virtual offsite

Develop your virtual offsite to be more than another Zoom meeting

Is it time to consider hosting a virtual offsite or leadership retreat for your team?

We’ve spoken before about the benefits of having a leadership offsite that doesn’t have to be a luxury getaway trip. Obviously right now, we’re facing travel restrictions and public health restrictions on gatherings in public spaces, but that doesn’t make the need for a gathering any less.

If anything, after months of figuring out how to work remotely in some capacity, changing how we deliver goods or services and dealing with worries about the pandemic, folks need some teambuilding and enrichment.

We know that a good offsite for employees:

  • Builds trust and connections
  • Inspires creativity
  • Makes people feel appreciated and valued
  • Clarifies and kickstarts goals
  • Enhances camaraderie and team cohesion

So many companies are separated right now, with some team members in the office and some at home — and new hires who’ve never met their colleagues in real life or gotten to know them other than on a screen or, if you’re lucky, from six feet away with masks on.

A virtual offsite done right can do a lot for our teams. If you’re familiar with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, then you’ll know that offsites serve a valuable purpose for building a healthy team dynamic. Namely, overcoming:

  • An absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results (focusing on individual goals/status rather than collective success)

Hosting a virtual offsite is an opportunity to strengthen your team. So, how do you do it right?

Take time to prepare a robust virtual offsite

Figure out the technology piece: We’ve learned good remote meeting practices in the last year, like the essential tools for facilitating remote meetings. We recommend hiring an experienced online facilitator (that’s not a plug for us, just a facilitator in general) who can manage the logistics of admitting people, coordinating the virtual breakout rooms and troubleshooting any glitches or problems. Knowing which tools to use and a little bit of rehearsing before the virtual offsite is key.

Consider things like:

Having a special welcome screen when people join the virtual offsite. It’s an opportunity to cover a bit of the housekeeping and give them instructions or reminders (like how to maximize their viewing window, open chat and raise their hands). You can also do something fun, like have a poll ready for them to take or an activity to do while they wait for the meeting to start. Many groups ask participants to include certain details in their name on a virtual call, like title, location and preferred pronouns. If your folks know each other, you could change the name to “Name and favorite day of the week” or favorite food, favorite travel destination, etc., etc. — something to spark some curiosity, interest and maybe even conversation.

Setting ground rules, just as you would at an in-person offsite meeting. Ask folks to mute when possible, return from breaks on time, raise their hands to speak or use the chat to raise questions and introduce themselves before they speak and headline comments. Since people are likely participating from home, remind them not to worry if they have to deal with a fussy child or barking dog. Ask participants what other ground rules are needed (remind folks rules don’t have to be “don’t do this” or “always do this” but can also be, “We’re okay with this…”).

Starting with an icebreaker or activity. An interactive meeting helps to keep people’s interest, and making people feel connected is particularly important in a virtual setting.

Be strategic with the topic for your virtual offsite

Build in specific learning opportunities: What’s going to be most useful to your employees? In our experience, learning about something that applies to everyone — like leadership and teamwork — makes everyone on the team feel like they are valued and that the offsite was valuable. Stay away from silo-specific discussions in an offsite. If you’re going to discuss an area that is definitely under one person’s purview, be sure to set it up in a way that that person is listening to others’ views. For example, if the offsite is to discuss the marketing planning, have the VP of Marketing set up the topic and then have someone else facilitate the discussions. Remind the VP of Marketing ahead of time to be listening to understand, to take a “yes, and” approach rather than a “yah, but,” etc.

Keep in mind things like:

Using presentations sparingly. Anything that is presented should be well written and focused because long or rambling presentations are not engaging. Encourage presenters to have a short list of key points and to speak briefly to each point. At the same time, encourage them not to read from a script. That loses the audience in an in-person meeting and it’s even worse in a virtual one. Screen sharing will let everyone follow along, but minimizes the participant windows. So, use screen sharing intermittently — don’t hesitate to share for a few moments, then unshare to discuss, then share a new slide, then unshare to discuss. (If you’re not a whiz with the technology, use that facilitator/producer we mentioned to control that side of things.) The focus should be on making the most of discussion.

Making the most of technology to involve participants. You can get very creative with this (and this is when it’s helpful to hire an experienced online meeting facilitator to run the technology for you). There are ways to send groups of participants to separate breakout rooms seamlessly, while facilitators “pop” in and out to see how things are going. We do this extensively with Zoom for our leadership courses and it works VERY well. Breakout rooms are proving enormously helpful to engage people who don’t speak up in the main room, and to help focus small groups on different topics. You’ve likely always used “breakouts” in your in-person training courses (“Okay, all the folks who want to work on X, go to that corner of the room…”) but how often have you done it in your management meetings or offsite meetings? With Zoom and other platforms it’s easy and very helpful.

Each breakout group can prepare slides (on a Google doc or other shared platform, or using the Zoom/Teams whiteboard) to present to everyone after the breakout. There are also tools for voting (and not just yes or no, but on a scale of 1 to 5 how much they agree for instance), for polling for various results and for “stamping” icons if you want people to indicate on a shared screen what matters to them or something they want to know more about (like they would with a dot on a wall chart at an in-person event).

Running the chat throughout the offsite. A well-run chat board is a place for team members to raise questions or share ideas, and also to build community back and forth individually. This is important when not everyone wants to talk on camera.

Keep people as your focus for the virtual offsite

Focus on your team: While you’re planning, remember to include strategies to keep your team engaged online. A remote offsite isn’t the same as having everyone in a room together with catered coffee breaks and lunches. Knowing how you’ll break the ice, having some fun and celebrating wins with your remote team is important.

Other considerations include:

  • Pacing of the meeting. When people are sitting in front of a screen, we sometimes forget they still need a brain and body break. Build in 10-15-minute breaks every hour to 90 minutes. This way people can refresh, deal with personal or work-related issues quickly and come back ready to focus.
  • Encouraging people to move. Baseball games have the “seventh inning stretch” for fans to get up and move a bit because sitting for a long time is hard on the body. Some of our clients will build in group stretches or pause while people take a quick walk around. Is someone on the team a fitness instructor or yoga fanatic in their off hours? Would they be willing to host a “stretch break” for the team? If so, tell everyone else they can turn off their camera, if they wish, and follow the instructor for a few minutes of rejuvenation.
  • Ending the meeting on a high note. Thank everyone for participating. If there are decisions, tasks, goals coming out of the meeting — summarize and review them. Ask participants for their feedback, just as you would at an in-person offsite meeting. What did they like? What could have been better? Some people end with an inspirational video or send participants a $5 coffee card.

When a virtual offsite meeting is done well, you and your team will reap many benefits.

Coach’s Questions:

What have you been doing to keep your team connected? Are there opportunities for you to develop some teamwork and leadership skills? Who might really benefit from a virtual offsite right now? What can you do to engage your team?

We offer all of our leadership development courses virtually — if you’re looking for a learning offsite, or want to supplement your planning offsite with some leadership learning in a fun environment, check out what we offer.