Away days can’t afford to be terrible anymore

Five tips to make them better

📸 by SHVETS production

In October and February each year a wave of dread crashes through halls of organisations across the country: “Rats. It’s away day season”.

Historically, away days have been an afterthought. Agendas are thrown together on the fly, lunch orders are forced on any supplier still accepting calls. Anyone who is ‘good at powerpoint’ is chained to their desk and forced to turn half-baked ideas into a smokescreen of slide-deck poetry.

As Robert Shrimsley put it in his recent Financial Times article on the subject: “…the challenge is to have ideas that seem ambitious enough to show you are a change agent but modest enough not to ruin your year”. Ha!

But that was then.

In the last two months, we’ve been asked to run an away day for two local authorities, an independent regulator, a think-tank, a national charity an international charity and even the European Parliament. Why?

The move to remote and hybrid working has reduced our previously abundant opportunities to meet IRL, collaborate and build relationships. The pandemic has also changed our beliefs about the value of in-person collaboration.

For many, the idea of jumping on a tube or into our cars to bump into our colleagues at the water cooler is beyond illogical.

In a post-pandemic world, away days are a rare opportunity to bring people together, in a room, to understand one another and the challenges they face and to imagine their future, together. These are now more important than ever.

But this doesn’t happen by accident. In fact, it’s hard. To be meaningful, away days need to be designed with participation and psychological safety in mind. They need to create an environment that enables many voices, and not just the few, to be heard. They also need to be fun without invoking memories of David Brent.

We’re being asked to design these events because we know how to create these conditions. And in the process of doing so, we’ve learned five lessons, which we share as tips with you.

  1. Have a relevant theme throughout allowing joint learning, constructive reflections and discussion.

This shouldn’t be something vague or something masquerading ‘a jolly’ (like let’s learn about teamwork through paintball…) e.g. Nor should it be too specific either (let’s improve our quarterly budgeting process or how we recruit new people).

So what instead? Although the specifics of the challenges our clients are wrestling with vary, the underlying themes are consistent. There is more room for learning, reflection and discussion that includes everyone in these spaces. Here are our top 3:

  • “A Change Day”: As an organisation, change is a constant. How can we improve our change practices?
  • “A Team Day”: The move to remote and hybrid work has in some cases, hindered our ability to collaborate. How might we improve our team collaboration and unlock leadership across the organisation?
  • “A Future Visioning Day”: Five and even three-year plans seem irrelevant these days. How might we create more dynamic strategies by enabling many voices to contribute their understanding of the organisation’s present and provide insights into its potential futures (scenario planning is a useful tool here)

2. Do the things you can’t do online — hold very few talks

If you have an away day with lots of people presenting PowerPoints, you might as well have saved the effort and held in on Zoom. The design of the day should be full of activities and interactions that are harder to do online. Good design and facilitation will help people to feel safe to participate, properly engage and get the most out of the day. Don’t cobble it together a week before.

3. Ensure the space makes it easy and fun to collaborate — hire an interesting space away from the office

The physical space matters. The easy option is to go to a hotel. But in hotels, even expensive ones, they often organise tables for 8–10 people and squeeze everybody in. Before you know it, you’ll be in a windowless basement, unable to move around without the fear of spilling your neighbour’s lukewarm coffee.

Spaces like these block easy engagement.

Instead look for a museum, your local town hall, a community centre, a sports venue — something different. Ensure you have enough room for movement, and arrange small tables 4–6 max, to allow for deeper conversation where everyone at the table can participate.

4. Don’t do hybrid

It is feasible to run a hybrid away day, but the design and facilitation take 3x more effort than when all participants are either in the room or online. If some people do want to participate online, set the expectation clearly that the experience will be terrible.

However, it is useful to do some engagement online beforehand, setting the expectation, providing some content or asking people to prepare something to bring with them. Thirty minutes will suffice.

5. Schedule time soon after the event to reflect on key insights and actions

A good away day will allow many ideas and insights to surface. However the next day the email inbox is full, and everyone is busy. Teams who were at the away day, and in particular senior management, will have packed calendars on either side of the event. They won’t reflect and action ideas by default. Schedule an hour with key team members to do this ahead of time within three days of the event.

So there you have it. If you use any of these tips, let us know how you get on.

And if you need help running your next away day, let us know. We have three tried and tested, fully facilitated away days on “Change”, “Team Collaboration and Leadership” and “Future visioning”. They are easy to customise, ready to go and crucially, not terrible.

Reach us by emailing Joe@basis.co.uk or Dennis@impactbasis.com.

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Joseph Badman

Joseph Badman

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MD @WeAreBasis. I help public services solve messy problems one sprint at a time. Part-time wizard, meet-free meathead & self-management nerd 🎩🌍🤓.