Make Your Team More Effective By Getting Them Out of the Office

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Jan 18, 2018

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”― Albert Camus

Now that we’ve wrapped up another year, and are already well into 2018, the magic of the holiday season has evaporated. Your team is confronting this year’s challenges, while carrying over whatever problems were there last year. Are you addressing these long-standing issues? What makes your team suffer? What are the key emotions and barriers that are holding them back?

Team retreats are perfect for identifying the root cause of the problem and develop a solution collectively. This is a good time to get them out of the office.

Let’s start by reviewing the most important causes why your team needs to get out of the office.

Stress: High workloads, unrealistic deadlines, unclear priorities, and lack of support both at a manager or peer level cause burnout. A team retreat helps release the pressure, but if you don’t fix the root cause, it’s just a Band-Aid. Is the stress a temporary symptom or is it caused by more significant reasons? Stress affects 70% of US workers at different levels, before planning your retreat, understand what’s causing your team’s suffering.

A team is stuck: Disengagement, underperformance, and counterproductive behaviors are clear signals of a group that got stuck. That’s when low morale and stress are affecting, not just people’s emotions, but their behaviors too. Low performing teams are a luxury: Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity. To get a team back on track requires much more than motivation and timeout: you need a team intervention.

Cultural divide: Alignment is an overused and romanticized concept in management. Culture alignment is more of a myth than something real. Teams always have tensions, and not everyone will be on the same page depending on the topic. About 75% of employers rate teamwork as “very important.” But true collaboration respecting, and building on, everyone’s differences, rather than being trapped to the lowest common denominator managementA team retreat is perfect to apply empathy to understand better how others see the world. And to embrace the power of opposites.

Lack of trust: People leave managers not companies, according to Gallup. Or more specifically, employees quit their jobs because of toxic behaviors that are tolerated or promoted by their managers. (Note: There’s at least one study that suggests that is only sometimes true. See “Surprise! Most People Leave Companies, Not Managers.”) A team outing can provide a safe space for people to start opening up. But you can’t build psychological safety overnight — the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Setting up the right environment requires external facilitation but, most importantly, that leaders embrace vulnerability too.

Need for new solutions: The need to plan for the year or to develop new solutions, are perfect reasons for a team retreat. But it shouldn’t be a one-off practice though. When a team doesn’t spend quality time brainstorming from time to time, it becomes rusty. Everyone gets frustrated during the session. Training your team’s creative juices requires cadence and not an isolated workshop every year or so.

Something is broken: How many times do you feel something is off with your team, but you don’t know the real cause? A retreat helps everyone take distance from deadlines, emails, and fire-drills and look inside. Self-reflection is a powerful tool that top performers know how to use. When something is not working, having clarity is half of the solution.

The change gap is taking a toll: The divide between where an organizations wants to go and where it is now creates lots of tensions. Change is not easy. We all want to change but have a hard time adapting. Most of the symptoms described above are a consequence of The Change Gap: the tension between our desired and current states that tears team apart. (To learn more about “The Change Gap” and how it affects teams, read this article.)

A team retreat can help you:

  • Understand what’s underneath the symptoms
  • Get the conversation started
  • Provide distance and a safe space for candid discussions
  • Encourage individual and collective reflection
  • Invite everyone to be part of the solution
  • Re-energize, refocus and restart your team

Any of these symptoms — individually or collectively — are a good reason to take your team out of the office. Once you are clear on the problem you need to solve it’s easier to choose the right kind of retreat.

Which type of retreat is right for you?

“To separate yourself from your weakness and look at it objectively is a very powerful thing.” ― Russell Simmons

There are many kinds of retreats some more suitable than others depending on the challenge you are facing. To simplify the conversation, I narrowed down the list applying the following:

  • “Reflection” versus “Transformation:” The first type is a deep understanding of a team’s mindset and behaviors to unblock or accelerate performance. The second type is about focusing the energy on the development of new solutions or change initiatives.
  • “Crisis” versus “Opportunity:”The first is about solving urgent matters that need to be resolved to unblock team performance or even guarantee its survival. The latter is about focusing on strategic and vital topics with a longer-term impact.

The following matrix captures the four types. Let’s review each one in more detail.

1. Team Stabilization

Think of this as the ER for a team. Toxic behaviors, frictions, and lack of trust are bleeding your team to death. If you don’t stabilize the team, it’s impossible to expect any improvements, least to say great performance.

The purpose of Team Stabilization is to recover trust among the team members. This type of retreat tends to be very introspective, personal, and applying a lot of reflection and mindfulness. Handled the right way, it can be a path to fast recovery. If not, it will accelerate the death sentence of a team.

  • Why: To stop unhealthy behaviors and mindsets from destroying a team.
  • When: An intervention is required when the toxicity of the team is putting its continuity at risk. Though you don’t need to wait until things get out of control.
  • Type: Reflection/ Crisis
  • Length: Ideally two full days with some space in between for the team to breath. A Team Stabilization is very intense and emotionally draining.

