January 22nd, 2016
Away days are often criticized for being ‘fun’ but having no productive outputs. But if they’re planned and facilitated well, they can encourage creativity and innovation by breaking routines and changing dynamics. So for anyone responsible for organising an away day, here are our top tips for success.
Be clear on your outcome
This is the most common cause of unsuccessful away days – not being clear. Because it’s a rare opportunity to get people out of the office, too much is attempted in the day with no overall purpose.
Leaders say to us, “I want to bring the team together and help them get to know each other and flesh out some issues we have with a certain project, oh and I want them to all buy in to the new strategy, oh and for us to talk about better ways of working together.”
These are great outcomes, but too ambitious and too much for people to grasp in one day. If the people are only just learning about each others’ styles and ways of working, it’s not realistic to then expect them to agree to adapt those or have them challenged all in one day.
It may seem ironic, but you need to be strategic about your away days, think about how you want to build people up. In this case you could have your first day about getting to know each other and maybe bringing out some issues that people have and then the next day becomes a working group on working together, followed by one on strategy.
The key thing to get clear is this: if you could only achieve one thing on this away day, what would it be? Once you are clear, be open with the attendees as to the purpose. That way you are far more likely to get people engaged and prevent them diverting off onto their favourite topics.
Choose your facilitator wisely
The person should be both able to get rapport with the group easily and be objective enough to stay detached from some of the content. If you are using someone internal, could you use someone who represents another part of the business? If you use someone too close to those attending there is a danger of them, often unconsciously, getting too drawn into the discussion. Someone who is a bit more detached will help people to come forward with ideas more knowing they won’t be discussing a team members performance issue with them tomorrow.
If you are using an external facilitator, make sure they understand enough about your business to be credible. We’ve seen facilitators fail badly because they’ve assumed that credible is not important. Particularly where their industry expertise is valued, anyone who is not credible will struggle to be respected and that will disrupt the day. Check that their style is a good fit. People should stretch their thinking but not be intimidated or turned off. If you have a group of serious pragmatists, asking them to do whacky free flowing activities will not work.
Choose your venue wisely
Most people want to go offsite, but economic reality means that organisations have got more cautious about spending money on external venues. You don’t need to spend a fortune on taking the whole team on a yacht in the South of France, but you do need to think carefully about where you hold it. Key tips are:
- Beware of venues that offer you the room free if you buy refreshments etc. In our experience you are not treated as professionally as you would be at a paid for venue (we’ve had people walking through the room to unload furniture from another room in the middle of any away day!) and you are often distracted by their other customers or activities. If you want to use a free venue make sure you visit it, during the working day, before you book.
- Think about the style of your organisation or group. If it’s a creative organisation, then a standard hotel training room will not inspire and you may as well do it in the office. Stretch people out of their comfort zone without it frightening them or turning them off. If the group is creative but one of their problems is lack of organisation, we wouldn’t choose a venue that is also disorganised – we’d want to give them a bit of professional structure whilst respecting their desire for a creative space. With a serious inward thinking group, take them somewhere professional but gives them access to green space and nature.
- Consider individuals’ needs. If they are all family people, how do they feel about staying away? Some people welcome the night off but for some people it’s a hassle and they’d rather go home at the end of the day. You can’t please everyone but if you can be flexible to their needs, they will be more enthusiastic and engaged.
- It is essential the group have access to natural light throughout the day. This is key for mood stability, attention focus and above all staying sane. If you need to close the curtains for a presentation, open them straight away after you’ve stopped using a projector and don’t ever use a room with no windows, however cheap or convenient it is.
Remember, with just a little planning any organisation can have a successful and productive away day.
John McLachlan is the co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training, a leadership development and NLP consultancy whose clients include Heathrow Airport, Thomson Reuters, Cath Kidston, John Lewis and Aberdeen Asset Management. He specialises in training, coaching and board-level facilitation and is the co-author of Real Leaders for the Real World. He is a qualified accountant and former group financial director.