Planning an "Away Day"
Getting the Most From Your Off-site Meeting
Does this sound familiar? Your team is getting out of the office to do some strategic thinking at a local conference center. More than 30 people attend the event.
Everyone listens to a presentation from your boss, splits up into small workshop groups to discuss ideas, and enjoys a delicious buffet lunch. Then you spend the afternoon back together, trying to combine all the plans created by the smaller groups that morning – many of which have duplicate, and sometimes conflicting, ideas. By the end of the day, you've filled up a big flip chart with all of the ideas.
On the surface, you believe the day has been a great success. You enjoyed spending time with your colleagues outside the office, doing something completely different from your "day jobs." But you wonder how effective the event really was. Will the group's new plan really be used? And did you really need so many people to create it? Sadly, the answer is usually no.
An off-site meeting can be a wonderful way to escape office distractions to focus on long-term planning or brainstorming. By going to another location that's completely new, and possibly more inspiring, people often find it easier to let go of traditional, routine thinking. But this will probably only happen if you, as the team leader, do some careful planning first. After all, you want your team to have fun and be productive – but you also want to justify the cost to the company, especially in the current economic climate.
In this article, we'll discuss how to organize and plan a productive off-site day for your team.
Step 1: Identify Your Purpose
Clearly determine why you're planning this off-site session. What do you want to achieve? What goal or task should the group complete by the end of the day? What outputs do you expect, and what will you do with those outputs?
Try to focus on a central theme or problem. This will help you narrow down your activities for the group.
Step 2: Identify the Participants
Now that you know what you want to achieve, determine who should attend the meeting. Is this event for your team, for the whole department, or for the entire company? How many people will attend? Is that a reasonable number for the types of activities you're planning?
Invite people if there are good reasons for doing so. For example, you may want someone from upper management if you need to communicate changes in organizational direction. Or you may want people who are lower in the corporate hierarchy, because they often know things about customers that top executives rarely hear. Just make sure there's a reason for each invitation!
Step 3: Pick a Location
Decide where you're going to hold your off-site meeting. Your theme and attendees will directly affect your choice of a location.
For instance, if your team will work on a specific business task, then an indoor meeting room might be best. This will allow people to work on activities without the distractions of the outdoors.
On the other hand, the beauty and relaxing atmosphere of the outdoors can be a wonderful setting for brainstorming and creative thinking. A park or a garden might be a smart choice for this type of activity.
Make sure you consider how far everyone will have to travel to get to the location, or whether you'll need to provide transportation.
Finally, think carefully about the cost of the location. How will attendees and others in your organization perceive this? If the company has been limiting pay raises, and you choose an expensive hotel, will this send a negative message? On the other hand, taking people to a place that's considered cheap might imply that you don't value them or their outputs.
Step 4: Plan Your Activities
To be effective, team activities or sessions should link directly to why you're having the off-site meeting in the first place.
Keep the pace lively and energetic by varying the format – for example, by using presentations, question-and-answer sessions, smaller group discussions, and brainstorming sessions.
Many theme parks offer to conduct an entertaining workshop as part of renting conference facilities. These often sound like a lot of fun, and they may be good for team building. However, consider the pros and cons. It may be fun to spend an hour building toy cars that groups race against each other, but is this the best use of your time? Often it isn't. Don't let the location determine your activities – make sure your business needs determine the location.
Step 5: Inform Your Team
This may seem like common sense, but there's more to informing your team than just letting them know when and where the meeting will take place.
Let your team know the reason for the off-site meeting. Tell them what goals you want to achieve, and why going off-site will be the best way to reach those goals.
Make sure everyone knows what they'll be doing, what they should wear, and what they should bring, if anything.
Step 6: Find a Facilitator
Decide who will facilitate or lead this event.
Your first instinct might be to facilitate the event yourself. After all, you're the boss, right? Although this can be a great way to save money, it sometimes weakens the group activities. If people are used to having you give orders, and you're in charge of the meeting instead of simply being a regular participant, it might keep people from really relaxing.
If you hire an objective facilitator, you'll be free to fully engage with your team instead of managing everything.
For more information on how to facilitate an event, please see The Role of a Facilitator.
Step 7: Write a Complete Agenda
As with any meeting, you want to plan exactly what will take place and when. Which group will focus on which challenge?
It's also important to think about meals. If your event is just a few hours, will you have snacks for the group? And if it's a longer day, will you serve lunch?
For longer days, you might also want to schedule a team-building activity at some point. This breaks up the day and allows the group to relax and have fun.
Step 8: Measure Your Success
Once the event is over, ask your team how effective they thought the day was. Feedback is the best way to improve the process for the next event.
Did the group have fun? Was there anything missing? Do they feel they achieved the goals you set for the day?
Follow-up after an off-site meeting is particularly important. Often an assistant takes information from flip charts, types it up, and sends it to attendees – and then nothing happens.
Your team members must own the information. Get them involved with how you, and the company, will actually implement the ideas that everyone created at the meeting.
Tips for Off-site Meetings
Here are a few more ideas for meetings outside the office:
- Don't take over – If you're participating as part of a group, consider avoiding stepping back into your management role. As the boss, the team might expect you to take over, but give someone else a chance to lead. If you show that you're willing to follow orders, that may help everyone relax and build camaraderie.
- Plan regular meetings – If it's within the company's budget, try to plan group off-site meetings more than just once or twice a year, even if it means having smaller events. If you wait a long time between events, then any skills or trust that's established can easily be lost before the next event. Regularly scheduled meetings can reinforce important lessons.
- Offer prizes – Consider giving prizes to your group if you're having a team-building off-site meeting. This may help keep everyone engaged and motivated. Who doesn't like to win something?
Planning an off-site meeting for your team takes time and careful planning. Don't choose activities – or locations – randomly. Determine your theme or desired outcome first, and then create the group activities or sessions around that goal.
If your off-site meeting will focus on a specific task, such as brainstorming or strategic planning, then make sure your group has the tools they need to work effectively – and leave some open time for creative thinking and relaxing.