2. Team Timeout

A halt in the game can dramatically change the result of a match. Or your business goals for that matter. Taking a timeout is critical for a team to reflect on what’s working (or not), adjust tactics, or even reset their behaviors.

The purpose of Team Timeout is to provide some distance from the day-to-day in order to evaluate the performance to make necessary adjustments. Even if you are winning, reflecting on how you are playing is an appropriate pause. Some teams can quickly become complacent or get distracted when they don’t feel challenged. This type of retreat resets the bar and keeps the team motivated to play at their best.

  • Why: To reflect on how the team is doing, identify areas for improvement and experimentation, and define how to play the “second-half” of the game.
  • When: Turning point that requires learning and adjustments (e.g., end of year or a quarter, half-way through a large project implementation, etc.)
  • Type: Reflection/ Opportunity
  • Length: One-day session. It can be compressed to a half-day if needed.

3. Team reboot

Both Team Stabilization and Team Reboot are perfect when there’s an urgent need to change. The difference is that in this particular situation the team is underperforming, but hasn’t reached a high level of toxicity or distrust.

The purpose of a Team Reboot is precisely what it happens to a phone or device when it’s not working correctly. Rebooting a team reloads the operating system, updates mindsets, and behaviors, and fixes temporary communication and management issues.

  • Why: To reset the team operating system and refresh how and why they work.
  • When: A high-performing team has lost its mojo, a team is underperforming and on its way to a significant crisis.
  • Type: Crisis/ Transformation.
  • Length: One or two-day sessions. It can be cut to a half-day session if the situation is not critical, but will require further follow-up.

4. Team Innovation sessions

This is an idyllic scenario for any team. They get out of the office with a bigger ambition: to design what’s next. But to thrive in an innovation session, your team needs to be in a good place. Most often than not, I see creative or strategic retreats get stuck. Not because of lack of talent or ambition, but because the underlying personal issues and dysfunctions get in the way of creativity and collaboration.

The purpose of a Team Innovation session is to generate new ideas to solve current problems or anticipate potential challenges or growth opportunities. Adding “outsiders” to the session amplifies perspectives and minimizes group thinking.

  • Why: To develop new products or services, define new strategies or solve for specific challenges that are out the regular day-to-day work.
  • When: Out of the ordinary projects or challenges that require deep thinking, focus, and fresh perspectives.
  • Type: Transformation/ Opportunity
  • Length: One or two-day sessions. More complex projects might require more time

Prepare for success

“Comfort is a stance of avoidance rather than the pursuit of excellence.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Understanding your challenges as well as the various types of workshops will help you make a more educated decision. Consider the following tips to plan a retreat that will move your team forward.

Be clear on the problem you must solve — Don’t react to the symptoms, aim for deeper understanding. Be clear on the outcome you want to achieve. And, only then, choose the type of retreat that best suits your needs.

Avoid pleasing your team — Many managers try to provide a fun experience to make everyone feel good. But when deeper issues are affecting performance, a fun day won’t erase them. Some retreats are full of tension and conflict, but it’s a bridge everyone needs to cross to stabilize a damaged team.

Fun or serious? — Hands-on group activities, games, and other fun stuff are critical to driving engagement and learning. Even when addressing “more serious issues.” But the fun needs to be purposefully woven into the agenda. It’s a means to an end. If you just want to celebrate an achievement, you don’t need a team retreat, have a party.

How deep is too deep? — Self-reflection exercises or guided meditations are powerful to unlock personal potential. And, in my experience, people are all in to experiment their deepest sides. But it’s critical to balance emotions to avoid crossing the line where that journey can become a dark one. Group activities, fun exercises, and other stuff are perfect for rebooting the mood. When planning a workshop, be mindful of balancing the feelings and emotions across the session.

Follow-up is critical — To get clear ROI, you need to consider the “event” as just one piece. To avoid wasting your money, assess the problem you want to solve before the retreat starts. Also, the session must end with a clear action plan to bring back to the real world. The team should identify behaviors and mindsets to be changed, implement tests on a small scale, assign clear responsibilities and dates. Before the event is over, how will the new behaviors be monitored, who will coach the team as they make progress, and how will improvement be measured?

Executive or team retreat: The problem or problems you need to solve should determine if you need an executive, team, or a hybrid retreat. Many organizations fear to have senior executives having candid conversations with “regular folks.” In my experience that can be game-changing. Everyone who’s part of the problem should be part of building the solution. Leaders should abide by the same rules and play like everyone else. If you want to improve trust among your team and encourage self-reflection, put your title aside and embrace vulnerability.

What’s your approach to team retreats? Which of these concepts do you want to experiment with at your organization?