Company retreats as a parent: How to prepare, survive, and keep the house from exploding

For remote teams, like ours here at Jilt, retreats offer a unique opportunity to collaborate and connect with our colleagues in person. While we communicate with each other every day using tools like Slack, Zoom, and Basecamp, nothing compares to those serendipitous conversations over cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres at a Scottish castle.

Dunskey Estate in Scotland, the site of our retreat in 2019.

However, for those of us with kids at home, retreats can be challenging to coordinate and put a real strain on our partners and families. We go from being available to help with just about anything, thanks to our flexible schedules, to being out of the house (or even the country) for a week or more.

My husband and I both work for remote companies, so we’ve been on both sides of this equation. As the partner going on the retreat, it’s amazing! Sleeping in until an alarm clock goes off! Delicious meals that I didn’t lift a finger to produce! Best of all, not a diaper in sight. As the parent left behind…well, it sucks. Suddenly, all the burdens of managing a house and keeping a human alive are on me. It’s a big change in lifestyle, especially as someone who has become accustomed to splitting household and parenthood responsibilities 50/50.

While retreats will always introduce extra challenges for your family, you can make it so much easier on partner and kids by preparing before the retreat, staying in touch while you’re away, and expressing your gratitude when you’re back home. You’ll enjoy your retreat a lot more knowing your family is taken care of, and they won’t resent your time away.

At least… not quite as much.

Preparing before the retreat

A little planning can really ease the pain while you’re on your trip. Consider what your partner will need to do for your household and your kids while you’re away, and see what you can do ahead of time to take those tasks off their plate.

Clean the house

This is a pretty basic one, but taking care of a few chores can make things easier on your family. Before my husband went on his last retreat, he mopped all our hardwood floors. This is both (a) very sweet and (b) very much not part of our regular cleaning routine. It wasn’t necessary or expected, but it was nice to have gloriously clean floors for about two minutes before the cat threw up and the baby threw her food on the floor.

While you’re washing your best retreat t-shirts, throw a few loads of towels and kid clothes in the laundry, too. Wash the stinky dog while you’re at it.

Not too handy with a broom? Consider hiring a cleaning service to come while you’re away. This is also a great time to knock some lingering task off your to-do list around the house, like cleaning the gutters or putting air in your car’s tires. The goal is to eliminate as much work as possible for your partner, so he or she can relax in those few precious moments after the kids go to bed.

Stock the fridge! Stock the freezer!

Before you leave, take a trip to the grocery store and make sure the fridge and pantry have everything your crew needs to get through the week. Grab your kids’ favorite dessert and your partner’s adult beverage of choice for post-bedtime downtime. Stock up on toilet paper and diapers. Before he leaves, my husband preps cookie dough so I can have freshly-baked cookies whenever I want them, but this is an advanced maneuver recommended for experts only.

Another great pre-trip move is to prepare some meals in advance. Cooking is time consuming and difficult to do with a little one (or two, three, etc.) running around. While microwave dinners and take-out are great options to have in your back pocket, it’s really special to put together a few meals for your family to enjoy while you’re away. You can make this even easier by preparing double batches of those meals a week or two beforehand as part of your regular evening meal, and setting aside half to freeze for the retreat week. Ideally, you’ll make something delicious and healthy that can be popped in a pan or oven without a lot of extra work. We swear by these chicken meatballs, which are also a favorite of both our human and canine dependents.

Call in reinforcements

If your partner isn’t the primary care provider, they’re almost definitely going to struggle with multiple days of solo parenting. And even if they are the primary care provider and they’re used to managing the kiddos all day, they still may find handling things on their own even more exhausting without some help. Hire a nanny or ask a grandparent to swing by sometime during the week to give your partner a little relief. If you’re really looking to impress, coordinate this with some event that’s important to your partner—a sports game or their regular trivia night—so they can get out of the house for a bit, too. This is also great for working parents, who aren’t used to balancing childcare and their job without your help.

If you have a dog, consider using a service like Rover to hire a dog-walker to pick up your pup a couple times during the week. Our dog is both happier and better behaved after a long walk, but it’s not always easy to find time for this when one of us is on a retreat. As an added bonus, your Rover walker will probably send you adorable pictures or videos of your dog, who you will likely be missing while you’re away!

