Leaders know that employee alignment, motivation, and collaboration are important prerequisites for maximized performance and retention. Retreats for specific teams (or for the entire company) are a common way for leaders to engage their people, get collective input and forward business ideas.

However, we find that many “retreats” fail to have lasting effects, despite the best intentions of their organizers. Here’s a few principles we use to prevent team retreats from becoming expensive field trips.

Set specific goals

It sounds basic, but figure out the one or two highest-priority things that you want to accomplish on the retreat. Consider the overall purpose of the retreat and your desired outcomes, as this will shape your agenda and format.

Don’t try to do everything in one retreat, because you simply won’t have enough time. Be ready to drop some “nice-to-have” items from the agenda, as you will almost certainly go over time on your “must-accomplish” items.

Do 50% less than you think you should, and avoid rushing your people

Team retreats are a rare opportunity for busy leaders to think and reflect on the business. Because most retreats only last one or two days, it’s tempting to cram as much as possible into that time-frame.

However, it’s easy to forget that large group meetings are mentally exhausting, especially when discussions are centered around strategic items and require brainstorming, debate or decision-making. Your people will be fried after about 5 or 6 hours together, and you’ll face diminishing returns on quality of output. Some tips to consider:

  • Eliminate any rushing or stress by giving ample time for agenda items, breaks and meals
  • Resist the urge to have a late night dinner followed by an early morning breakfast. You don’t need to fill every moment. This is too tiring. For the majority, it will support them to be re-energized the following day.
  • Boost productivity and energy by giving personal time for a restorative activity that people choose on their own or even consider providing a service or activity (provide journals, rent bicycles, offer massages, share hiking trail maps, etc.)
Client Example:

We facilitated a retreat for twelve senior leaders of a large technology company in California at a resort. The VP leading the team strongly believed in self-care and reflection time, so she built an agenda that allowed everyone to enjoy the morning of Day 2 in any way they saw fit. The official agenda for Day 2 started at 11:30 am. Before that time, people could choose to sleep in or not; eat breakfast at whatever time they wanted and enjoy their time in whatever manner they wanted. There was no checking in, and there were no expectations. This showed a strong appreciation for the value of personal time and reflection, and meant the team-oriented portion of the day could be spent with people in their best form. And make no mistake, the downtime was a treasured gift and the team showed up motivated and restored for more.

Pick a team building activity that maps to what the team needs

Team-building activities are not a waste of time. In fact, it is the quality of the relationships between your people that will determine how effective the team will be. More specifically, stronger relationships build camaraderie, connection, healthy interaction, alignment and optimism, which all create higher team performance. Time you invest will positively impact the team’s ability to work together and achieve better results. As you have experienced yourself,

The key is to choose a team activity that targets the specific aspects of high performing teams that you are looking to develop. For example, if you are a relatively new team, you would benefit from a trust building activity or a team charter activity to align on your vision and goals. For other mature teams, it may be more fitting to participate in a celebration of success for learning or work through a game-based exercise to learn more about how to optimize the strengths of your team. Consider having a team coach build your day or run such an activity, as they will be able to choose a fitting exercise and host a debrief session that will contribute to lasting insights and behavioral change.

End the retreat with the clearest sense of direction possible

At the end of the retreat, try to build in time for people to craft personal takeaways. Also, have a group Action Planning session so that you can decide on takeaways and next steps. This will give you a clear roadmap, bring clarity to your team, and set future expectations.

The sign of an awesome retreat is that people feel connected, valued and accomplished.