Work-from-Anywhere: Enhancing Team Engagement by Moving to Barcelona for a Month

June 07, 2022
Image of Johnny Warström
Johnny WarströmCEO

What if “work-from-anywhere” really meant anywhere? For the last seven years at Mentimeter we have used the opportunity to temporarily move our operations to a different country for an entire month. And we have reaped the rewards through increased employee engagement and increased organizational resilience.

Whenever I work from home for more than a couple of days in a row I start to feel a little bit disconnected. In many ways this is a personal preference. I know remote work is the preference of many - and I can’t deny the benefits! No commute, increased focus time, the satisfying sense of multi-tasking when the laundry enters a spin cycle while I sit and reply to emails. In so many ways I like working from home and I am lucky enough to work in an industry where I can do it more or less as often as I need to. But - for me - remote work has always been a double-edged sword.

Even though there are many benefits to working from home, I still see so many benefits of having a vibrant office culture. There is the serendipity of an important revelation that might be sparked by a conversation between meeting rooms, or over lunch. Then there is the ease of collaboration: not just the ability to work cross-functionally in a more optimal way, but also the sense of working as a collective towards something bigger and meaningful, rather than the feeling of working alone.

Johnny on VD podden

Really, that is what it is all about. It is about simpler things than breaking silos and business value. I like my colleagues. I like being the first in the office in the morning because I like the calm, I like feeling the energy amp up as more people arrive. I like brewing the first batch of coffee and saying good morning to people. I like a spontaneous beer after work. A business is really only the people who are part of it, and the connections between those people is important.

Fun at work is a collaboration - and there is no digital substitute

At Mentimeter we have always worked with the belief that work should be fun. I mean, we spend around one-third of our lives working. There’s no getting around it! A career is a big time commitment, no matter how much you practice good work-life balance. So why not make that time enjoyable? It is a simple idea, but it’s not easy. It requires work (and, yes, investment).

Having fun at work - or “enhancing employee experience” in business-speak - has to be a collaboration. Perks and benefits on an individual level are all very well and good, but I truly believe that employee satisfaction and engagement hinge on feeling part of something bigger than yourself. Feeling like you contribute to that bigger thing and feeling like that bigger thing and your contribution to it are meaningful.

So we know that there is great value to be had from being together in the same place when we work. Great value in sharing experiences and interacting with colleagues we might not necessarily encounter in our daily work. So does that mean we dispose of the possibilities of work-from-anywhere? Does it mean we have nothing to gain from the modern way of working, where all you need is a laptop and a stable internet connection? I would say no.

Leveraging work-from-anywhere to power growth

I think the ability to work from anywhere offers organizations many opportunities that are not taken advantage of, and - in some businesses - not even imagined yet. Let me tell you about one such opportunity we have been taking advantage of in my company for a number of years now.

The team relaxing on a roof terrace.

Every year since 2014 (with the exception of 2021 because of the pandemic) we have relocated our entire organization from our HQ in Stockholm to a different European city (usually in southern Europe). This year we moved to Barcelona, Spain for the whole of March. (We recently opened an office in North America that did its own relocation from their Toronto HQ to Merida in Mexico).

Why do we do this? Well, for a number of reasons. It helps us to escape the final weeks of the cold Swedish/Canada winter and get some much-needed vitamin D for a start. It is also an opportunity to live and work closely with people in the organization that you wouldn’t necessarily usually encounter. It is an opportunity to get inspiration, to experience a different cultural milieu, an opportunity to look at things a little differently.

An exercise in self-leadership

There are also exercises in self-leadership: for example, a number of our colleagues travel down by train. This can mean delays, cancellations, and broken-down trains. It can mean having to think on your feet, adjust plans, and work out a new route at short notice. It doesn’t always run smooth, and means being around colleagues at sometimes vulnerable moments. The opportunity for personal growth that this provides is unlike anything a regular two days on the job can give you. This option certainly isn’t for everyone. But those who opt-in usually get a lot out of it.

This is coupled with the self-leadership you need to show just to get through the month. The company arranges travel and accommodation, but that’s it. The rest is up to you. You decide how to balance your work with sightseeing, or surfing, or going for tapas. For us Swedes who usually take lunch very early, adapting to the late Mediterranean lunchtimes can be a challenge. These are of course little - maybe even trivial things - but they stretch people, push them a little outside of their comfort zone and challenge them in psychologically safe ways that I have talked about the benefits of elsewhere.

Optional-inclusivity FTW

One of the most common questions I get about relocation when I tell people about it is: How does this work for colleagues with families? Well, as with almost every aspect of life at Mentimeter, relocation is what we call “optional-inclusive”. What that means is that everyone is welcome to come - including plus ones, spouses, and children - but, of course, it isn’t for everyone.

Ashwin and his son in Barcelona

For some people, it may be too disruptive with school, family life, or any other aspect of your personal life and you may choose to stay in Stockholm. And that is absolutely fine! We keep the office open the whole time and make life back in Stockholm interesting too. Colleagues can also just join for a short period and not commit to the whole month. We try to be as flexible and inclusive as possible, and that includes the option to not be included at all if people don’t want to!

Feeling the impact, reaping the rewards

For that period of relocation - and for a long time after we come back - we get to feel the impact and reap the rewards of this refreshing shake-up. Everyone feels a noticeable uplift in employee engagement. There is a noticeable and sustained increase in productivity. We get to refocus on our missions and the meaning of our work, which helps to refresh everyone’s enthusiasm for their role. This is an intense social period. All we have in this new environment is each other. So old relationships are strengthened and new relationships are formed. We get to recognize and celebrate our achievements. We look back, we look forwards, we live in the moment. 

Being forced by the pandemic to take a year off with relocation was tough, but also gave some perspective. We could compare the difference. And everything I just listed had the opposite outcome. We could see those positive aspects of our organization waning. We did our best to compensate in the ways we could. But nothing was quite the same as that radical version of work-from-anywhere we call relocation. It’s great to have it back.

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