In Madrid, at 11 o’clock in the morning on a crisp, warm Friday, Fanny and Ernesta met in person for the first time.
Fanny joined Switch during COVID-19, long after Ernesta had already made the choice to travel around the world. The rest of us knew each other in intermittent meet-ups held since deciding to go fully remote, but there was always someone who couldn’t make a drinks session or had to leave early before others showed up.
Madrid gave us a chance to all be in the same room together again.
There’s been a lot said about how you need connection to run a company; you need a physical presence in an office, to see each other twice or three times or four times a week so that you don’t forget how to work together. You need the gel of a fully-stocked office with catered lunch and all the benefits.
Madrid showed us plenty.
Mostly, it showed us that being present in the same room together has nothing to do with the way we work.
We work well together because we work well together. The location doesn’t matter. Whether we see each other physically doesn’t matter. What matters is that we like each other, as friends and as colleagues, and we’re committed to making the best of every situation we’re in.
People travelling from Malta got to Madrid in a batch. The conversation on the way over: what food we were going to eat once we’re there, how excited we were to see our Madrid transplant, Luke, and whether or not it was hotter in Madrid than it was in Malta (it wasn’t – but it was a different heat, and that meant a different brace of problems, such as rueing the day most of us packed long trousers and jeans instead of shorts and sundresses).
At an apartment just outside Retiro Park, Maria (who’d moved to Brazil) brought fresh coffee beans and guava sweets straight from a shop in Florianopolis. When the Maltese travellers finally made it, there was coffee waiting for us, and our international team – Maria, Kim, Ernesta, Luke, Laura – ready with hugs.
A lot of hugs.
A team lunch at Urogallo followed. Over tiny little plates of tapas and a lot of wine, we clumped up in conversation, talking over each other, on brand and very Maltese, Madrid and what everyone else has been up to. None of these conversations were new – as a team, we talk often both in work and out of it, but they take on new significance when held in person, without the hemmed-in background of a video call.
After a brief stop at the rental apartments to freshen up, we split up into three teams for the first team-building activity of the week: an escape room where Tom, Nella, Ed and Kathleen’s team was eventually crowned victor.
More food, more conversation, this time Spaniard-late: at 11 o’clock at night, we were in a tiny part of Madrid dining over four separate tables, and the air around us rang with loud Switch conversations. Take us out of any place, and we’ll make it home: that was what Madrid had already started to show us.
Team-building is a strange concept to think about. If you’ve worked with each other for long enough, you should automatically be a team – but if that was the case, then the whole idea of office culture and company culture collapses. Making a team that works together takes work and dedication.
Sometimes, it means knowing how the team thinks.
On Saturday, we spent the morning in smaller groups: coffee shops, breakfast places, shopping, exploring tiny offshoots of streets fringed and framed underneath an awning of trees. In the afternoon, Luke set us loose in the Prado Museum and told us to find our favourite artwork, and prepare to present it at dinner later.
Most of us grouped up with people who wanted to see similar things: Goya’s Black Paintings were a popular choice (can you blame us?), but others found solace in people who wanted to go where the signs seemed most promising.
A good portion of us liked the paintings where dogs featured heavily.
For others, the experience was transcendental. To each their own.
Over dinner – takeaway at the apartment in front of the Retiro – we argued over the best dog, and saw each others’ presentations on their favourite artwork, their reasoning behind why it appealed to them – based on history, based on whim, based on what caught their eye in the moment.
We tend to fall into the habit of thinking that we’re very similar people; that it’s a big part of what drives the company. We’re all extroverted introverts; we like similar things.
But when you boil down the way we work to its bare minimum, it varies in different areas: we think mechanically, we think creatively, we think in ways that go at odds with the jobs we do.
Those running headed off early to get to the various race start lines as Madrid prepared itself for an onslaught of people in running shoes determined to go great lengths before they wound up in the same place. For most of the morning, the rest of us tracked the runners on the Madrid marathon app from coffee shops and breakfast places, from apartments still grey from the late morning light, tagging each other in locations to give the runners somewhere to aim for. We spent the day in the park otherwise, relaxed and lazy with the light, meeting up at interims to see what the rest were doing.
In the evening, we talked brand.
Specifically, we talked about the Switch brand.
Part of the work we do – for clients, for ourselves – is to watch and influence the way the brand grows, the way it changes: not externally, but internally. A brand that thrives is a brand that speaks and acts in a way that is consistent with the way it thinks. If not, it takes steps to fix that: to either realign the way it works internally, or to change the way it presents externally.
Since we last took a hard look at the Switch brand, a lot has happened. Our team is international. It is fully remote. The work we do has changed. The partnerships we make have grown.
In Madrid, early evening, the music piped in through the windows from the restaurant below, the Switch brand unfurled: internally, a lot has changed about us as people, and so the brand needs to keep up. Switch, as a brand, has always been built out of different facets of the people who work here. The more we change as people – become runners, look towards a future that’s green and good and better for all – the more Switch has to change to keep up.
But that’s fine. The more we change, the more we want Switch to change, to reflect who we are as people.
That’s how it works best for us.
Monday saw us at Darwin & Verne, in a historical building still creaking and heavy with the weight of what it was. The Darwin & Verne offices are flooded with natural light, built around a central courtyard that grows wild with green trees. In a lovely room tucked away from the main road, we watched Darwin & Verne introduce themselves to us and talk about their projects; in turn, we talked about Switch, and the work we love doing. That conversation carried us through to lunch, four hours of casual discussion in a basement diner in Madrid, the light low and warm on brass fixtures and old brick.
In the afternoon, while Darwin & Verne went back to their workday, we used their offices for another team-building activity with Up Your Level.
Here’s what we learned.
We have very different definitions of certain things. We’re all passionate about what we do, and what we can do. We’re loud: at points, the only thing you could hear in the offices was us, talking over each other. Somehow, we communicate and we communicate well, but not well enough that we can slack on actually saying what we mean. There’s work we can do to communicate better, and we’re setting the steps down.
We learned that the creativity we thrive on comes from everywhere, no matter what your role is. We learned that you can’t take the management drive out of a project manager (ask Camille about how much it costs to throw a Titanic-themed bash with period-accurate cocktails).
We learned that we gravitate towards each other, but also to tiny groups that fit our personality best, and that those different personality groups work better as a whole. A table full of go-getters all used to giving orders need a temperament that will listen and follow.
What Madrid Taught Us
Madrid ended bittersweetly. It’ll be another year at least before we all see each other again – fully, without the barriers of video calls and calendar invites.
The office we have is a physical space. It’s beautifully done, and with soft light, and with a dogs-welcome policy that usually means the sound of claws and typing are mixed up often. We bring in coffee from home, and our resident baristas – Ed, Ganna, Lisa – make espressos over client meetings, taking orders like seasoned coffee veterans.
But we don’t need to be there, day in, and day out, to work well together and to build a company we’re all proud of.
That’s what Madrid showed us.
More than working together, more than getting along, it showed us this: Switch is a company that is built by everyone. Everyone has a stake in the way that it runs. Everyone has a say in how it looks forward. Everyone – not just Rik, our CEO, or Ed, co-owner – has a part to play in the direction it goes in.
And it’s hard to beat a company that grows with you.