Staying connected during the retreat

Despite all your careful planning, retreat weeks can still be tough on your partner and family. They’ll miss your help around the house, but also your presence. The best thing you can do while you’re gone is stay in touch. This will mean a lot to your partner and kids, but it’s also good for you. A week away from home is a big deal for remote workers, since we’re used to being with our families so much of the time.

Think of creative ways to stay in touch with your partner and kids while you’re away. For example, my husband and I like to send updates about the delicious food served at our retreats. No offense to him and the fine locations his company has visited, but the Dunskey chefs we had in Scotland blew everything they’ve had out of the water. It sounds silly, but it’s a fun way for us to stay in contact with each other.

Try to talk to your kids in the morning or before bed so they can hear about what you’re doing (archery, canoe racing, and laser tag will certainly pique their interest) and share how their days went. While we were in Scotland, one of my colleagues even stayed up until the wee hours of the morn so he could play video games with his kids. You can be present in the lives of your family members, even if you aren’t with them physically.

This can be especially tricky if you’re dealing with a timezone difference. It’s hard to remember what time it is at home, and there were definitely a few nights during the retreat when I had to dash to my room for a quick FaceTime with the family before their bedtime. To help everyone keep tabs on one another, use a service like Timezone.io. This tool was designed for remote teams (we use it at Jilt!) but you can also set one up for your family.

Another good timezone hack is to use Zapier to send a reminder to yourself. Zapier’s schedule trigger is based off your home timezone, which makes it perfect for this use. For example, here’s a zap I setup to send me a Slack DM at 6 PM, right before my baby’s bedtime. You can also modify this zap to help remind your partner of important tasks that they might not usually be responsible for, such as watering the houseplants or taking the recycling out.

If schedules are just too tight or the timezone difference is too significant so you can’t communicate in real time, try out an app like Marco Polo, which lets you send video messages over WiFi that can be watched in real time or saved for later. Luckily, we had a few hours of overlap, so we could chat in real time using Google Hangouts.

Jumping back in after the retreat

You’re home! Things are back to normal and everyone survived, but there’s still one very important step—showing gratitude. There are lots of ways you can do this, and you’ll know what will mean the most to your partner and kids, but here are a few ideas:

  • Take the kids on a special outing so you can catch up after a week away—this has the added bonus of letting your partner enjoy some downtime!
  • Go on a date with your partner somewhere special, or make a nice dinner for them at home.
  • Take the whole family out to dinner and a movie.
  • Book a massage or spa day for your partner.
  • Bring home souvenirs for everyone—it doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. One of my coworkers picked up pebbles on the beach that reminded him of his kids to take home to them. Didn’t cost him a thing, but I bet it was a big hit with them!
Children, in pebble form.

Some companies offer a benefit that covers a souvenir or dinner out for this very purpose—use it if that’s available to you. Jilt gave us the day off after the retreat to recover from jetlag, so I kept my little one home from daycare so we could spend some quality time together. Take whatever opportunity you have to reconnect with your family and make it clear that you appreciate the effort that went into keeping things running during your retreat.

Another crucial tip: try not to complain to your spouse too much about being tired from the trip. This is not likely to go over well! Just jump right back in to parenting and try to hold in your yawns.

Key takeaways

Retreats are an important and delightful part of remote work, but they can present daunting challenges for those left to hold down the fort in your absence. Before your next retreat, take some time to plan out what you can do before, during, and after the trip to take care of your loved ones.

Before the retreat, make sure the house is as clean as possible, the fridge is stocked (possibly even with pre-cooked meals), and babysitting help is on call.

While you’re away, find ways to stay connected with your family by arranging good times to video chat and keeping your partner and kids updated on what you’re doing.

And when you’re home, do something nice for your partner, take your kids out to reconnect with them, and make sure to have excellent souvenirs.

With a little extra effort, you’ll come home to smiling faces instead of a smoldering ruin where your house used to be.

Lindsey Fogle
Lindsey Fogle is a support specialist at SkyVerge based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. When not sneaking Harry Potter references into SkyVerge docs, you’ll find her hiking up/skiing down a mountain or perfecting her homemade pizza.

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