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Away days or away daze? Dan Collins explores some of the ways you might get the most from your time away from the office.

For many, it's the nearest thing to a school For trip in their adult lives. There's a buzz of expectation around the office, with clusters of people excitedly plotting the seating arrangements. But do away-days really achieve anything other than an opportunity to see your hard-pressed colleagues in their casuals?

If, like me, your age is hovering close to 40, you may remember the 1980s office: a place without email where only the privileged few had a computer on their desk. A Blackberry was something to make jam with and mobile phones were the size of a suitcase, regarded by many as a ridiculous and unnecessary status symbol.

Less than two decades on, and 68 per cent of British bosses admit to taking mobile email devices on holiday with them and checking their inbox at least daily.

But, as improved communication devices have liberated us from the need to be in a particular place to take a call or send correspondence, they may have perhaps also removed some of the more spontaneous acts of office dialogue.

In just the way fax machines are surely destined to become the next piece of office equipment consigned to the British Science Museum, those regular, impromptu water cooler conversations are slowly being replaced by instant messaging.

Even when talking, it is likely to be on either the landline or the mobile--and if it's the latter, for many of us, the heavily abbreviated language of the SMS has become the modus operandi! Although not criticising any of these developments per se--new communication vehicles can save us all time, freeing us to do the things that are important to us--I am concerned that the 'passing chat' is destined to go the same way as the typing pool, the telegram and the telex.

So what is so special about the passing chat, I hear you cry? For many, this was the corporate bush telegraph that provided all sorts of information about our colleagues (good and bad), prospective business opportunities and even advice on improved work practices. Crucially, it was a chance for us all to share what unites us all: our humanity.

As WH Davies famously asked: "What is this life if, full of care, /We have no time to stand and stare?" Our failure to ignore the value of this will surely bring nothing that improves us.

Against this backdrop, then, the term 'awayday' seems to have edged its way into our vocabulary--and thank goodness for that! A place without any of the modern day office-based distractions has never been so necessary and yet, for some, the language may be familiar but the many available options something of a mystery.

An awayday can consist of anything from hours locked inside a bunker-like conference room, analysing data, through to time spent literally hanging about in the trees on a ropes course.

Whatever the format, the key to a successful awayday is to start off with a set of clear objectives. If you find yourself in that all-too-familiar position of having a date agreed in the diary but no agenda, here are a few suggestions:

* Re-cast the vision

* Brainstorm solutions to current challenges

* Create a strategic plan

* Report future plans

* Hear from the troops

* Build more effective teams

* Reward hard work.

Once the reason for getting away is agreed, the next decision should be the place. It may sound like an incidental item but evidence would suggest that the location plays a significant role in determining the success of an event--not least because delegates are able to draw comparisons between factors such as ease of access, ambience and quality of food. Many a conference has failed to achieve its objectives simply because a lousy lunch turned otherwise enthusiastic delegates into disgruntled cynics, unwilling to engage in the afternoon's agenda.

The right location can significantly aid the process--if customer service is on the agenda, be sure to choose a venue where the staff know how to make your team feel welcome. Equally important is to avoid too formal a venue if you want the group to relax and let their hair down in the evening. It's amazing how many of the top-end hotels are unable to provide coffee on demand and insist on the organiser agreeing break times before the meeting begins. This results in breaks being taken to suit the hotel rather than the delegates, whose energy levels will rise and fall depending on a number of factors, few of which can be predicted. The more enlightened conference centres have coffee points spread around the building with free vending drinks machines available on demand.

For some, an inspirational location can bring its own rewards. The mere fact that an organisation is in a different space can, for some, be enormously liberating. Being away from the same faces and furniture can often free people to speak to each other with more candour and in a more relaxed style. When we are in the office, our colleagues may appear to us as little more than the job titles they possess. By seeing them in a new setting, we have the opportunity to find out more about them, and will very likely discover they possess talents and qualities that could be of great benefit to the team.

