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Creating the best online team away day in 2021

7 May 2021

Given how tough and wearing the last few months have been for many teams, it may be tempting to give your team away day a swerve this year. But with the right approach and planning, some time together could help provide the re-set, re-focus and energy your team needs – even if like so much else this year, it’s likely to be online.

The classic team away day has long suffered from the limits of a one-off intervention. For many of us, it’s been an enjoyable break from the office, but any gains in morale and new ideas have tended to be short lived.

The wisest team leaders will not be seeking to replicate this model in 2021.

In our own work supporting communications teams, we have shifted to shorter, sharper sessions with frequent breaks, using some of our favourite digital tools for more energising and inclusive conversations online. We have learned to put much more emphasis on the work around the sessions so that every minute teams spend together online is time well spent.

For those teams without the resources to bring in external support, here are our top four tips to help with your next team planning session or away day:

  1. Take the temperature and assess team priorities in advance
    Make sure you get everyone’s input beforehand, so that you truly understand how team members are feeling when you plan the day. It’s vital to get a sense of the team’s energy levels, as well as their priorities for discussion. What do people feel are the team’s strengths and the barriers to their best work? You can gather this through online surveys, mini focus groups or 1-1 interviews. Team members will arrive at the session knowing their views have already been taken into account, and you can focus the time you spend together on the most important issues.
  2. Be as inclusive as you can be
    Author of Time to Think Nancy Kline reminds us that we are not truly present with each other until we speak. However, putting our views forward in groups can be daunting for some people, and group discussion formats tend to favour the extroverts among us. Plan your session in a way that gives people a range of options to input, through the use of short in-meeting polls, targeted questions through the chat function and online whiteboards (much of which can be captured and shared afterwards). Break-out rooms of small groups are really important and provide a more psychologically safe space for people to respond to or create ideas. 
  3. Build in frequent interaction and lots of breaks
    Your group sessions will need to be shorter online than they might have been face-to-face. Plan in frequent breaks, and never go longer than 10 minutes without giving the group another question to address or a problem to solve. And remember you don’t have to do things the way that they have always been done.  Instead of a half or whole team day, consider the value you might get from a more extended series of shorter sessions. This will protect energy levels and give people time to consider and digest what is discussed and agreed as you go along.
  4. Focus on and reinforce the fundamentals of teamwork (especially this year!)
    Decades of research have shown that a shared purpose is the most critical element of any team. The problem with traditional team building sessions is that they can focus on team relationships and the details of how individuals collaborate, whilst taking for granted the group’s fundamental purpose and their shared values and goals.

    Make sure in your team sessions you are returning to the questions from which your team’s identity and motivation will flow: ‘who are we there for, and what do we want to achieve by working together that we can’t achieve on our own?’. 

    High-performing communications teams are purpose-led, audience-focused and keen to learn from experience and from each other.  Spending time together, particularly in 2021, to reinforce these fundamentals is the best investment in time that you will make.

For more insights into developing your communications team culture see our Beyond the Organogram series.

Image: Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

Susannah Randall

director, RandallFox

Susannah Randall is a communications consultant, coach and co-founder of RandallFox. RandallFox specialises in strategic comms support for charities with the goal of helping teams develop greater clarity, focus and direction so that they can make more of an impact. Services provided by RandallFox include supporting team development and structure; strategic planning; audience focus, research and message development; facilitation and coaching.