How to make the most of an away day

Away days: a free day off work? An opportunity to beat colleagues to a pulp in some pointless, macho game? Or your worst social nightmare?

Away days illicit a wide range of opinions and emotions. I believe an away day stands or falls simply by the reason why it was held in the first place. When a client tells me they are hosting an away day my first question is always ‘why?’ Not ‘what are you doing?’, ‘where are you going?’ or ‘who’s running it?’, but simply ‘why?’

To make the most of an away day, it is essential to be clear about what you hope to achieve. There may be some unexpected by-products from the day itself, but don’t expect a team to become closer just because you take them go-karting or building space rockets out of organic egg boxes.

Consider a few examples:

The activity-filled team builder

If team building is your purpose, be careful to consider the mix of personalities in the group. Activities that will make some people whoop with delight can make others want to curl up and die. 

Be careful not to read too much into peoples’ involvement, or lack of it. It’s much easier to be the perfect team member when you’re doing something you love. An unenthused and snarky raft-builder could actually be attempting to hide a fear of the water. Ideally, you will include a range of events that appeal to different types of people ie something physical and outdoorsy, something creative, something cerebral.

Also, be clear with the team about your expected outcome for the day. Don’t leave them to guess.

Finally, don’t just pick an activity because you want to share your personal passion with the team. A client told me a story of a disastrous away day clay pigeon shooting. It seemed the only motivation behind the outing was that the boss loved to unload bullets into ceramic targets. At least he enjoyed himself.

The stress-buster

If pure relaxation is the purpose of the day, have the courage to stand by this. Don’t dress it up by adding some spurious business activity in an attempt to justify the spend. This type of away day is valuable in itself. 

Make sure you communicate this ‘no agenda-agenda’ to the team, so they can fully indulge without fear of being caught slacking. One to watch – don’t do it every month. It will lose its special appeal.

The away-from-desk brainstorm

This kind of away day is more structured, with a clear beginning, middle and end. It gives a team the chance to learn about and then discuss a new project or strategy in a neutral space away from the office.

Done badly, this can be nothing more than a platform for announcing changes that have already been signed off. If this is the case, do your team the decency of not dressing it up as a consultation or brainstorm.

Done well, taking everyone away from the office presents a great opportunity to explore the new five year strategy or the implications of a restructuring. The away day nature does away with the distractions – make it compulsory to turn phones off – and the baggage of the day-to-day and encourages focus.

The knowing-me-knowing-you day

Beware of two things: There will be those in any team who have no interest in getting to know anyone else more deeply. These include the “I couldn’t give a monkeys about the rest of them” types as well as the “I am very shy and like to keep my work and private life separate” people. 

At other end of the scale is when the getting to know each other goes further than you planned, especially if alcohol is involved. Be careful what you wish for! Usually this type of away day is really about getting people to work better together, which is fair enough. Focus on that. People do not need to like each other to work together . Just look at any top flight football team – or the coalition – as examples.

The we-always-have-an-away-day away day

So it’s that time of year again – away day time. The same people create the same agenda and off you go. These days can be very formulaic, dull and achieve very little – much like the annual we-must- visit-the-relatives trip. 

If a regular away day is desired, then how about theming it? Get third parties to come in and run activities on a particular issue that is relevant to the team right now. Or ask for suggestions from the team.

Whatever the purpose of the away day, be clear about the ‘why’ and stick to it. And don’t be tempted to make the most of having everyone together to deliver a bombshell. I was unfortunate enough to be at an away day when the CFO took the opportunity to tell the team a few home truths about their performance. He ended with the inspiring line: “And if things do not change, heads will roll. Now I’ll leave you to enjoy your day!”

John McLachlan is managing director of Monkey Puzzle Training

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