Work retreats can be fun
I guess I’ve been lucky in my working career so far, when I’ve been asked away with work it’s been for crazy long weekends in places like Mykonos and Dubrovnik (where sunbathing and beer-drinking were the top two activities), and the weekend I have just spent away with the dxw clan in Hereford.
Now I know Hereford is not as glamorous as some European sun-trap destinations, however, it was a chance for us all to get away, get to know each other, plan for the future of dxw and focus. All of this was going to be achieved in a converted barn near the border of Wales, surrounded by the stunningly beautiful scenery and fields full of the (loudest) sheep.
The keys to success
I am no expert on work retreats. My only hope was that we could provide what was required for fifteen people, to be away from home, for 3 nights, with work colleagues and not commit some horrendous crime; and it wasn’t just copious amounts of alcohol.
Win number 1: We had a facilitator, but not just any facilitator: we hired a ‘superfriend’ of dxw, someone who knows some of the people working here and has seen the office culture at first hand. I know this isn’t always appropriate or even an option for some companies but it worked extremely well for us.
Win number 2: We hired a cool place to stay with plenty of inside and outside space. During ‘down times’, people were found lounging on the sofas, playing with the numerous ball games we had brought with us (I’m pretty sure we now hold the World Record for beach bat and ball keepy-uppy), utilising the trampoline and finding their inner child (without breaking the equipment / themselves), and making cups of tea in the huge kitchens.
Win number 3: The format. The facilitator came up with a plan that wasn’t too rigid. It very much depended on when people were ready in the morning and how tiring the sessions became over the course of the day. These sessions were also interspersed with games of ‘Assassin’ (the words ‘Bang, bang, you’re dead!’ will echo in my head for weeks, as will a sense of hyper-vigilance and the paranoid fear of EVERYONE) and workshop ideas that were interactive, an open-forum for ideas and a space where everyone felt comfortable. We also scheduled a day in an activity centre where we took on an assault course, a gun run (like this but significantly more dangerous and a lot slower) and channeled our inner Hawkeye’s / Katniss Everdeen’s with some archery.
I’m not saying that the retreat was perfect; there were quite a few challenges before we even left and others once we got there. I will attempt to summarise said issues below for future reference / improvement / personal despair.
Transporting humans – Never be underprepared for this. People are notoriously bad at being herded (but thankfully not as difficult as cats). People will wander off to investigate the local amenities despite the train departing in 5 minutes, people will need the loo, people might put their ticket in the bin immediately after receiving it, people will take phone calls on the platform and disappear for a private chat just as the train arrives leaving you half in the door and half out with all of your bags and theirs…
- Solution – Give them their tickets for that particular journey, reiterate the departure time, arrange to all gather close to the train platform at least fifteen minutes before departure time, desperately call for all stragglers, arrange a contingency for missing the train and don’t let people leave their bags and walk away, and once all people are in a group ensure they all make their way safely onto the train. Employ distraction techniques if necessary.
Individual comfort level – Everyone has their base level of standards when it comes to accommodation, room sharing and food. There will be people who snore, people who will wake up if a mouse farts, people who need twenty minutes in the bathroom in the morning, people who whisper like an earthquake, people who can’t sleep on anything less than a memory foam mattress and a bed sheet thread count of no fewer than 800, the vegetarian (me) and the one who openly despairs at the wifi connection.
- Solution – Gauge your team needs in advance. Get a grip of their dietary requirements; plan meals around this (if you’re cooking for yourselves). Check who is cool with snuggling in a bed with a relative stranger and who needs their own private annex. Distribute earplugs to anyone in the vicinity of a confessed snorer and keep the snorers (if you’re aware of them) together. Have a sleeping plan in advance but one that can be rejigged if people can’t sleep after the first night.
Long-session-itis – Not everyone is a Zen Master when it comes to sitting in a room on the same chair for hours at end. People get sleepy, people get fidgety, people get distracted by the really loud sheep, people start wondering why the floorboards are a different colour in that weird looking corner over there…
- Solution – Be prepared! Go to a toy store and pick up a bag full of small (but relatively quiet) knick-knacks. Ensure these toys are available to pick up and play with at any time. Fiddle-toys are your friend, embrace the fiddle-toys. I became particularly attached to tentacle fingers. Also, make sure your sessions are as interactive as possible, get people involved in the talking, get people communicating with each other, get them moving around the room, throw squishy balls around and slowly stalk your ‘target’ through an all-day session just to ‘assassinate’ them whilst they make a cup of tea.
In conclusion, you’re not going to please everyone on a work retreat but you can do your best to ensure that people are comfortable, not bored in sessions, appreciate the surroundings they have been placed in and do the important stuff, like come back from ‘away days’ with something positive and tangible. If you ask a lot of questions beforehand, you won’t be asking too many questions afterwards about why everyone had a crap time. Most importantly, get everyone laughing. There’s nothing more disarming than a group of people laughing at something silly, like a (loud) sheep having a wee in front of you.