There is something about the summer that brings on the desire for a team away day. Maybe it’s because it’s too hot to do all the usual things, managers want us to get 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 some have been truly inspirational.
There are three that come to mind, and I want to share them with you.
Some years ago I worked in a team that was constantly on the go. Relatively small but packing a good punch, we had bags of energy, huge ambition and a lot to do. The drive to get things done meant we worked in our specialist silos and didn’t take time out to find out what others were doing. We were friends, but not really a team. Previous team meetings had focussed on knowledge sharing but inevitably the 300-slide presentations did not inspire us to listen to each other. Then we had a team away day, and it brought us together in unexpected ways. First, we were invited to set the agenda – everybody got to say what they wanted as an aim, and what they did not want to do. Second, everyone had a role – this was not a top-down cascade session. We all had a job to do. Third, we had a clear purpose: the outcome from the day was to identify ways to share knowledge that was relevant, in useful and interesting formats. Through a series of activities, we found innovative ways to share, and created a set of rules and tools that would work for us.
One of the best team days came at a very low point. We had been restructuring for months, and were still trying to make change stick. Everyone was tired. One sunny Wednesday the fire alarm went off, and out we went. But instead of high-viz jackets and lists of names to be checked off, we were directed to a coach. The whole department of 75 people got on board and drove off. We were not told anything but were thrilled when we pulled up at Camber Sands. Beach day! How exciting! Our department Director guided us to an area, set up with picnic tables, food, drinks, and wind breakers. But this was no escape to the beach for the day. She picked up a plastic tumbler and asked us to follow her to the waters edged. She filled the cup with seawater. And chucked it at us. Only a couple of people got splashed. She explained that whilst she understood we had all been working very hard, we had only made a splash in the ocean. That something radical needed to change or we’d have more problems. She took us back to the tables and gave us financial reports and other information to absorb. She was totally, brutally honest. We spent the rest of the day working up ideas to “deal with the ocean, not just make a splash.” We also had fish and chips. And ice-cream.
And finally, the best team days are the ones that lead to a practical result. Having a guest speaker is fine, but having tools and techniques you can use going forwards is even better. Having a laugh with magic tricks is entertaining, but committing to (and carrying out) action is what leads to enduring change. A team session that really gave me a light bulb moment was when we worked on our customer engagement plan at a business services group session. We had a very simple task to perform: map out what interactions we have and then figure out where we need to make changes. But what kept us on track, and stopped us drifting, was the facilitator. She continuously challenged us to be practical, making us focus on reality and encouraging us to stick to the facts, not to get stuck in moaning. She was gentle but also firm, funny but also serious. Without her we would have been stuck in our own little camps, but she made us get out of our heads and get on with the task. By the end, we all had an individual plan we could and would implement straight away.
Team away days can be either be dull (too much focus on work planning / reviewing work plans) or vacuous (empty or forced fun). Teams can get stuck in group-thinking and have blind spots or unconscious bias. An experienced facilitator from outside the organisation can bring people together, challenge perceptions, encourage creative thinking, and drive commitments to change.
You might also find the other half of this blog interesting: why I hated team away days (then)