Company off-site meetings and away days are a useful concept whatever the size of a business. They give the chance for a change of scene to shake up perspectives, to give room for new thoughts to mingle with those of colleagues, and for those ideas to multiply. But getting the concept into fruition, past numerous logistical barriers, and logged as a worthwhile business exercise with lasting morale-boosting and financial impact, can be a struggle.
Negative feeling towards off-sites can be understandable: employees and managers are taken far from their comfort zones and to-do lists, often into a location not ringing true with a regular work environment and being put on the spot to produce something, be it a comment, an idea, a prototype. Away days done badly have given team building (which can be entirely relevant and useful when done well), a bad name, with blindfolding and other trust exercises too far removed from objectives to be actually useful.
Why do it at all?
Getting away from the office is the best way to refresh the minds of the talented people in your company. Their clever brains whirr away at their desks, day-in, day-out but risk grinding to a halt if not invigorated every so often. A simple change of scene can break through mental barriers. Add to that some downtime, or a challenge in the shape of a hackathon or training offered above the requirements for their roles, and they will understand the investment being made.
But this question – Why? - requires repeating from the start of away day planning through to the evaluation stage, to prevent the whole exercise from becoming nothing more than a distraction. Remind yourself and participants why you are actually holding an away day, and check the objectives at intervals to be aware of what is changing or likely to change. If people are asking questions or showing reluctance to input to an agenda or suggestions, ask why? If somebody has asked to be excluded, why?
Don't be too woolly about the aims for the day. Create a succinct answer and work to it: for example, ‘To improve communication’. Activities, then, will be geared towards talking, communication processes, how meetings are called and participated, how the company is communicating externally, what people are saying about it.
Who gets an invite?
Think about which individuals, job roles and project groups need attention and the benefit to be gained. This way, you're shaping your anticipated outcomes and directing resources at a specific task. Taking our communication example, will you focus on internal or external comms? Is the objective strategic or do you need the input of frontline staff to provide customer feedback?It’s important to consider the right balance of team members and their strengths, build cohesion and trust, overcome obstacles and solve problems – together. You want to invite a group large enough to share an array of opinions, but not so large that people get drowned out. Breaking a larger group into subgroups can help cater for bigger companies, or alternating groups between tasks.Existing roles should be maintained – a manager does not have to pretend not to be a manager - but everyone can take part and dynamics can happily be shaken up by the tasks and subjects on the agenda. If carefully facilitated, any employee can show leadership skills, analytical prowess, an eye for detail that they might not usually get the chance to use. By being mindful of the different ways people are used to communicating their thoughts – in presentations, by leading a debate, over email – a selection of feedback methods can be used to monitor impact.
This is an away day, not a bucket list. Obstacle courses, glamorous hotels or flights to far-flung beaches can excite but don’t promise a correlation to results. Don’t waste time and money looking to shock or amaze your employees and colleagues into a new way of thinking but do aim to use a location away from the everyday work space.The timetable should be shaped around activities that could not be achieved in the office, but your time will be far better spent having face-to-face brainstorms with people from other departments, rather than abseiling down a cliff face to test boundaries.Timing should be considerate of workloads and deadlines and planning should ideally start some months ahead, with employees involved in several stages, from booking their availability to being supplied with relevant, thought-provoking preparation material in the days before the event. Try to prepare participants without drowning them in detail.
There will be those who want nothing more than to slip into their usual work meeting attitude, along with the responses they expect to give and the colleagues they expect to agree or clash with. Then there will be the outspoken parties who need to be reined in, the managers who accidentally stifle conversation and the individuals who will be keen to give a witty reply rather than meaningful answers.
These creases can be ironed out with timely facilitation techniques. Giving responsibilities to execute on the day and framing your questions for particular people to answer are just two ways of bringing participants in to the offsite mindset and out of themselves. A professional facilitator can bridge these and other time-sapping problems and leave the meeting organiser to focus on nurturing routes to outcomes.
Conversation and concerns will inevitably stray off topic - and this can be an invaluable insight - but can also mess up scheduling. By creating an environment where people are happy to talk, you are fuelling further improvements to business, and all input should treated as valuable even if not immediately debatable. Make a board of notes for these or nominate someone to collect off-topic points.
There are many reasons for having an outside facilitator: they are neutral, are not influenced by corporate culture or politics, don't take sides or express or advocate a point of view, and can establish fair, open and inclusive tools and techniques to accomplish the group's work.
The facilitator should be able to gauge the energy of the people in the room and use techniques to turn it up and down, as if they held an energy dimmer switch. There is no point ploughing in to the next task when people are lethargic, or buzzing with questions about what they have just seen, done or heard. A schedule can be tweaked and minds can be refocused, and your away day will remain on point.
Our Team Player workshops are designed to prime participants for effective collaborative work. They pave the way to help individuals carve their roles in high performing teams, and learn a number of tools and techniques to help them achieve this. We focus on great communication, accountability and playing to strengths, the importance of trust, transparency and flexibility, collaboration and the success of others, and how to practice being a great team.
Our creative workshops for teams also work well as off-site meetings, providing a flexible, ad-hoc approach to solving pressing business problems or unlocking team creativity. Spend the first half generating loads of brilliant ideas for a specific project or brief, and the second half putting together a dynamic action plan.
That way when you do get back to the office, fresh with memories of a motivational, energising and team-enhancing off-site meeting, you can get straight down to business and start to action your brilliant new ideas.