Nicole Bensen and Wellness Retreats During Quarantine

Happy Friday,

Today’s interview is with Nicole Bensen, founder of Tentacles and Tea. Before leaving earlier this year to found her startup, Nicole managed Google’s wellbeing program for executive women leaders--focused on sustaining performance through self compassion workshops, challenging limiting beliefs and enjoying wellness activities.

She and I discuss starting a retreat business during quarantine, community, bravery, mindfulness, and more. 

Here’s a photo of her setup:

All I can say is, wow.

On to the interview.


Andrew: I hear that you’ve launched something new, can you briefly describe Tentacles and Tea?

Nicole: Yes! If you want the tagline, it’s “intentionally-curated wellbeing experiences for connection, renewal, exploration and joy,” but since that’s a mouthful, the summary is I’m launching global wellbeing retreats. I call it a tasting menu since people will dabble in several ways to build resilience and happiness through a mix of workshops and things like equine therapy, cooking classes and goat yoga! [note: you can find her site here: tentaclesandtea.com]

Andrew: Given shelter-in-place, how the heck do you run a retreat startup? What have you been up to day-to-day?

Well, the “good” news is I had planned to spend my first six months doing research and getting some certifications, so some of that is still happening, but sadly, my yoga teacher training in Thailand has been postponed. I’m doing some online learning, and connecting with peers for virtual coffee chats. 

Last weekend I started a family blog to capture our travels and family life (including my Sphynx cats!) and stretch my writing muscles while I have the time.

Like many others, I became a homeschooling parent unexpectedly, so that fills my time too.

Is community possible in a distributed/WFH context? What does that look like?

Short answer, yes, it’s possible, but it’s different from an in-person bond. 

Of course, it varies by person; some will feel “safe” when they can weigh their words behind a screen, while others may need eye contact and proximity to be open. Now is the perfect time to ask your teams and peers what they need. Optimizing for connection can often lead to a better sense of community AND productivity.

What does bravery and mindfulness look like in a WFH context?

Great question. Several times in the last month I’ve come across little ways of being brave. Others may laugh, but being on video calls where the space behind me doesn’t look “perfect,” is one example. I’m working on being authentic and not feeling like I have to have it all together all the time; showing up as myself is a way to be brave and to be appreciated as I am. 

Brene Brown said it well, “If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I am not interested in or open to your feedback.”

I’m still working on how to best process feedback; it’s a practice.

Mindfulness to me is being present; being aware of what’s happening in front of me right now. WFH and being able to throw in a load of laundry, while starting dinner, while answering an email in my head, while spitting out multiplication facts is a perfect example of NOT being present in my house! 

Blocking chunks of time on my calendar to work through things is a way for me to practice mindfulness. I don’t need to think about answering an email when I’m doing something else because I know there’s dedicated time for that later.

There are times I will just pause, close my eyes and take three deep breaths. Or open the front door and focus on the tree the furthest away from me. Putting my focus on where I am right now.

As someone who developed learning & wellness programs for Google executives, I’m guessing you got questions about how to lead a remote team effectively. What creative solutions did you see/recommend?

Remote or not, psychological safety is something we talked about often at Google, and something I worked hard to cultivate when leading my own team.

A professor at Harvard, Amy Edmondson, first talked about this, and [Google’s] re:Work has [published more online].

Psychological safety is feeling comfortable to take risks; it’s encouraging everyone on the team to ask questions and challenge the norms. Managers can foster “psych safety” with these three tips from Amy Edmondson:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.

  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

As you and I talked about earlier, it’s important to meet people where they are (mentally) and understand what they need. Some of my friends are loving being home, and some are super bored! [Andrew: or afraid!]

Managers may want to put a 10-minute buffer on the 1:1 chats with people who connect by talking about their weekends. For others, those extra 10 minutes may just be frustrating, so they might want bullet points on a doc before their 1:1. A great question to ask is, “How can I best support you?”

What hasn’t been solved yet that simply works better in person?

Even on video, nonverbal communication can be lost. Tucked in a corner of a cafe spilling my heart to someone is easier for me than connecting via headphones and video.

Someone told me recently she’s part of an online community where she feels safe to let her emotions out, so it does happen!

What bothers you most about WFH?

Hmm, I wouldn’t say I’m bothered about working from home, but the other humans around (two kids and a spouse) also trying to work/do school work from home does impact my productivity.

If we had to shelter in place for the next 12 months, what would have to change for you to still launch & grow your startup?

For me it would have to start with a mindset shift. Building relationships in person is just a different dynamic; not that it’s impossible (just look at all the relationships that start online!), but different. 

In my programs people will be asked to be open and vulnerable quickly, and I’d need to figure out how to do that in a gentle, authentic way online. Maybe I could start with online workshops that end with an in-person retreat. You may have just opened my eyes to a new direction, Andrew!

When this is all over, what percent of people do you think will continue to WFH?

I recall hearing roughly 5% of Americans worked from home before the pandemic, and I imagine that number will go up after this. 

Anything else you’d like to share with WFH Times readers?

Thanks so much for interviewing me! I’m happy to connect and hear what people are feeling and experiencing. If there are things people are struggling with or want to learn regarding self compassion, resilience or increasing happiness, I’d love to know how I can support. 

[editor’s note: You can reach Nicole at nicole@tentaclesandtea.com]


Thanks Nicole!

See you all next week,

Andrew