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How to turn your team off-site into a proper retreat

Samantha Slade
Oct 3, 2019 · 7 min read

Retreats are a period of time away from normal activities and duties. An “off-site” is a work meeting away from the usual place of work. For years, I have attended and organized many off-sites and retreats, and I want to share three ingredients that shift an off-site, which we are more familiar with, into something that has much more value for organizations: a retreat.

But first, let’s remember where the concept of retreat comes from. It’s about stepping away from the daily hustle and bustle into a different kind of space. A space where we slow down, become more reflective, and present. Most often, we associate the term retreat with spiritual practice, “a private and safe space where we pray, study quietly or think carefully”. So what does a retreat have to do with the work world?

A retreat is about stepping away from the daily hustle and bustle into a different kind of space.

In today’s work world, we desperately need to breathe and be in relationships with each other. In fact, the frenetic pace of our modern work world can make us question what we are doing to ourselves. In 1966, the anthropologist Marshall Salhins posited that hunter-gatherer communities are “the original affluent society” because they only work 20-odd hours per week affording much time for leisure.* It is fair to say that today most people consider themselves overworked and overstressed from modern work and the work environment.

The workplace demands so much productivity that we have convinced ourselves there is no time for proper slowing down. So we continue, with frustrating environments, employee disengagement and mental illness on the rise. But what if a retreat was productive? What if a retreat was in fact more productive than a busy off-site while at the same time feeding our souls and our relationships?

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Stepping out of our daily work space can bring us to all kinds of quality moments, such as this one at a team retreat in the South of France.

In my decades of experience, I have come to learn that work retreats function with a boundary to create a different quality: no emails, phone calls, or other day-to-day distractions. There is an explicit purpose or question of inquiry that serves as a container to show up fully present and stay with what is, even if it is uncomfortable. This is how we address the deeper issues that float about and do the real work. Here are three elements that can help you to shift your off-site to a retreat amongst colleagues. A work retreat can be profound, productive and nourishing, all at once.

1. A double check-in

The second checkin helps us sink down a little, let go a little — and let the deeper level arise.

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Getting ready for checking in at team retreat in the South of France

The second check-in might happen a few hours later or the next day. The point of the second check-in is simply to ask: “Now that you have arrived and have seen all the busy things that have been spoken, is there a deeper clarity about something that should be part of our time together?” This double layered check-in allows you to listen to what is truly afoot and to access the deeper level of what needs to be tended to. If you take care to document these things on the wall (for example: with Post-it notes), it can be surprising how they might actually be addressed. (For those who are new to this notion of check-in, it simply means speaking from your own experience and silently witnessing each person who speaks. No debate, no discussion.)

2. An emergent agenda

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A chat doing dishes spills into some serious work.

But how do we steer clear of over planning and time slots? Well, we learn to trust each other so that someone who experiences a strong feeling might act upon it, make a proposal and invite the group into something. Sensing into a moment and inviting others are critical skills for leading in complexity. That is how we let the world of wonder, trust and calling guide us through our time together. If you need some help to start working like this, then I suggest using Open Space Technology. If your team is used to Open Space Technology, I would suggest going fully emergent without any time slots.

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Without making an agenda, identifying topics and methods to address them can be helpful.

3. Work with nature

You can invite everyone into a “clarity walk,” which is simply a stroll outdoors in duos or trios that might be structured around a question you are exploring. I have also seen this done on canoes!

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Clarity walk in Belgium woods

Or you can go even further with a less structured invitation for each person to act upon individually: “Go walk or be on the land in any way you want with this question: ‘What is the land teaching me?’ Come back in an hour and check in with what arose.”

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The Hungarian landscape offering its wisdom and connection.

Retreats anchor us

It is brave to run a work retreat with these three dimensions — a double check-in, an emergent agenda and connecting with nature. It can provide a felt experience of what work might be if we were more connected and in flow. It can anchor us together for our next challenges. An emergent retreat, situated in nature, where we are working on the stuff that really matters can serve as an inner beacon for each of us, and for the team as a whole, in all we do. Next time you are planning an off-site think about shifting it into a work retreat!

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In Quebec we say “There is no bad weather only inappropriate clothing!” Here is my team exploring a question via 4-D mapping on the frozen lake.

*Sahlins, Marshal, “The Original Affluent Society” presented at the symposium “Man the Hunter” in 1966.

Retreats are part of a wider set of practices published in my book Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time (Berrett Koehler Publishers). Retreats are part of the practice domain: Relationships and Conflict.

This article is also published on the website of my organization PERCOLAB Coop an experiment-ation and development lab for systems change and culture shift. We are committed to the socio-ecological transition and we model new ways of working, learning and governing.

Percolab droplets

Stories from our emergent future.

Thanks to Ria Baeck

Samantha Slade

Written by

Co-creation | Social innovation | Going Horizontal (teal). Collaborating to face the socio-ecological transition. http://percolab.com http://goinghorizontal.co/

Percolab droplets

Stories from our emergent future. Walking the paradigm shifts, together | Ensemble, vers les nouveaux paradigmes. Visit www.percolab.com

Samantha Slade

Written by

Co-creation | Social innovation | Going Horizontal (teal). Collaborating to face the socio-ecological transition. http://percolab.com http://goinghorizontal.co/

Percolab droplets

Stories from our emergent future. Walking the paradigm shifts, together | Ensemble, vers les nouveaux paradigmes. Visit www.percolab.com

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