were there. Over the course of two days, we listened to touching and nerve-wracking stories around the campfire from our Berlin colleagues; practiced the art of shaping the unconscious with clay with our creative strategist, Kate; watched and learned from New Zealand-dwelling developer Nick how to tie a sailors knot; and more. The whole thing culminated at dinner the second night when a handful of colleagues prepared a collaborative feast: Each cook selected a dish or drink with some personal significance to serve the group—from sous vide pork to fresh-from-the-garden radish toasts to pickled herring to apple crumble—and the rest of us pitched in as sous chefs and then dish-washers. Looking around the table, under stars and string lights, it was a crazy beautiful reminder of what a wildly talented, generous, warm group of people I get to work with every day.
There are so many valuable reasons to step away for a few days as a company, better yet surrounded by nature. But above all, the greatest takeaway for me is the opportunity to reconnect with this community I lucked into and celebrate each and every individual who makes it what it is.
Kate Thiel, Creative Strategist
All throughout our team retreat this year, I kept being surprised by my colleagues—their mannerisms, the way they deliver a joke, their presence in a room, their sweetness with each other—all these subtle things that become invisible when you work remotely. Two years ago, when I first left LA and started working remotely, I had the intention of coming back to the studio regularly to stay connected and still feel like I’m part of things. But those trips always turn into big moments on projects–brief and intense visits filled with workshops and meetings, punctuated by a handful of drinks with colleagues that are always rushed and timed around traffic or squeezed between meetings.
I’ve known all along that working remotely has cut me off from a lot of the conversation and things that happen in passing in the studio. There is no ‘in passing’ when you work remotely; no one rolls their chair over to chat you up at your desk, or makes a joke in the kitchen. A friend once told me it’s like everyone I work with is on an eternal smoke break; they’re all out on the patio sharing a moment while I’m inside wondering what they’re talking about.
This year’s retreat was finally a moment for me to join that eternal smoke break. It was great because it wasn’t over programmed with workshops and discussions. It was a celebration and gave us deep time to just be with each other, laugh about nonsense, share bug spray, cook together, and talk about our lives. It was exactly the kind of eternal smoke break I needed to feel connected to everyone, be reminded of what their laughs sound like, and what their hugs feel like.
Maya Cohan, Partner
As one of the designers of our retreat, I was intimately familiar with the agenda. For our global team, time together away from work is rare, and we take it seriously. Every experience and moment was intentional and well-considered. The plan was drafted, debated, and revised. And yet I left wondering, what experiences really mattered? Because what I took away was something I couldn’t have planned.
The retreat was walking together in rhythm up a mountain, cooking dinner side-by-side. It was small kind gestures, sharing stories, personal passions (who brings a professional espresso machine to a mountain nature retreat? We do.) Laughing our asses off under the stars. The real retreat happened in the in-between, unplanned moments when what we do comes naturally—remember our deep affinity, shared values, and commitment to our work and to each other.
Jonathan Mills, Director of Client Engagement
The value of the retreat was brought home for me on the final day. My inclusion on the trip, after being a part of the company for only three weeks, showcased a small but relevant aspect of the company: commitment. I was vetted extensively during the hiring process and fully embraced thereafter.
I understood why on the final day when our CEO said, (and I’m paraphrasing here), “we are here in part because we are doing transformational work for our clients and if we don’t extend that work into our own studio we’re not speaking from a place of authenticity.” At that moment, things clicked into place. 100YRS is a practice. Not just a point of view. It is also a business that values the application of process in the most intimate of ways, using human capital to test human ideas.
From hikes to amazing vistas to learning new skills and recipes, I’m grateful for having been able to attend, and it’s brought me substantially closer to my new colleagues in a way that would never be possible in a typical work setting. A Hundred Years is special, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.
Tess Feigenbaum, Designer, Research and Strategy
The retreat was such a beautiful opportunity to convene and connect. There’s something amazingly powerful about gathering together just as human beings – leaving the pretense of the day to day behind and just being present in each other’s company. Having the space to enjoy and acknowledge the incredible group of people I’m so privileged to be share my weekdays with was truly refreshing and grounding.
The best moment for me was our collaborative dinner—there is nothing quite like sharing a meal to truly bring people together. Creating something beautiful both with and for each other was not only an absolute delight, but the result was so indicative of the drive we all share to support one another and create meaning together. The detail and care brought to each dish, paired with stories shared across the table, brought the meal to life in an authentic and meaningful way. It was a potent demonstration of the compassion, generosity, laughter, and kindness that our team shares, and a lovely reminder of why I’m so grateful to have a seat at the Hundred Years table.