As businesses and organizations place a growing emphasis on their employees, the role of annual retreats is changing and becoming more critical.  At a well-implemented off-site meeting, teams come away feeling invigorated, with a more definite sense of purpose, and feeling more connected to colleagues and partners.  For these reasons, if done correctly, incorporating retreats can accomplish more than one of these purposes.  But the vital point, when planning a retreat, is to know which of these you hope to achieve.  A retreat geared toward team building will differ from a retreat focused on making critical organizational decisions.

Whether you’re planning your first retreat or are an experienced meeting planner looking for ways to improve on the experience, we’ve garnered the tips from our 4 Keys to Designing a Productive Meeting blog and added a few more to ensure your next retreat is a success.

1. Establish Goals

It’s essential to develop the primary two or three goals for your retreat, specifically, what you hope to accomplish with your attendees.  For example, an overall goal could be to visualize the future of the organization and build a stronger team through the process.

Here is a list of good reasons why it is essential to hosting a retreat for your organization:

  • To make important decisions about your organization.
  • To plan a significant event, campaign, money-making strategy.
  • To build a stronger team.
  • To provide training.
  • To resolve conflict.
  • To take extra time to move through complex issues.
  • To assess organizational health.
  • To advance or deepen thoughts, innovate, and create progress.
  • To share information and get feedback (common among larger organizations).
  • To gain a clearer perspective and avoid traditional routines.

2. Hire a Facilitator

The support from hiring an outside facilitator is tremendous. They can help your team move through the decision-making processes in a structured and engaging way, help keep you on track throughout the retreat, and suggest ways to creatively solve problems and make the most efficient use of your time.  Outside facilitators are also skilled at conflict resolution and can help team members listen to one another and ensure everyone feels heard.

Most of all, by leading the process, an outside facilitator allows everyone at the meeting to fully participate. If tough decisions need to be made during a critical point in any discussion,  having a neutral facilitator establish an environment of trust and impartiality, can prevent “steering” where participants who hold passionate positions wield disproportionate influence on decision-making.

3. Choose the Right Space

Having all participants engaged in the off-site meeting is the objective, and it starts with the right meeting space. It can be impossible to create, discuss, and make critical decisions when distractions occur. If you want to evoke change and discussion with your team, consider taking them outside the regular office space and into a place where there is no day to day work distractions.

As an Example:  Before opening my own business, I worked for a rapidly growing firm and proudly served on its executive committee.  We decided to invest in a retreat to discover our core values and ways to implement them in the organization.  Upon arriving at our retreat, held in our little conference room, and realizing I was the first one there, I went into my office to get a little work done.  The distractions from my crammed email inbox (which included a message from a frustrated client),  a Post-it stuck to an employee file with the message, “Let’s talk…”, And a letter notifying us the firm did not get selected for a project (we very much wanted) – bombarded my mind immediately.  I walked into our first-ever retreat, where we were to explore the next chapter of our organization, with my shoulders hunched and head already spinning. 

For teams to truly disconnect from workplace distractions and be fully engaged, retreats need to be held off-site.  No one will be talking about the “office conference room retreat” in 5 years.  Finding a space with daylighting and comfortable furniture is essential.  A relaxed, creative setting encourages teams to open up and is the perfect setting for connecting, reflection, and brainstorming.

Studies show comfortable furnishings, access to daylight, reduced perception of crowding, and sensory change and variability all contribute to positive attitudes, improved concentration, and energy levels.  A lack of visual stimulation during a meeting can dull the senses and affect a person’s ability to stay alert. Vast expanses of “Desert Tan” painted walls and ceilings typically do not support human productivity. By going off-site, your team will be allowed the mental space needed to rise above pressing daily concerns and attend to the more vital task at hand.

4. Invite the Right People

There are a variety of groups to consider asking to participate in your retreat.  For example, in a non-profit organization, this might include board members, staff, volunteers, and community stakeholders.Graviate ABQ - Where People Go - Guests

When determining who to invite to your retreat, it’s necessary to be mindful of your goals.  If the purpose of your off-site meeting is to improve relationships among organizational staff, then board members need not be present.  In practically any organization, for-profit, as well as non-profit, staff members, have critical information about the day-to-day operations that is not often seen by leadership.  They will often also be the ones carrying out the decisions made at a retreat, and hence, it can be essential to make sure they are part of the agreement reached on those decisions.

It’s also important to consider what role in decision-making each group would play. Here are some questions to consider when deciding on roles:
If Board members and volunteers are attending together, and decisions are made about the organization’s mission, how will that affect the decision?

Will all participants, or only board members, have a say?  Is there anyone you are inviting to attend with the expectation that they will listen and observe?

One role which is often overlooked, but not necessarily always necessary for a retreat, is the role of documentation and record-keeping?

Who will document the proceedings and decisions as they happen, and who will share them with everyone at the retreat?

