A Huawei team-building exercise before the pandemic.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In this moment of Omicron-fueled uncertainty–filled with closures, sickouts, postponements–workforces are craving clarity and connection. So even though many of us aren’t working onsite, we could really use a good offsite to start 2022, perhaps more urgently now than ever.

So before you cancel that meeting or team-building exercise, consider the following ways it might still go on, and how. “There’s a crisis of meaning right now. People want more than efficiency, productivity, and convenience,” says Tim Leberecht, co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community of entrepreneurs, artists, and creatives. “They want to show up with their full selves, and offsites are this wonderful opportunity to break out of the day-to-day routine. It gives you license to play.”

Make digital convenings your default.

You can always work toward in-person if it feels possible. But workplace experts agree that it makes sense to have a remote option for some segment of your team, given the higher likelihoods of sudden quarantine, lockdown, or kids’ schools going remote. “The default now at some level for 2022,” says Priya Parker, “is to make important moments centered around digital-first experiences with a simultaneously designed option for potential in-person gatherings.” Parker is a highly regarded expert on creating connection and author of The Art of Gathering.

There are some benefits of digital gatherings, says Monika Jiang, House of Beautiful’s head of curation and community. “Specifically on Zoom, you can play with audio and visual,” she says. “Or maybe just remove the visual stipulation and just hear each other’s voices.”

Like an old-fashioned phone call.

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Upshot: Design digital first. Hope for in-person. Learn how to use the breakout rooms on Zoom.

Remember why you are getting together.

There’s one word Parker uses over and over when asked about the art of a successful offsite: “Meaningful.” She suggests we embrace the creativity this current moment requires. While it’s tempting to use offsites as extra meeting time to set goals and measure progress, the focus really should be on bonding and connectivity. (Here’s one startup’s playbook on this necessary transition.)

“To maintain some sanity, focus the creativity on meaningful connection,” Parker says. “People are exhausted. For the teams that are planning anything in the next three to 12 weeks, focus your limited energy on making virtual gatherings meaningful.”

Upshot: Ask people what they want from the retreat, whether it’s in person, virtual, or hybrid. Think big picture, and connect their role to the overall mission or purpose of your company.

Set goals in shorter increments.

There is very little consistency amid the pandemic. “The one-year strategic plan has proven to be pretty obsolete,” says Leberecht. “You are building muscle rather than having a plan.”

Upshot: You might need more than one retreat or offsite. Set up monthly sessions that take a step back from the daily business. Or you might schedule a follow-up for the second quarter to get to some agenda items that seem impossible right now.

Bonding is work.

During a recent in-person meeting with colleagues, our conversation took a turn and stayed on the tangent for quite some time. When I tried to steer us back to the agenda, my co-founder wisely invoked something her father used to say: “This,” she said, gesturing at the interplay among us, “is the work.”

Upshot: Embrace going off script and getting to know each other.

Build in inclusion and serendipity.

Create collisions, even in virtual settings, says Parker. She says what we miss most if we don’t gather in-person is the random conversation while in line for coffee or in the elevator.

“In virtual or in-person, there’s always power dynamics. In virtual, it’s even more pronounced,” says Parker. “The power lies in the mute button. Remember that the barrier to entry is higher in virtual.”

Upshot: Create breakout rooms. To get participation from more people on Zoom, ask questions that people answer in the chat versus making them hit the unmute button.

Weave in art and music and play.

Most conveners have a list of go-to icebreakers by now. But think about really getting the room vulnerable. Ben Michaelis, a psychologist who develops leadership programs, says he’s brought in drummers and instruments. He also described one offsite where participants had to put together pieces of a puzzle—and they were photographs of people’s families. Once, Leberecht says, he had colleagues spend the first two hours of a retreat writing and performing a musical. Another group of 150 people, he said, experienced an artwork together and then reacted to it by writing in individual journals—but the experience was still collective, on Zoom.

Upshot: Think about the cadence of your time together and how and where you can insert art, beauty, play.

Silence really is golden.

Many offsites cram dozens of speeches and presentations into short amounts of time. So it was freeing to hear about House of Beautiful’s gathering in Lisbon last year, where the day ended with a half-hour of silence. “So often in business, we use language as a weapon. It becomes aggressive in a way,” says Leberecht. “Silence creates this tenderness by removing language.”

Upshot: After a day of being “on,” offering a few moments of silence or reflection feels a great way to decompress. It’s also worth trying in shorter increments, say five minutes during a staff meeting, so people can really think before they speak, react, or do.

Remember the big picture.

Now, more than ever, seems the right time to remind colleagues (and ourselves) why we do what we do. That can feel dire, stark or lofty—and that’s okay. “Most of our work is focused on the workplace,” says Jiang. “But it’s also how it connects to larger societal problems, structural things like the climate crisis, and how you go about solving them.”

Indeed, offsites are supposed to be about the bigger picture, but it’s easy to get lost in the details of even that. Michaelis shares an anecdote of one client: a newly appointed CEO, a person of color whose ascension was really quite significant. And yet the offsite agenda was an alphabet soup of look-ahead planning like KPIs (key performance indicators) and OKRs (objectives and key results).

The CEO decided to shift to plainer speak. “That became the call-to-action for his company and helped to better shape exercises so that people were aligned to what it is they are trying to do,” recalls Michaelis. “Your constituents are people who work for this company. Let’s talk in real terms about what you are trying to do.”

Upshot: It’s clear that our transition to the next phase of the pandemic workplace is going to require patience and introspection. Regardless of whether that is in-person, remote, or hybrid, each of these configurations benefit from intentional gatherings like offsites to engender connections and creativity. In a sea of uncertainty, that feels like one constant employers can try to offer.

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