The successful corporate away day

This article was first published in People Management, the UK’s leading HR media brand, published on behalf of CIPD, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Click here to read the article in People Management.
Ian Sanders
May 10, 2018

It’s a rare opportunity: your entire team in one place, away from the office, for a couple of days and nights. But the dreaded ‘away day’ (or ‘offsite’ or ‘strategy’ day) is notorious for wasting time and money with forced team bonding, says Ian Sanders. Done well, however, the away day can nurture team spirit, encourage reflection and review team progress.

Successful away days involve more than team-building at a country hotel with a free bar. As Financial Times management editor Andrew Hill sees it: “Strategy away days are an absurd but useful ritual.” He adds: “If team members are properly directed and the offsite workshop is well designed, new ideas and emotions surface. Bonds between colleagues are built or reinforced.”

An away day I facilitated recently at a country house in Kent brought new team members together with staff from different divisions. Many were meeting for the first time. Using a simple, three-act storytelling structure, 50 participants recounted personal experiences around a fire, which fostered a deeper mutual understanding and helped forge a strong working relationship.

Away days also allow new leaders to make an impression and foster organisational culture. They are used to facilitate brainstorming, strategising and innovation. For example, food delivery firm Deliveroo took its rapidly growing design team for a two-day offsite in a picturesque Sussex village. The simple format and clear goals did the job. Participants divided into three groups to consider specific design challenges across the company’s product areas. “Each day ended with the team sharing reflections, insights and new learnings, before a collective cooking session,” says Sana Rao, Deliveroo’s product design lead.

‘Away days provide a valuable opportunity for team-building, innovation and developing strategy – but only if they’re organised with clear goals in mind.’

So what ingredients make for an engaging and productive away day?

  • Get the location right. It’s essential to go offsite, says Kevin Le Goff, who organises away days. “Finding a neutral territory, free from distractions, that’s inspirational, helps participants focus and plan,” he says. It shouldn’t feel like a long day at work. Of course, there’s always an incentive to keep costs down. In that case, glamping or booking a large house through Airbnb may be a better choice than a five-star hotel, even if it means sharing bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. Just don’t book another office space.
  • Be clear about the purpose. Away day goals should be apparent to participants as well as organisers. Is it about strategy and visioning or socialising and celebrating? The former may be more relevant for companies undergoing major changes; the latter is more appropriate as a ‘thank you’ for a profitable year of hard work. Either way, let staff know.
  • Schedule time to socialise and play. Away days are not a business conference, so don’t pack the agenda with speakers. Use games and team-building activities as ice breakers but choose carefully. Not everyone shares the CEO’s love of paintball. Nor is a free bar in the evening always advisable.
  • Include an overnight stay. A sleepover maximises time and is a rare chance for a disparate workforce to get to know one another. Brad Feld, founder of Foundry Group, says it’s critical for teams to dine together, either to discuss a ‘meaty topic’, heal relationships or remind ourselves that despite differences we are friends.
  • Assign action points before you leave. Amid the fun and games, some serious points will hopefully be made. But too often they are half-remembered back at the office. Make sure that someone is tasked with note-taking – possibly rotating the job – and assigning action points before everyone packs up.
  • Invite outsiders. Guest speakers inject some fresh perspectives into discussions. A sports coach can be a good motivator; a customer can open your team’s eyes to their vital viewpoint. If your office lacks a charismatic facilitator, hire a professional with a licence to be provocative.