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How to Host a Fun and Productive Staff Retreat
by Lisa Simmons

Holding staff retreats that are well planned and scheduled regularly can provide tremendous benefits to you and your team. Just a few of these benefits include:

  • Team members who feel appreciated;

  • A great sense of team unity and commitment to the common goal

  • Less conflict or more easily resolved conflicts in a neutral setting

  • The opportunity to resolve complicated issues away from the usual daily distractions

  • More effective long range planning

  • Better results due to better use of your team's creative potential

  • A more skilled team that regularly works to develop a fresh perspective on the task at hand.

So what are the keys to making a retreat work?


1. Make it comfortable. Plan your retreat for a comfortable site away from the normal workplace. Your goal here is to create a learning environment that is positive and relaxed. One that encourages openness and a sense of warmth. If you want your staff to gain a fresh perspective on each other -- then they need to see each other in a new place doing new things.

2. Encourage staff to dress comfortably. Few people can truly relax in formal business dress. Plus, you will hopefully have planned lots of fun, energizing activities that will be much easier to do in casual dress.

3. Start the day with comfort and donuts or juice and muffins.
By providing a few goodies, you set a tone of appreciation. It sends the message -- "this day is for you (the team) because we appreciate all that you do and we want to help you do it even better!"

4. Don't forget some social time. As kids we socialized with our friends at school. As adults most of us form friendships with our co-workers. It you want your team members to care about each other and help each to perform well, then it's important to allow some "social time" for everyone to re-connect with team members they don't see frequently. The easiest way to incorporate this into your staff retreat is to include lunch as a group. This can be an on-site meal catered by the organization or the group can simply go out to lunch together. If your group is large, don't forget to make reservations ahead of time -- you don't want lunch to take all afternoon!

=>Make it interactive

1. Just moving your lecture to a new location won't do it! The key to a productive retreat is to use it as a time to really draw out all the creativity and problems solving skills of your team. Skills that may be getting buried in the "busyness" of completing daily routines and paperwork. If you simply move your lecture from the agency conference room to somewhere else -- you've accomplished nothing!

2. Fun IS important. Experts tell us that adults learn better when they are engaged and having a good time. How do you engage the average adult? Make it fun and interesting.

3. Get them involved! You will find far fewer complaints about retreats being long and boring if you get folks physically involved. Use training activities, have them move around the room for different phases of the retreat, do role playing, take turns recording information for the group, brainstorm on post it note pads & have them get up and down to post their ideas. Whatever it takes to keep your team members awake, alert and involved.

=>Make it relevant

1. Plan ahead. In order for the retreat to be productive it needs to meet the current needs of your team. Doing this effectively will take some planning. Don't expect to throw together an agenda and activity materials the day before. Also as the facilitator, your presence in the discussion will be key. You don't want the flow of ideas to grind to a halt because you had to run out and make copies!

2. Make an agenda. I've included a sample agenda below to help you get started, but you should have a clear idea of exactly how you want the day to flow. This is also a good time to identify exactly what objectives you have for the retreat -- what issues do you want to tackle?

3. Be prepared to get things rolling. If a current problem in your organization is a lack of communication, come prepared with some "real life examples." That way you can start the conversation not with, "We need to improve our communication skills," but with, "Last week we missed three consumer appointments, because we didn't get the dates/times recorded in the logbook."

Which sentence do you think will generate more productive discussion?

4. Help build to a positive conclusion. In addition to problem examples, you will also want to think about possible solutions. As the discussion flows make notes about key issues and possible solutions that are thrown out by the group. Try to keep the group focused on "process issues" and "possible solutions". The goal of the discussion is NOT to decide who messed up, but how do we as a team make this better.

Once the key elements of the problem are identified, ask for solutions. Don't volunteer yours unless no one else wants to start. Most teams have a tendency to think their ideas won't be listened to after the boss has announced how the problem should be fixed, so they won't even share them. Even if your intention was just to join in the group discussion, be careful!

=>Sample Agenda:

1. Coffee and Donuts -- Warm Up Activity This is the time of day when you want to focus on a sense of appreciation and opening the lines of communication. Use simple activities that they can do around the table while they enjoy your morning goodies. An example might be, "For each member of our team finish this sentence, _____ has helped me this week by __________," or "What I appreciate most about _____ is ____________."

2. Team Building Time I've included some team building resources with this column. Select an activity from one of these resources or use one you already know. Focus on activities that meet the specific needs of your team (learning to communicate more clearly, learning to trust each other, using active listening skills, etc.) Frequently these are physical activities that will get people moving, interacting, and talking. Don't be afraid of a little noise or a little chaos at this point if it feels creative and productive.

3. Produce something visual The more is all about building positive feelings of appreciation and contributions. However, many team members may walk away from such a morning feeling like they didn't accomplish anything. So this last section is for them! Pick a project/activity that will produce a visible product. At your first retreat an excellent project would be to create a group mission statement. Once you've met a few times you may want to create a team Wall of Wonder. A mission statement is a 10-word phrase or sentence that captures what your team is all about and what your purpose is. A wall of wonder is created by listing all of the team accomplishments over a period of time (3 months, 6 months, 1 year) on a large poster which can then be displayed.

4. Have a fun and social lunch!

5. Brainstorming Session By now everyone should be relaxed & loose. Ready to focus on more creative endeavors such as problem solving and goal setting. During this first session, select one problem that your team is currently facing. If you're not sure what's causing the problem then start there, but try to keep moving so that you not only identify the problem in your process, but also come up with solutions and assign responsibility for implementing your solution. When you get to implementation -- use volunteers whenever possible, but be sure to spread tasks out over as many team members as you can. That way everyone has a sense of contributing to the solution.

6. Skill Building If you have new information or skills that you want to teach your team, this is an excellent time to do it. There are few distractions and you can build in however long you feel the training needs to be successful. Just make sure that you find ways to make your training interactive or you will quickly lose the energy and creativity you've spent the day building.

7. Planning and goal setting As the day winds down, this is a good time to talk about where you'd like to be in a year or five years as a team or an agency. Try to get your team members to provide details as they talk. The more details you can coax out of them, the clearer everyone will "see" this vision. Then identify one or two things that you as a team or as individuals can do NOW that will move you closer to that vision.

8. Put closure on the day End the day with a short and sweet activity. Everyone's brain will be tired by now and often they will be tired of sitting. You want them to leave laughing and smiling. Pick an activity that is uncomplicated, engaging, and humorous. An easy physical activity may be just the ticket.

9. Something to remember you by Dismiss the team, with a small memento of the day. A simple idea is just to make postcards with inspiring words on the front and their assignments from the afternoon work sessions on the back.

10. Don't forget to have fun! If you have done your planning well, then you should be able to relax and enjoy the retreat along with your staff. It's important for them to get a fresh perspective on you as well as each other. This is a great time to let them know that you are accessible, eager to hear their ideas, and appreciate their efforts. You may be surprised to learn that they appreciate yours as well!

About the Author:
Lisa is the director of the Ideal Lives Project, providing practical support for special needs families and professionals.

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