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Seven Keys to Designing a Great Virtual Offsite

Offsites are important moments for teams to come together to do meaningful work and to build cohesion.  They are also a big investment, where a typical one day offsite for a typical team consumes 80 person hours.  Unfortunately, many virtual team offsites do not go well.  Participants are left feeling frustrated and disengaged.  Team leaders feel concerned that not enough progress happened.  What is the science of making a great virtual offsite?  In this blog post we will share our lessons learned.

Rigorous preparation is essential

Since people get fatigued at a faster rate in virtual meetings, it is of the utmost important to use every precious moment wisely.  Taking time in the meeting to talk through slides is not a good use of time.  Instead, develop materials to inject into the meeting sufficient content to seed a good discussion.  Doing a round of interviews with a defined set of questions is an efficient way of surfacing the different views on a topic.  Doing so allows you to focus on a discussion instead of everyone vying to get their opinion heard.  In order for this strategy to work, it is essential for each team member to review the pre-work materials.

Distribute an agenda in advance 

In these long-form virtual meetings, it is difficult for participants to maintain their attention and focus.  Circulating in advance an agenda helps participants show up for the right meeting and know where things will head over the segments. 

Delineate the Purpose of Each Segment

Specifying the purpose for each segment is important.  Identifying whether the segment is for discussion, decisions, or information helps participants know what is expected of them and how and if any decisions will be made.  We recommend listing “for discussion”, “for decision” or “for information” in the agenda.

List the Framing Questions

Listing the framing questions can also make a big impact.  The framing questions on a “for decision” topic helps drive the discussion to the decisions that need to be made.  The framing questions on a “for discussion” topic helps focus the dialogue and helps participants intervene if the conversation gets off track.

Use Breakout Rooms

Using breakout rooms is perhaps the key to designing outstanding virtual offsites.  Small group discussion is essential for engagement and efficiently surfacing diverse points of view.  We like pairs during the opening and closing segments to get maximum participation.  For meatier segments, we like groups of three and four with share-outs as a whole group.  While external facilitators use breakouts all the time, it is less commonly used by team leaders for virtual offsites.

It is important for the facilitator, whether an external facilitator or someone on the team playing the role, know the capabilities and limitations of the video conference software.  For example, Zoom’s random assignment feature is only random for the first grouping.  Using random assignment for subsequent breakout sessions uses the same room assignments, which is seldom desirable.  Instead, keep a spreadsheet of the breakout rounds and use it to assign your breakout rooms.

Most video conferencing software have a breakout room functionality.  Each works a bit differently.

Allocate Time for Relationship Building

Geographically dispersed teams know that the casual interactions or bonding that happens over dinner or drinks means that virtual team meeting time is needed to build relationships.  It is essential to take time for relationship building during virtual offsites.  Since you cannot rely on the traditional ways of building cohesion such as fun events and meals, you have to rely instead on connecting conversations.  This is an unnatural act in most organizations, especially in high tech or life sciences.  Structured self-disclosure activities are ways to help colleagues know each other and sharing about troubles and challenges creates common ground and invites support.

Provide Ample Breaks

This is one of the hardest things to do.  Offsite designers like to pack the agenda to get the most out of the virtual offsite time.  Unfortunately, packing too much in creates offsite fatigue and makes it harder to achieve segment objectives.

A better approach is to treat the breaks as constraints and design the agenda around them.  You should build in at least one hour for a lunch break.  We often see offsites that skip the lunch break, expecting people to eat while in session.  Whereas in-person offsites are typically catered, virtual offsites are not.  People need time to prepare and eat their lunch. 

It is important to build in a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break.  These breaks should be 15-20 minutes long.  Short breaks of 5-10 minutes are insufficient.

Screens are fatiguing and these breaks help people reset and rejoin refreshed and engaged.

If you need assistance with the design and facilitation of a virtual team offsite, please email us at .

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Lisa Stefanac

Lisa Stefanac

As a Partner and Founder of KSE Leadership, Lisa has focused on leadership development, team effectiveness, and talent management at clients ranging from high growth startups to one of the largest companies in the world and across several industries including oil & gas, technology, and digital health.