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Connecting through Effective Offsite Meetings

November 1, 2020

Holding an effective offsite is challenging, and even more so during the COVID-19 era of social distancing and remote work.  When planned well, offsites can help energize the organization for years to come with a more targeted  strategy and cohesive leadership team. With a mostly remote operating environment, an offsite can be just the ticket to help colleagues feel connected and drive business development.  

Offsite  verses Social Events 

Should you hold an offsite? That is the first question to consider. Understanding the need for a retreat to strategically  tackle organizational issues will frame the offsite in the correct lens. In the midst of the global pandemic, many are feeling the lack of networking and face-to-face connections that often lead to lasting partnerships and even friendships.  

Offsites are different from team-building  outings like sporting events,  paintball, or even obstacle courses. Offsites  are strategic in nature and offer key personnel to strategically collaborate on important organizational issues.  

Planning and Structure 

Proper planning and meeting structure are critical to maintaining a focused, productive offsite.  Ironing out and prioritizing the most important issues are the first steps. Going into an offsite with a clear understanding of goals will help guide a productive agenda. While the agenda needs to drive the offsite, it is also important to plan networking breaks and some social icebreakers.

Next, setting clear ground rules to govern the offsite will set the tone for the discussion.  Calling audibles, or in other words, adjusting strategy, in the middle of an offsite can derail effective discussion on topics. Instead, a strong facilitator should encourage participants to “parking lot” topics that do not drive toward the predetermined objective. 

Developing  materials t o help guide the discussion can also set a productive tone to the offsite . Employees might view this as unnecessary  homework, but it is important to emphasize the importance  of absorbing the materials ahead of the offsite .Another pre-planning  tactic is to garner and quantify participants’ views  gathered through interviews or surveys before the meeting. Using that  data as a starting point for strategy, conversations can reveal  the root cause of issues . That is the final step in meeting preparation – to translate the meeting’s objectives into a structure and preview the objectives and agenda with participants. 

Facilitating an Effective Discussion 

The word offsite  might bring back  memories of walls peppered with  post-it  ideas on improvements and issues or the smell of sharpies  marking-up  large  poster  easel  pads with group inputs. Guiding  a productive discussion depends on the issues an organization needs to tackle.  

With the challenges of COVID-19, an effective approach to an offsite  could be to lead a discussion on continued process improvement. The discussion can be guided by this  retrospective  technique  of looking back over the past three months and analyzing what works and doesn’t work for your organization.  

Another technique is  to  war game extreme  scenarios to understand how to modify tactics to better forecast business strategies and tactics.  From a military perspective, war gaming is a disciplined process, with rules and steps that attempt to visualize the flow of the operation, given the force’s strengths and dispositions, threats, capabilities, and possible course of actions. 

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

From a business perspective, war gaming requires  leaders  to  reframe  basic assumptions  to understand competitors and how to adjust operations in an ever-changing environment.  War gaming guides executive-level discussion to understand competitors and develop strategies to remain agile.  

Conclusions and Decision Points 

The meeting designer is also responsible for embedding decision points into the structure of the meeting.  Decision  points should be summed-up clearly for the group and linked with a time frame for progress. As a group, assigning tasks to achieve these decision points will help  team cohesion and buy-in to achieving goals. 

Clearly wrapping up the offsite will set the tone for  long-term progress in the months to come. That will propel progress, and when reflecting on the offsite’s effectiveness, prevent the Monday morning quarterback discussion on how the offsite could have been better.  

Leaving the offsite with a clear action plan with data-driven metrics as well as outlining clear employee roles and milestones is a recipe to foster a successful offsite. Additionally, having a clear outline of measurable objectives and clearly defining roles will be the difference in hindsight. 

Keep the Momentum 

At the end of a long meeting,  employees need a break. However, it is important to have that follow-up strategy  buttoned-up before hanging up that remote Teams meeting button. One example of this is creating a product to help guide the  improvements discussed at the offsite.  

During a process improvement at an Air Force Reserve Wing, key leaders held a Strategic Process Improvement Leadership Offsite where they walked away with a solid strategic plan linked with measurable goals. One goal  was to create a Strategic Communications Plan based  off  the plan developed from the offsite, thus linking communications with strategic intent.  

Another tactic to keeping the  momentum  is to have scheduled calendar follow-ups on decision points. The follow-ups could be a simple Teams  check-in, or bring the whole team together in a post-offsite follow-up to have a brief discussion on actions taken on the decision points. This will help your team feel more connected during a time when many are feeling disconnected.  

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