The Three “T’s” of a Meaningful Virtual Retreat

The weather is turning cooler, the leaves are turning color, we can see the end of the year in front of us. It must be team/company retreat season! Yes, the time of year where teams and organizations look into next year’s priorities, learn new things, reconnect with one another, and revisit the question “who are we?”. Only, this year we’ve been away from each other for the past 9 months, with no clear horizon of when everyone can be together again. This year more than ever people are feeling a stronger desire for personal connection with their teams, a need for more clarity on a vision and the path forward, and a chance to exchange ideas and learn.  With Zoom fatigue also entrenched in our teams, leaders are left wondering how they can avoid a virtual retreat that builds energy and excitement instead of leaving people feeling drained. Whether your retreat is with all of your employees, a full intact team, or a team of leaders, whether it’s 100% virtual, in-person or both, you should address 3 specific design factors to shape a meaningful retreat: Topics, Time and Tools.

The Three Design Factors

  1. Topics  

Like most events and experiences we start with the question, “Why are we doing this?”. This leads to other questions related to what we want to happen as a result of the experience. Here we’re talking about outcomes and impact, which eventually translates to topics. Retreats are great opportunities to reconnect people, to align around a vision and a plan, to affirm values, to solve problems, and to learn new ways of doing things. The pandemic has created more uncertainty about the future, disconnection among team members, and overall heightened levels of stress. When we’re working with leaders and teams who are planning retreats, we’re emphasizing opportunities to get as many voices heard and included as possible. 

  • Don’t underestimate what can be done virtually
    We have yet to find a set of retreat outcomes that can’t be achieved virtually. We’re seeing many requests that retreats must be in-person because some discussions and decisions are just too hard over Zoom. If designed the right way, people can be more actively involved in discussion, decision making, and dreaming than they could be in-person. Sure, some in-person experiences make it easier to connect with one another, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible virtually. We talk about ways that tools can be used to facilitate productive work sessions below. 
  • Make “belonging” a stated outcome of the retreat
    It can be tempting to jump into the business of things as quickly as possible. After all, how often are you able to get this many people together at once. In these times, we need to re-establish a sense of belonging and connection. People may be in face-to-face Zoom meetings all day, but they may not be connecting in the ways they did over lunches, breaks, and happy hours. We view belonging as a foundation for a thriving culture. Use connecting activities that get people sharing and learning about each other. We’ve created a quick guide with over 30 activities to grow connection. 
  • Capture and hear the voices in the “room”
    People support what they help create. Create space for all attendees to weigh in, regardless of the specific outcomes you’re seeking for your retreat. If it’s a problem being solved? Create virtual breakouts where they can brainstorm, discuss and share back with the group. If you’re hoping to reconnect and realign, ask them to share what matters most to them, what struggles they are facing, and what successes they have achieved. When people participate like this they feel valued, included, more engaged, and supportive of any decisions that are officially made.
  1. Time 

“We need a full-day retreat for our leadership team”  Or “We’ll get the full staff involved, so let’s go with a half-day retreat.” When we think of a retreat experience, one of the first things we do is announce the duration of the experience. Let’s just state here, that we’re not in favor of full-day Zoom retreats. One of the reasons we start with the outcomes is to make sure we use our time in the best way possible to accomplish what we set out to. We can think about how we use the time we have to create as much engagement as possible. We can also think about when time is used for the retreat experience so that we blend what happens when we are together, and when we’re apart. 

  • Use the 70/30 rule: 70%-Engagement 30%-Content 
    There’s always so much that we can share with our teams when we are together: reports, findings, new ideas, news, announcements, updates, etc. These activities require a lot of listening and lend themselves to relying on slides to add that visual component. They can also take a lot of time to get through. Busy retreat planners may be tempted to assign individuals to cover certain topics to cover a time allotment. This can set up the potential for a “speaker parade,” which could create a disjointed experience with content overload. Retreats can be amazing opportunities for people to share, build, brainstorm, react, and discuss. At the beginning of your retreat planning process, think about where you could engage your people in those types of activities, and then allot about 70% of the retreat time to them. People can get a ton of work done in a short amount of time virtually if they have the time, structure and tools. 
  • Blend offline and online experiences
    Ok, let’s assume you do have a lot you want to say to the group. Use videos, articles and information in advance, during and after the retreat so that they can watch on their own and then come together to synthesize and discuss. You can also divide your retreat into multiple days with a series of in-person and offline experiences. Perhaps your full-day retreat takes place over 3 days, where the group comes together for 2-3 hours where they can interact with one another. In between those live sessions, they can watch announcements, read the latest reports, take an online course, or complete activities that can help with synthesizing the topics of the retreat and help to build the momentum of the experience. This method also allows retreat planners to adjust and be responsive in the approach to the experience as they observe the group’s energy. 
  1. Tools 

When we know our topics, the time we have, and how the time can be used, we can think about how tools can unlock the “how” of the experience. We’ve been experimenting with different combinations of tools for some time now, and are convinced that as much, or more work can be produced in a virtual experience as we can when in-person. The major areas where tools can make this possible: 

  • Connecting:  Seeing faces and hearing voices continues to be the best way to establish or reestablish connections. Using your video conference platform (Zoom, Teams, Webex, etc) and the breakout functionality can make this possible. You can also use polls and games like Quiz Breaker to help people learn more about each other. 
  • Brainstorming & Designing: Yes, it’s possible to get those sticky notes going in ways that don’t create chaos in a virtual space. We are using whiteboard platforms like Mural and Miro quite a bit to engage everyone in a group in sharing ideas. 
  • Input: Survey tools can be very powerful for use in a retreat because they can sense input prior to or during an event. You can also use a virtual whiteboard, where people can respond to questions in advance. Polls also become quick ways of gauging input.
  • Learning: Being introduced to new concepts, skills and knowledge can happen in so many ways. Internal courses on an LMS, links to Youtube videos, external courses on LinkedIn, etc.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to get your retreat right. The downfall of a bad retreat in a remote or blended environment could lead to more disengagement, stress and anxiety. 

Evan Ishida

About Evan Ishida

The work I love is designing solutions and experiences that help people learn, collaborate, create, and innovate together. As a proud Ohio University Bobcat, I began my career as an internal consultant, and team leader in large global Fortune 200 corporations where I focused on learning and development, instructional design, communities of practice, and learning technologies.