If reward is on the agenda, the place and the activities available at the location will often drive the programme of the day. City centre hotels have little to offer by way of team-building activities but provide a great base for a night out, whereas a costal venue can give that holiday vibe from the moment delegates step off the train and breathe in the fresh, sea air. Increasing numbers of farms and country estates have capitalised on the awayday opportunity by converting tithe barns and cow sheds into meeting rooms surrounded by lush countryside and babbling brooks, providing a wonderful antidote to the clinical office.

At the other end of the spectrum are the numerous dreadful roadside hotels, often staffed by disillusioned hospitality students in buildings built to a tight budget alongside the noise and smog of a motorway. Accessible they may be, but far from inspirational.

Having established where you will be and why you are there, your mind will naturally start to wander what you will do with these precious few hours. The most common mistake is to draw up a programme so full that it doesn't allow time for free-flowing conversation. Conversely, don't get caught by a plan so loose that people leave not knowing what has been achieved. Teams vary, and what might be a suitably paced programme for a group of corporate lawyers with sharp minds and short attention spans would not work for a team of charity workers whose passion for their subject deserves time for extended discussion.

If you decide to invite a guest speaker, be sure they are well briefed and, ideally, listen to them present prior to letting them loose on your group. Awaydays should be interactive and, no matter how amusing the guest's talk might be, don't let presentations hijack the discussion time. One speaker per day is enough for most groups and any more than one will inevitably lead to comparisons being made.

Another huge opportunity presented by having all of the team in the same place at the same time is to take part in some group learning or teambuilding. Teambuilding activities are best assessed based on their ratio of fun to learning. An activity like go-karting will be great fun but is unlikely to result in the team learning a great deal--other than there are some members of the group who shouldn't be let loose in company cars.

At the other end of the spectrum, and for some equally terrifying, are psychometric questionnaires. These can be exceptionally useful as they tend to highlight the preferences, values and behaviours of each team member and importantly demonstrate that, just because two team members are different, it doesn't mean that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. A word of caution, though: like any psychological intervention, these questionnaires should always be administered by qualified professionals and, if they are to have an impact on the team as a whole, it is vital that all of the team's results are clearly displayed for all to see. Three good and well-proven tools are the Strength Deployment Inventory, or SDI, Belbin and Insights.

A competent teambuilding provider should be able to advise on the most suitable activities for your group given their abilities and confidence, and your objectives.

Another important question when considering awaydays is frequency. For some, an ad hoc approach seems to suit their needs and culture, but all too often this results in the date never being set and the awayday being no more than a good intention. More structured groups, particularly those involved in large projects with a clear beginning and end, tend to adopt a policy of running awaydays on a quarterly or six-monthly basis.

One engineering team I worked with adopted the 100-day rule. Every 100 days they'd book a day off from the project to review progress, look ahead to the challenges of the next 100 days and take a couple of hours out to have some fun together without talking about the project. If this is leading you to conclude that once every 12 or 18 months is enough for your group, I'd urge you to think again, bearing in mind how many staff can come and go in the space of a year and that, if someone was to miss your next date due to illness, they could go three years without a day away from the daily grind.

People, like cars, need a service from time to time and teams are as complex as any engine; for that reason, if no other, they should occasionally be taken off the task and retuned.

To conclude, it's worth giving some thought to a follow-up. All too often, an awayday will generate numerous flipcharts of ideas, actions and promises that get folded up and left in the boot of a car. Sometimes they will be typed up, emailed around the office and left sitting in the recipients' inbox for a few weeks until they are despatched to a never-to-be opened file or the recycle bin. Obviously, ownership is essential if any of the actions or good intentions are to be followed up, and this ownership needs to be established on the awayday, with accountability shared across the team and led by the team leader.

Ultimately it's the leader who's to blame if the day doesn't lead to action, and this only reinforces the need for clear objectives from the outset.

So next time you're planning to take your team away for the day, choose a venue that underpins the message and include some time for play and free-flowing conversations--and, rather than fill a flip chart with good intentions you'll fail to keep, take along a camera and photograph some smiling faces. They'll be far more inspiring on the wall back at the office.

Dan Collins is the founder of teambuilding, motivational activities and event organiser Fresh Tracks. He can be contacted at 01920 822220 or by visiting
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Author:Collins, Dan
Publication:Training Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2007
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