You may decide to have everyone share the task in pre-assigned time slots, or, have someone assist with this role throughout the retreat. Make sure roles are clear and defined to make any decision-making process productive and indisputable.

5. Write an Effective Agenda

Design the retreat to ensure each team member is involved in the conversation.  Meaning agenda topics must be relevant to the entire team and take all other discussions off-line.  Think about the goals for each item of the retreat, when deciding what to include in your agenda. To maximize the importance of the agenda topics, write the items in question form.

For example, instead of writing, “Discussion on Budget” try, “What are some ways we could reduce spending?”.  Additionally, be sure to share the agenda a day or so before the meeting versus having your team see it for the first time when they arrive at the retreat.  By doing this, your team is prepared with ideas and possible solutions before the day even begins.

Outlined below are a few activities to help you achieve a productive outcome:

Orientation and Agenda Overview:  Kick off your retreat by making sure everyone knows the plan for your time together.  Review the agenda, the ground rules, and the process for making decisions (if necessary).

Information Sharing:  Good for the beginning of your retreat to help inform your team of anything they should know as the meeting goes on.  For example, if you surveyed clients beforehand, share its findings here.  You may also share relevant documents to help shape the tone of the discussion, such as your Mission Statement.

Idea Generation:  Perhaps you need to come up with solutions to a problem the team has identified, or you want to come up with ideas for making the organization more profitable in the coming years.  Keep in mind ideas can be generated in a variety of ways.  Brainstorming is one way, whether done as a large group, in small groups or individually.

Processing and Deciding:  Moving from idea generation to decision-making can be done in different ways.  A facilitator possesses a variety of techniques that can help a group sort through and prioritize ideas and make complex decisions.  Beyond merely assisting with large-group discussion, a facilitator can help a group sort through ideas visually or physically, helping your team see things with a new set of eyes.

Team Building Activities:  While icebreakers often start a retreat, and sometimes replace standard introductions, they can also happen throughout the day.  Use icebreakers to get people motivated
after a long lunch or to generate space between lengthy periods of discussion.

Next Steps:  Take some time at the end of your retreat to figure out what needs to happen next, who will be responsible for making this happen, and when it needs to happen.  This delegation will help to ensure a group implements the decisions it makes.

Evaluation:  Help provides a sense of closure, create a space for celebration, and improve your next retreat by setting aside some time in the end for assessment.   One easy way to accomplish this is to go around the room and ask each participant to share one thing they think can be improved, and one thing they enjoyed.

Three other points about agendas worth mentioning here:

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  1. Keep your schedule varied and include different types of meaningful and engaging activity.
  2. Discussing everything as one large group can become tiresome and dull after a while.
  3. Help keep the interest level of your team up by varying how discussion takes place, and decisions get made.

For example, you might break into small groups for brainstorming specific goals and return to the larger group for discussion. Don’t over pack the agenda. Things will almost always take longer to discuss than you expect.  Creating time for people to have a voice in the decision making develops teamwork and transparency.  To do this and to avoid the pressure of continually needing to cut off the conversation prematurely, assign each item a little more time than you think it might need.  

6. Schedule Frequent Breaks

Frequent breaks are a must!  Meaningful conversations can happen informally during meals and break time.  Make it a point to break every 90 minutes and add it to your agenda. Breaks need to be short (7-10 minutes) and efficient.  Ensure the team knows the meeting is starting back promptly.  Have frequent, shorter breaks keep participation levels higher and distractions lower.

7. Context Trumps Content 

Rather than having leadership give presentations to your team about Here’s How We’ve Done; consider planning a two-way idea exchange offering time to process the experience.  White space for organizations to have conversations about what they’re learning contributes to higher levels of participation and info retention, and everyone will walk away with an understanding of how they can contribute to shared goals.

8. Put an Action Plan in Place

A plan for follow-up and accountability is critical to maximizing the planning and ideas generated during the retreat.  Too often, all the flip-chart paper that was so thoughtfully and enthusiastically filled out during a retreat gets rolled up and tossed in someone’s office the next day, never to be looked at again.  Have a plan to organize and disseminate this data so that the themes that took place during your retreat remain top-of-mind until you are ready for what’s next.

Master Class - GravitateBefore the end of the day, make a point to create deadlines and assign members to action tasks. Discussing progress and holding each other accountable is the best way to see direct results from your retreat. Many of us have had positive experiences from a well-implemented retreat and witnessed team alignment quality, healthy discussions, heightened performance among teams, and established priorities.

Whether your leadership needs to figure out ways to move the organization forward, seeking extra space to resolve conflict among critical departments, or needing to determine your organization’s Succession Plan – purposeful retreat planning and implementation is essential to making the best use of time and resources.

Now is the time for meeting organizers to consciously plan environments and agendas which make members of their team feel safe to learn and grow.  Cultivating the right group of people, in the right space, with the right course of action yields positive and invaluable outcomes.

Cheers to your best retreat ever!