Start-to-Finish Guide to Planning Virtual Team Retreats

There are many reasons for engaging in virtual team retreats.

  • You might not be able to meet physically.
  • Your workforce might be swelling with talented remote members who live in different time zones and even on different continents.
  • You might see the benefit of spending less on travel and redirecting those costs toward additional training resources instead.

Virtual Retreat Basics

What is a virtual retreat? It is a scheduled time away from everyday work to engage in other team effectiveness activities through virtual means, such as:

  • Teleconferences
  • Online videos and education resources
  • Team health checks
  • Team-building experiential exercises
  • Quick strategy sessions

A virtual retreat can be focused on one or several strategic purposes. It can also increase energy and motivation in your team members as they anticipate getting to know their colleagues, learning to collaborate with them better in the future, and deepening their understanding of the business and latest developments.

There is a lot of value in expanding your toolkit and learning how to run a virtual retreat.

What Are the Logistics of a Virtual Retreat?

Even though you can’t physically meet, your people will still be happy to see a retreat on the calendar. Having a deadline will motivate you to start planning or put together a team to do so. So pick a date, then go through these steps.

1. Determine the Purpose and Goals

What is the purpose of the retreat? It’s up to you and your team to clarify the key outcomes you want from your retreat. Do you just want to give everyone a break and help them recharge? Is the workforce primarily in need of new information? Do you want to improve team cohesion? Give awards? Build skills? Set a strategic plan?

Choose and communicate your purpose. Turn your purpose into a simple statement, such as, “On this retreat, we intend to have fun, look back on the successes and challenges of the past six months, and plan our strategy for the next six months.”

The purpose can shape the theme and the name of the retreat. You can focus all activities around the central idea, which can make it easier to pick activities, speakers, sessions, etc. The purpose can even determine who will attend, how long the retreat will be, and the budget.

2. Pick Presentation Topics

If you want to include informational presentations in your retreat, augment and add relevance to your topics by sending a survey to your workforce. Ask everyone to send in the greatest challenge that the organization faces, along with the most exciting opportunities.

Create an agenda to address the issues you commonly see on the survey, which may also intersect with information you wanted to share, plus any must-discuss items that you know about. (You could also address the top concerns of separate departments.)

3. Determine Business Objectives to Focus On

When you have a large amount of crucial information to present, think about the ways that the workforce will be able to digest it all. It’s easy to schedule a parade of presenters who unload a mountain of facts onto people who can’t hope to retain it all or use it. But this approach is rarely effective. Instead, transform the information into activities and actionable strategies.

Vary the Delivery Method

Give attendees a variety of inputs over a longer period of time. For example, send them articles, emails, and videos before the retreat even begins. Have them take a skill-building course on an internal or external learning system. Discuss the same information during the retreat. And follow up on it after the retreat.

The 70/30 Principle

Give your team the time to reflect and apply information to their everyday work. You could space the information out using a 70/30 principle: 70% of your time on engagement and 30% on content.

Combine Individual Work with Small- and Large-Group Work

Use a combination of learning opportunities to drive engagement and promote learning sustainability. Maybe you could have participants read a relevant article or case study, then discuss it in small groups. Or, perhaps individuals complete a digital course and then attend the virtual retreat for application and other collaborative activities that relate to the information. Have them think strategically about how to apply new information to real workplace situations.

Allow Plenty of Time

You may want to stretch your virtual team retreat over several days to allow unhurried engagement, collaboration, and synthesis.

4. Encourage Team-Building Activities

How do you make a virtual retreat meaningful and fun? Increase a sense of belonging by devoting part of your agenda to activities and discussions that help participants develop greater trust, cohesion, knowledge, and connection between team members. This is crucial for those working from home or another remote location and are unable to have lunch with colleagues or go out after work. Getting to know others is fun.

Rather than being frivolous, team-building activities are strategically important: They help separated team members know each other better as individuals and therefore accomplish objectives together more readily after the retreat. Activities can range from very simple to more complex:

  • Arrange one-on-one meetings between members of different departments to chat about their everyday roles.
  • Ask team members to give tours of their home offices.
  • Play charades over video chat.
  • Write a story together, with each team member adding only one sentence.
  • Make a virtual happy hour or coffee shop.

Ask everyone in the organization to submit ideas for virtual staff retreat activities. What would they like to do? And who is willing to organize or lead their idea? Voluntary leaders make the best leaders. If possible, though, try to get a variety of leaders from different departments, areas, cultures, and genders.

5. Prepare and Troubleshoot Logistical Considerations

The most crucial logistical concerns in virtual team retreats are technology and attendance. First, have staff members test their software and connections well in advance of the retreat. Ensure that your software supports the number of simultaneous connections you need and test access to any educational resources.

Next, use the method that works best in your organization to invite attendees. If you think it’s necessary, get confirmations or RSVPs from them.

Get the Timing Right

If your team members are in different time zones, you may need to find the time of day that overlaps for all of them. The retreat might be in the morning for some but the evening for others.

Alternatively, if you don’t need to devote much time to a retreat, you could take your weekly or monthly meeting and simply extend it into a short retreat.

Compile the Tools You Need

You might also want to test and use collaboration technology during the retreat. Options include virtual whiteboards, virtual sticky notes, and links to surveys and polls to get immediate feedback and gather questions.

Be Realistic

Finally, once the retreat starts, the host should acknowledge the realities of the situation: Connections might be interrupted, and children and pets might run into a room. Make it clear that this is all okay. Then reiterate the purpose and agenda of the retreat.

How Are Virtual Retreats Different From In-Person Retreats?

Virtual team retreats have some logistical and cost benefits over in-person retreats. They almost always take less time and money to organize and execute. Funds saved from airline and hotel fees can instead go toward gifts or educational resources.

They’re also safer. Even outside of pandemics, team members often catch a cold or worse from traveling. Plus, travel itself involves safety risks, especially when going to an unfamiliar area.

Finally, you might find that business activities, such as planning, strategizing, and educating, are easily accomplished through teleconferencing software. People can think, brainstorm, and make decisions just as well from the comfort of their homes. Your organization could pivot to a new strategy more quickly, without waiting on travel times, hotel bookings, etc.

The Downsides of Virtual Retreats

Some team members may feel frustrated that they’re missing the benefits of natural human interaction—shaking hands, giving a hug, and seeing subtle changes in body language and facial expressions that are all part of in-person events.

Team members might also not get the same opportunities to strike up spontaneous conversations and brilliant business solutions during a lunch or learning exercise. You’ll need to work to counteract that by supplying incorporating small group interactions through your meeting software.

It’s possible that a mix of in-person and virtual retreats will become the standard in the future. For example, your Asian and North American teams might meet in-person in different locations for one event, then meet virtually as a group for a different learning opportunity or meeting.

CMOE Can Help You Maximize Your Retreat

When you need to improve your team cohesion, write new strategies, or help team members relax—or all three—plan a virtual team retreat using these five tips. You can also lean on CMOE to design a focused, strategic retreat for you.

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About the Author

CMOE Team

CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.