How to have a team retreat – without leaving the house

Lab COO Rebecca Sumner Smith shares our experience of recreating a team retreat when we weren’t able to meet up in-person last year. This blog originally appeared on Civil Society Media.

Like many charities, our organisation doesn’t look much like it did twelve months ago. Where we previously worked together in our London office, our team is now spread across the UK from Reigate to Oxford to Glasgow.

In this context, the idea of a team away day or retreat (via Zoom!) sounded hellish – and yet we felt it was still needed. We therefore took the opportunity to experiment with the new format, with positive results. Here’s a few ideas you might like to try:

Make it personal

A retreat needs supplies, so we assembled and posted a surprise pack for each of the team, with items wrapped by session. It mostly included things we would use in any off-site – notebooks, post-it notes, treats for a social – but it added to the sense this was ‘different’ time, and injected some fun to the start of each session as people unwrapped that day’s item. The fact the team still refers to them as ‘gifts’ says a lot about how these were received!

Communicate differently

We realised early in the pandemic that video calls require a different kind of communication. Inspired by this article we created – and continue to evolve – our approach, like using finger wiggles for agreement, or going around the screen for comments to ensure all voices are heard (rather than waiting for input popcorn style) but encouraging a ‘pass’ or ‘pass for now’ for those still thinking or with nothing to add. The whole team are helping build this new language. It really helps!

Get creative

Our meetings always start with a ‘check-in’ and end with a ‘check-out’, with all team members taking a turn to lead. These are all the more essential now we’re working remotely. These can range from a simple ‘what are you hoping to get from the session?’ to ‘please mime the type of fruit which best represents how you are feeling about the coming year’. Often – and more so since COVID-19 – they’ll be physical; stretching, or even dancing. As long as it’s inclusive, anything goes. A check-in related to the topic ahead works best, giving the facilitator a sense of how people are showing up, and helping focus people towards the session goals in a creative way.

Take your time

In our November retreat, we spread our usual two days across two weeks, with four sessions of two to three hours per week. Both weeks started with a Monday morning walk. It felt different – and positive. We built in more time for ‘settling in’, which we used for the check-in and also for that general chit-chat we’re all so sorely missing in this virtual world. We used existing team meeting time where possible, to avoid it feeling like an added burden, and also scheduled a social in each week – the second of which included the board.

Mix it up

Zoom fatigue is not inevitable. In a non-video retreat we would mix up session formats, and we made a big effort to do so during our virtual retreat, too. Pairs walks (by phone), group- and pair-work in breakout rooms, and off-camera solo work were all part of the agenda.

These are just a few of things we have tried, and which have helped us thrive whilst coping with a global emergency (and working from home).  At heart, we’re simply acknowledging that on-screen meetings can’t be approached in the same way as those held face-to-face, and trusting the team to co-create a new way of working which supports our differing needs as individuals.

What will you try in your organisation?

To share your ideas with Rebecca, contact her at