Making the Most of Your Offsite

Three days of togetherness doesn’t make up of 362 days of overwork. And all the rah-rah “team building” in the world is no substitute for listening to and acknowledging your employees. To be effective, an off-site employee retreat must address the needs of the attendees, as well as the aspirations of management.

Case in point: a project manager friend of mine just got back from her annual offsite feeling, in her words, “pissed off.” She and her team just completed a multi-million dollar project and have been stretched too thin and called upon to do more with less for so long that many of them are suffering from burnout. But instead of receiving any recognition for their work or acknowledgment of the difficult conditions, they were subjected to a several cookie-cutter workshops on “customer service” and the like. Late in the proceedings, the facilitator finally got around to asking the employees “what’s working and what’s not.” But when one brave soul said that the workload was excessive, she was immediately shut down by her tin-eared manager and no one else stood up with her. At the end of the retreat, she returned home discouraged and determined to put less effort in at work — the opposite of the intended result.

Undoubtedly, management had good intentions in holding the offsite. They wanted to build camaraderie, improve performance, and enhance team alignment behind company goals. They hired facilitators and tried to make it a useful experience. But they missed badly, squandering their opportunity and leaving many employees feeling angry and frustrated — worse than before.

The key to a positive and productive offsite is that it be tailored to meet both leadership’s objectives and employees’ needs. If your company or organization is investing the time and money of holding an offsite, here are some tips to getting results:

  • Clarify your goal for the offsite — don’t just do it because it is expected.If your aim is team building — what are the qualities of a strong team ? If you are culture-building — what is the culture you wish to foster and what are the attitudes and behaviors that exemplify that culture? Do you want to rally the troops for a major change — how do you want to involve them in the change?
  • Do your homework. Investigate the team’s problem areas and strengths and use this information to develop activities that will leverage their strengths to address their challenges.
  • Listen. Provide a safe environment for airing differences and allow for venting, and have a plan for channeling the discussion toward solutions. A good facilitator will help here.
  • Mix it up! Don’t rely on lecture format — include break-out sessions, and have participants interact in cross-departmental or cross-rank groups.
  • Build in time for experiential learning. For example, if giving and receiving actionable feedback is an area of weakness, offer specific training and practice.
  • Ensure that you have good follow-up. If you emerge from the offsite with action items, establish accountability and follow through. You don’t want to find yourself at next year’s offsite talking about exactly the same issues.
  • Say thank you. Acknowledge your team and all the work they do.