Getting organisational away days right is both an art and a science.

I love those away days where I get to facilitate deep and meaningful conversations on company strategy and issues. And I disliked those ones where I am having to facilitate people who don’t want to be in the room and who some leaders think that they can be easily placated by “team building activities in the afternoon”

I have had my fair share of incredible away days and some car crashes too.

I am not the cheapest when it comes to do this either and that’s because I think if you are going to do such a thing it is an investment. Not only in the part of those looking for actionable strategic outcomes but a tangible return on investment as a result of the day. So here are some thoughts on reimagining away days and the effect they have on staff.

Understand the purpose of an away day

A cursory search on the web for the term away day, especially with a UK context is as follows

Away DayNoun.

– a day on which employees meet at a venue away from the workplace to plan strategy or to discuss a particular issue.

– A business event, typically an internal meeting that takes place away from the office without the usual distractions.

It is important at this point to make the distinction between an Away day and a Fun day. Heck if you want your employees to reduce stress and just get away from the office for a day/half day or whatever then know the difference. Conflating tackling serious workplace themes with a team building and bonding exercise is often a clear indicator that a) you don’t know your team very well b) you probably need to go on one of those leadership refresher courses. Don’t believe me. Ask your staff. I have.

As boring as it sounds, Away Days should be a platform for organisational unity and progress without the bullshit. Leave all that tug of war, scavenger hunt, rally car racing, etc for the Fun Days. Unless you can actively prove that this bonds your team and makes them work better together then keep them separate.

Be clear on the theme of your away day

When I say theme, I don’t mean dressing up in cosplay. I am talking about specific theme outcomes for that day. For example, it could be customer growth, leadership and talent development, change, whatever.

If I had a pound for every time I have opened away days by asking delegates if they knew what the focus of the day was and most said “a day out of the office” I would be a very rich man. A clear defined purpose as to why people are leaving their desks, or travelling across the country, is imperative.

If not, what’s the point?

Engage a wide range of contributors early on

As much as you may love the idea of the whole of an away day resting on the shoulders of the senior leadership team, some of the best away days have come from the intentional inclusion of non-senior staff in the planning of the day. By all means, those who are involved in the strategic direction of the company should have pivotal roles to play but involving others less senior can be, heck, is amazing. Trust me I have seen it.

I recall an away day I did for a retail chain company. One of the segments included a special focus on those who had been on fast track leadership programmes. They presented a brief history of their journeys and the contributions and suggestions that they had given to their line managers and directors and how the brand could be more engaging with a younger demographic. What hit home most about this was that many of the older members of the organisation were only focusing on the historical spend of an older demographic seemingly unaware of the buying potential of new entrants into the market. Their contribution created an immense urgency in the way both marketing and customer service would approach both internal and external customers of the brand.

See how varying members of a planning committee could bring something powerful to the table and work together on how you can measure it.

Respect your staff

I am going to leave this one short and brief. Way too many leaders use away days as a means to drive bullish targets and ideas home. No real room for dialogue and difference of opinion, just bullish pushing through of ideas. Staff aren’t stupid they know when you are belittling them and using this as carrot and stick approach for engagement. Be mindful. Create spaces for conversation.

Choose a good facilitator

I was once shortlisted to facilitate and away day because the person who referred me said that I had really good comic timing. Whilst that is incredibly flattering, if you are choosing a facilitator who has no understanding of organisational dynamics and facilitation methodologies, and you just want a comedian or TV presenter then you are in trouble. Throwing in a joke because you cannot handle the unease of giving people a moment to reflect is disingenuous.

Using inappropriate language or behaviour on a day when you are trying to take your organisation to the next level can be a recipe for disaster.

All good facilitators will also ask you as part of the process about your aims and what sensitive issues (if any) they need to avoid.

A good facilitator should be shortlisted ( I recommend going for a minimum of three) and where possible interviewed to see if there is a good fit. Simple questions could include

  1. What understanding does she have of your industry?
  2. Have you worked with another competitor that could create a conflict of interest?
  3. What experience does he have of managing conflict at such events?
  4. What methods do they use to get the best out of the away day or conference?
  5. Do they understand the key performance indicators or other metrics you wish to measure on the day?

Pulling it all together

Once you have decided on this, make sure you agree on the metrics for success. Have a follow-up plan some thirty days or a week or two after the away day to see how much of a difference the day has made. Most importantly include this Away Day as part of your overall business development and staff CPD strategy.