Ideas for online away days

Lovely away day location

This post came out of a conversation with a friend who was thinking about planning for an online away day. It can be really hard to keep the energy and engagement going all day face-to-face, but usually the changed location, posh biscuits and hopefully better coffee, can keep people going. Online though it is much harder. We’re all staring at screens so much that the thought of doing it all day, in the same location we always are in and having some office “fun” online is not a great draw. That said, though, sometimes we need to have longer meetings online and reconnect with each other, as well as address big problems. Here are some ideas on how to prepare and engage people for online away days.

Another funky away day location
  1. Clear objectives – this would be the same for any away day but even more important online. Often an objective of our away days is to network and catch-up with colleagues. Yet, this can’t really be done as easily online, so be super clear on objectives. Do you need to have an away day at all? Can the objectives be achieved in other ways?
  2. Reduce timings – 9-5 in a comfortable conference centre with good food really helps away day atmosphere, even if the sessions are long. 9-5 in your same home office chair on a dodgy internet connection is not the same. Can you reduce the timings of each session? Make sessions 50 minutes with breaks. Can you actually spread the away day over two half days or more sessions with activities online.
  3. Lots of breaks – online meetings are more tiring than face-to-face meetings. This has been proven by various studies. So we need more breaks. And breaks where everyone just awkwardly stares at the screen with a cooling cup of coffee are not brilliant at energising people. Vary shorter comfort breaks and longer, refreshment and restorative breaks. Tell people to turn off the camera and mic and take a break away from their desk. You could include a break where everyone has to go for a walk around the block or gets outside, then ask them to post a picture of something they saw on their break when they get back.
  4. Icebreakers – argh that “icebreaker” word. Many traditional icebreakers, perhaps thankfully, cannot work online (marshmallows and spaghetti anyone? ;)) however, there are some quite easy, engaging icebreakers you can use. You could ask everyone to change their background to a photo of somewhere they last went on holiday, or somewhere they love, the last photo they took on their phone or something that means something to them. Then ask people to talk about their photo if they wish.
  5. Cameras on or off? People worry that if cameras are off, participants are not engaging but…. there are many reasons for why people may wish to keep their cameras off. Some people find it easier to concentrate if they turn their camera off (although on some systems you can change your settings to turn off incoming video), others may not be working in an environment that they wish others to see, or they may be listening and walking the dog. Whatever. Although we can ask people to turn phones off and put devices away when we are face-to-face, we still can’t guarantee people are engaging. Personally, I would give people the choice, ask them to turn their cameras on if they are speaking or in break out rooms, and ensure that there are quite a few people with cameras on so as a facilitator you are not just speaking into the ether.
  6. Be clear on rules of engagement. Building on the above, make sure everyone is clear about what is expected of them. Again something we should do face to face but as we can see everyone we tend skip over some of these. Online these are even more important. So, make it clear how you wish everyone to contribute. How should they ask questions – in the chat? or indicating in some way if the system has a hands-up or equivalent function. Will you be selecting people to answer questions at random? If people are speaking should they turn their cameras on and so on.
  7. Break out rooms. So many times at face-to-face away days we use small groups and different rooms to break up sessions. Again these can be done online and some systems allow you easily to put people into groups. However, these need a little more planning. Can you allocate people into groups in advance and ask them to do some preparation? Do you want to nominate people to lead each group in advance so that the group does not waste time agreeing who is doing what when time is limited. How do you want the groups to feedback? How can this be done effectively online? The online environment actually gives some better options here – groups could prepare short pieces that can be shared and then everyone given time to read them, rather than people reporting back, group after group which can be quite tiring.
  8. Lighten up. Whilst it can be harder to have informal chats in larger groups online, including an element of play or more relaxed activities can be helpful. Depending on your team, you will know how much “play” to include – ideas we have done in our Directorate meetings are – silly hats, fancy dress, sharing wellbeing ideas, sharing baking recipes, sharing holiday photos, Lego figures, “best interruption to an online meeting” and so on. Similar to the breakout ideas, maybe you want a theme for the day – the colour red, fancy dress, what you have been watching on TV, random objects on your desk etc – and come back to this at regular points in the day during the breaks. You can also play games such as quizzes, treasure hunts or bingo online – see what expertise your team has.
  9. Ask you team what they would like. Again, usually our away days should be collaborative with our teams, but this can be even more important online. Ask them about the structure of the day, what activities they would like, do they have any ideas to share, is there anything they do not want to do. If they feel consulted they are more likely to engage.
  10. The perfect is the enemy of the good. No away days will be perfect and there can be many things that can impact on the away day – tech failures, poor internet connections, sickness, children unexpectedly at home – and all of this applies even more when working online. Keep checking in with your team during the activities. If something isn’t working, ditch it and take a longer break! If you sense fatigue, be responsive and throw in a short change of pace, break or activity. Give people time to respond in group sessions and keep your focus on the objectives. Ask for feedback afterwards so you can gauge how the day went and what you can do for future events,
Away day props!

Good luck! And let me know if you have any ideas of your own or your experiences.

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