When I was the chief marketing officer at Deloitte & Touche, we would have our annual leadership off-site in Las Vegas or Orlando. I remember people practicing their presentations far into the night, and the next day we'd sit for hours in uncomfortable chairs in a huge hotel ballroom, listening to speaker after speaker talk about the future of business.
Looking back at those meetings, I have to wonder: Were they truly effective?
Today, I am convinced that videoconferencing and other virtual technologies give us a much better way to conduct strategic off-sites, global pandemic or not. “We’re at the convergence of a social trend and a technology trend that is fueling a change,” says Mike Clementi, executive Vice President of Human Resources for Unilever, which has pioneered remote conferences among their 155,000 employees worldwide. Even before social distancing orders, flexible work-from-home schedules were on the rise, and technology such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, facilitated those options. COVID-19 has acted as an accelerator, says Clementi.
But many companies are failing to harness that potential and instead they’re hosting confusing, boring, or just plain laughable attempts at simulating the off-site environment, when they could be consciously leveraging virtual capabilities to overcome the shortcomings of a physical setting and vastly improve the process. The result: A virtual experience superior to the “real thing.” Why? Because it elicits honest feedback, encourages candid pushback, and, eventually, obtains true buy-in from the entire organization.
The Ferrazzi Greenlight Research Institute has interviewed dozens of people about this, and we've come up with a formula that works.
Let's start by remembering why companies have strategic off-sites in the first place. The overall goal is to figure out the best strategy for a business, a process that can be broken into five major steps, each of which can be performed better in a virtual environment:
- Communicate candor, strategy, direction, and issues of importance
- Engage the broader organization for feedback
- Finalize strategy and build consensus
- Cascade strategy to the fabric of the company
- Motivate employees
Communicate: “I would call it physical distancing not social distancing,” says Clementi, reflecting on the great lengths our society is taking to halt the spread of COVID-19. “Human beings are social creatures and will find a way to be social.” To that end, he sings the praises of efforts to connect virtual off-site participants via remote happy hours, 15-minute social breaks, and the like. At Ferrazzi Greenlight, we have led remote teams in a powerful practice called the Personal-Professional check-in, which encourages people to candidly share what’s on their minds. In the virtual space, not only are you hearing directly from people you may otherwise have never met, but you're seeing them more relaxed in their home environment. “It just humanizes what is otherwise a production," says Clementi.
The social connection is an important part of why people attended offsite in the first place, but the other major draw is, of course, the content. Here, too, technology offers innovative solutions to teams bold enough to experiment. In a virtual environment, managers can communicate in multiple forms, utilizing everything from prepared remarks to video and multimedia presentations. Another advantage is greater inclusion: Managers can invite many more individuals to participate in the virtual off-site because of the low cost of adding people. And unlike a traditional off-site—where a handful of executives must translate and relay important information to the field—everyone will hear the exact same story with the same urgency. Unilever has been experimenting with a polling app that allows all attendees to pose questions before or during presentations, which are then ranked by popularity. Imagine trying to get that level of communication to occur at a co-located event.
Engage: In many traditional off-sites, executives ask for honest feedback, but in a one-to-many format that serves mostly to push through their agendas and create the appearance of buy-in.
One of the beauties of a virtual off-site is that the agenda can be separated out and conducted during shorter sessions spaced out over weeks. “Our experience at Unilever is that you boil [remote events] down to shorter, sharper pieces,” says Clementi. This allows each business unit enough time to evaluate a proposal and respond with the unvarnished truth about any potential obstacles. Everyone can participate, and the top leadership will get a better feel for the real challenges from all angles and levels. Also, as good ideas bubble up from participants in each relevant department, management will learn who the truly innovative and insightful employees are, even if they might be buried deep in the organization.
Finalize: After receiving honest and thoughtful feedback, executives have the transparent communication channels they used before to respond with: ”We heard you. Here’s the input that we’re incorporating into our strategy; here's what needs further investigation; and here's what we're rejecting and why.” Meeting platforms from Microsoft, Google and others can house the event livestream, leadership responses, and associated documents. Such transparency and candor as the strategy is being modified and finalized can go a long way to building true consensus for the final strategic initiative.
Cascade: Now comes the work of turning strategy into action, often left for after the off-site without sufficient attention given to it. But the “out of sight, out of mind” excuse doesn't hold water anymore. “You don’t have to have a ‘see ya next year’ moment,” in a virtual off-site notes Clementi. Instead, you can build feedback and brainstorming sessions into your virtual off-site series.
The goal is to cascade the strategy throughout the organization and encourage employees to suggest ways they could best contribute to that strategy. A friendly competition could even reward the business unit that comes up with the best plan for implementation, engaging employees, and helping them own the new initiative.
Motivate: During off-site sessions, the company could recognize the teams and individuals with awards like: ”Most Innovative Implementation Plan” “Most Valuable Feedback” and so forth. While the old tendency may have been to wait for a time to laud employees in person, via a special banquet or lunch, virtual alternatives have the benefit of being immediately feasible and highly visible. “It’s as much about the recognition, in many cases, as it is about the reward,” says Clementi. While praise is a valuable tool, it has a short shelf-life, and real-time recognition and positive feedback may go much further in motivating an employee than the promise of a party at some TBD date.
Make no mistake, the traditional off-sites of the past had many drawbacks. They tended to be well-orchestrated gatherings conducted mostly for show; the important decisions were usually made weeks prior by a small cadre of executives, devoid of meaningful feedback. Unsurprisingly, all that planning and effort often resulted in unoriginal strategies that failed to muster company-wide enthusiasm. Of themselves, virtual off-sites are not different if the model isn’t updated as well.
But as Clementi observed, the circumstances of COVID-19 have accelerated the convergences of social needs, flexibility, candor, transparency, and simplicity with advances in technology and infrastructure. Organizations now have the opportunity to profoundly re-invent their leadership events to seize on these trends and capabilities, creating convenient, engaging sessions that lead to a finely tuned strategy welcomed throughout the company. In fact, our future challenge may be modeling our in-person gatherings after the dynamic, insightful work happening in the virtual realm.
“There will be a need for people to get together for [certain events] and a need to connect on a more intimate level will always continue, but now there is a force allowing people to make a more conscious choice between what content should be face-to-face and what content should be delivered remotely,” says Clementi. “I welcome that.”