Eight tips on running a great team offsite

Nathan Waterhouse
Mar 12, 2015 · 5 min read

It’s been reported that corporate offsites cost companies millions every year purely in just employee salary time — that’s before factoring in the costs of gallons of cool aid and corporate getaways. Yet, if done well, I’m a big believer in the value of a team offsite, whether your team is distributed or centralised. Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful to bear in mind when planning and running them.

1. Invest time in planning and seek input on topics

With everyone focused on the tactical day-to-day tasks, team members often build up mental ‘wish-lists’ of topics to raise at the next team meeting. Trouble is, most managers don’t make time for getting strategic input from their team. When planning your offsite, give your team a chance to get that bug-list out of their heads and shared with you so that you can understand their gripes and big ideas. However, you’re the boss and it’s your job to finalise the agenda so that it fits the strategy of your business. Don’t feel bad if you don’t cover everything that was suggested by your team.

2. Get out of the office

It sounds obvious, but in these frugal times, the temptation is always there to locate the offsite at work (I’ve done it myself twice and they end up the least memorable), but finding a neutral territory, free from distractions so everyone can really focus and plan, can make the difference between an offsite that feels like just a long day at work and one which people remember for years to come. If you’re still tempted to keep the offsite in your office, ask yourself the question ‘is your goal to plan your strategy and align your team or just to tick some tasks off a list?’ If it’s the latter, cancel the offsite because you’re just going to waste staff time.

‘Is your goal to plan your strategy and align your team or just to tick some tasks off a list?’

3. Be directive but flexible

As the team leader, you have to own the agenda, otherwise you’ll have anarchy on your hands and no one is going to thank you for that. However, be sensitive to where the energy is going and if a strategic topic has emerged that you didn’t think of in advance, make time for it in the agenda. If you’re just following a scripted agenda you’ll not be responding to tensions or opportunities that arise in the moment. One way to do this well is to have a parking lot of questions and ideas — address these at the end of each day and the start of the next.

4. Build in downtime

Whilst you’re out of the office, don’t just replicate the stiff culture of your office. Build in generous breaks, and if you’re somewhere where the best time of day to enjoy the outside is the afternoon, don’t wait till sunset to build that into the schedule. I’ve found those unstructured moments are where the relationships get built and sometimes genuine break-throughs happen, either in relationships or personal creativity.

Ping Pong at our 2013 offsite

5. Delegate topics

It’s not your job to facilitate, run the show, and drive all the content. That’s expecting too much from one person, plus you’ll never do a great job of all of them, and most important of all, it’s meant to be a participative experience. If you’ve followed tip #1, then you’ve got that wish list from your team. Sometimes the best people to run a session are those that suggested the topic — so make sure you capture that in your wish list.

Survey our office manager created to find out who was willing to help organise our next offsite.

6. Know your role

Decide what you want your role to be based on your strengths. Maybe you’re a great facilitator, but if not get someone to help. Sometimes it can help to bring in a graphic facilitator for key sessions. But above all, make sure you’re there to ask smart questions. In a recent FastCompany piece, they cite a Wolf Olins survey of top CEOs. The survey concludes that the role of the future CEO is more Designer-in-Chief: not always feeling like you have to have the solution, but knowing which questions will elicit the right creative response from your team to truly arrive at great solutions.

“Leaders, in response, are learning to be less the visionary, less the sage, less the objective-setter, and more the shaper, the connector, the questioner. And yet at times, they also need to intervene, to insist, to control. It’s a fluid role, its shape not yet clear.” Fast Company

From Harvard Business Review website

7. Plan well ahead

Your offsite, to quote HBR, is the one meeting or event where your team will judge you by its success. In this article, they share a handy off-site planner. At OI Engine, we start the planning 3–6 months in advance, beginning with the scheduling.

8. Close with clarity

A good way to finish each day is to hold a ten minute reflection on the day so far and to zoom out and review the plan for the rest of the offsite. You can ask a simple question like ‘what’s become clearer after today?’ or ‘what did you learn today?’ This is a good opportunity to review the plan for the rest of the week and review priorities. Be ready to ditch less important items on the agenda and add new topics.

Finally, close out the whole offsite with an exercise about mapping roles and responsibilities against new priorities and projects that may have emerged. This can be incredibly clarifying to do in a team setting.

Chatting with IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown, he reminded me of the importance of being realistic with the objectives that emerge from an offsite. The energy at the event can be very different to the realities when you return to the office the following Monday. Suddenly you feel overwhelmed and realise you can’t commit to everything. So be realistic and prioritise.

What tips have you found useful in running team offsites or events? I’d love to hear them.

Oh, and if you’re interested in getting a copy of a template agenda that I often use, ping me on twitter or leave a message below.

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