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Why I hated team away days (then)

Worst away days

There is something about the summer that brings on the dreaded team away day. As we move through summer, we are getting more and more requests to facilitate these get-togethers. Maybe because it’s too hot to do all the usual things, and because we have been apart for so long, managers decide it’s a good time to get everyone together, get outside and have some fun. Or maybe the extra daylight inspires us to dream of a new way of working and finding a way to get along better. Over my career, I have been on many, many team away days that promised all these things. And failed.


I have been on dragon boat races, built fizzy-drinks bottle rockets, learned circus skills, ran through muddy obstacle courses, and used reams and reams of flip chart paper. Some of the grandest events I have been in involved fancy hotels and champagne tasting. At the other end, they’ve been a pleasant jolly in the park with a Tesco picnic. The problem I have had is that they were nearly always utterly pointless.

For me, sports day at school was something to be dreaded: I’m not fast, coordinated or competitive. Team away days that focus too much on physical activities bring on the same feelings. I need to fit in, join in, and win a silly competition. But why? How does this help me in my work? How does this mean me and my colleagues can be better, do more, have more impact? Team away days need to be interesting as well as fun, productive as well as interactive. Physical events without learning rarely inspire great team work once you’re back in the office.

Bad group energiser

Other team days have involved getting into a meeting room for the day – rather than actually being ‘away’ anywhere. What these kinds of away days have in common is that they seem to be an exercise in management PR, “Here, have some fun, ignore the phone for a few hours and do some thinking. Go on, grab a marker pen. I believe in you.” The pretext is that this helps generate bigger picture thinking – a moment to “step back, reflect, course correct, and see what we can do.” The subtext is that the rest of the year will be very very hard work, so how exactly are we going to do it within the current budget / resources / time frame? One of the worst experiences I had was when, after some very careful mapping of our ambitions and workplans, we realised we would need at least another eight hours a day to get it all done. In other words, another person. The manager had stayed out of the meeting to let us ‘have a go’ and came back at the end of the day for our presentation. Clearly disappointed with our analysis, she simply told us that she had faith in our ability and we’d have to see how it all panned out. And par for the course, a meaningless pat on the head followed – in this case – by booze, but sometimes it was chocolate based. I’d rather they had just let me go home early. Team days need leaders to show the courage to face obstacles and challenges head on. Plans that can’t match reality are demoralising, and praise without specific feedback is just vacuous.

So what is the alternative?

The answer for team leaders is surely in the 3Ls – liking, listening, and learning:

  • Create activities that are likeable for everyone. Not too physical. Not too technical. Have a range and make them relevant. Ask: are you happy to do this? What role would you like?
  • Listen to everyone involved. Make sure everyone can contribute and when challenges come up, don’t shy away from them. Ask: what might we need to do differently to achieve this?
  • Ensure there is both a learning element and review element that involves action planning. Ask: what are we going to do to make this happen? What might we need to stop doing?

And what really helps a team leader is to have a facilitator – someone who can challenge thinking, encourage participation and manage the process – to that they can be a participant and not just a manager. If you need help with making the most from your team away day, take a look at =mc’s tailor-made team sessions, contact us online or call me, Yvette Gyles on 020 7978 1516.

You’d likely enjoy reading the other half to this blog too – Why I love team away days (now)

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...