Admiral Grace Hopper, the pioneering computer scientist, once said that the most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” When it comes to corporate offsites, her phrase applies splendidly.
Autumn is offsite season at many companies, as teams across organizations look to a new year. The classic offsite has time-honored elements. It’s a long, often multi-day meeting, held away from work (unless it’s not—then it becomes the “onsite offsite”). An outside facilitator shows up, along with too much food. You might have a “team-building” component. Presto! Big discussions, renewed connections, and enthusiasm for the future. But let’s be honest: People are happy to be done with it, once it ends.
COVID-19 means most companies will scrap the standard offsite. Some will have the understandable but unfortunate thought: “Let’s do it on Zoom!” The painful consequence of that will be a clunky, suboptimal transposition of the physical to the virtual, right down—one fears—to an awkward videoconference cocktail hour.
This is a perfect time to ask a dumb question (“dumb” in the Peter Drucker sense of “smart”): COVID aside, does the typical offsite actually work?
I will assure you, and most especially my clients who pay me to help with your offsites, they do hold value. The rush of work—day in and day out, month after month—means leaders and their teams need a block of time for honest appraisals of the current state of their business, opportunities, challenges, and risks. They need space for bold thinking about the future. And they need a chance to assess, and maybe repair, their relationships and team functioning.
But offsites have undeniable drawbacks. To name a few:
- They are a major time commitment with high opportunity cost.
- They concentrate big picture/high elevation/forward-looking conversations into a short window—and teams often neglect to go back to that intellectual place regularly, because they figure, “That’s what the offsite was for.”
- Intensive and enthusiastic discussions lead to big ideas and plans without providing “soak time” for contemplation, reflection, and additional research—to say nothing of experimentation or initial implementation. Some time to get a fresh perspective and to road test ideas is like an insurance policy against “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
- People with loud and powerful voices—the influential and the extroverted—can have a force on discussion and decisions beyond what their insight or intelligence merits.
- When offsites are over, people rush back to catch up with work, and the discussions and commitments quickly accumulate dust.
- Invitation is all or nothing. Especially if the offsite is, well, way offsite, it’s hard to ask people to join for a short subset. And dialing in rarely works.
Allow me to share recommendations on how to adapt your rite of fall—the big retreat!—not just to meet the inexorable realities of COVID but to correct some of the flaws that may have been plaguing your event for years.
Shorten the days
In my experience in the COVID era, after three hours on a videoconference, people start Googling, “how to make my Zoom background a loop of myself.” The reality is, pre-COVID, the reason we had such long days at our offsites is that people generally travelled. Nobody wanted, say, four half-days rather than two full days, even if it might have made a better meeting.
Increase the interactivity
Zoom has laid bare the limitations of one person talking while others listen. Zoom and some great supporting tools like the virtual flipchart/whiteboard Miro or the polling tool Mentimeter make discussion and collaboration easy and even better than in person.
Emphasize pre- and post-offsite work
Of course, when judging the quality and success of a retreat, people look at the meetings themselves. But I can tell you that an offsite’s ROI comes in large measure from thorough preparation and dogged follow-up.
Use empty spaces
Silence and reflection are underused in offsites, both in the sessions and creating space outside of the meeting. Time and space to reflect, ponder, collect thoughts—these dramatically raise the quality of dialogue and decisions.
Muddle the line between the offsite and recurring meetings
Rare is the team I have seen that, in recurring meetings, does a great job of stepping back, thinking big picture, and asking: is there something important we are not discussing? While you’re rethinking and maybe shortening the offsite, look for how to bring those strategic discussions into recurring meetings.
After years of being an outside facilitator for offsites, I’ve come to believe in three consistent success factors:
- What needs to be said, however difficult, gets said.
- The new ideas are bold and different enough from the status quo to get people’s blood pumping.
- The actions plans are specific and accountable, with dates and names, and stay front and center after the offsite.
Radically rethinking your offsite, not just to account for COVID-19 but with the kind of “remodel” you could have done years ago, will help you nail those success factors. But get ready: People might just say, “We don’t want to back to the old way.”
Jonathan Becker is a consultant with This Team Works, focusing on teams in life sciences and technology.
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