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by Norm Happ | July 27, 2018

norm evernoteAt Evernote, I oversee more than 100 people on teams all around the world. From Texas to Tokyo, the way we communicate with each other is critical for our continued success. For global or remote teams, I’ve found that holding off-site meetings is the best way to foster teamwork, encourage creativity and bolster comradery. An off-site provides an opportunity for teams to change ineffective patterns and sustain new ways of communicating, and it gives new team members the opportunity to build relationships with their colleagues around the world. Taking people out of the office environment can help them transform their mindsets, pull back from the daily grind and reconnect with their key partners and colleagues.
 
Off-sites, however, can be tricky — and expensive and time-consuming — if not planned well. When teams assemble, having a very specific intention and plan in place helps guide the event along and makes for a (relatively) stress-free productive experience.
 
Among the first steps is choosing the location. I prefer selecting a city where our company has an office, so we can engage the local site while mitigating travel and venue-related costs. If there is not enough office room to create comfortable working conditions for the group over multiple days, try venue-sourcing options like Breather or WeWork. If you can hold the off-site in a city where your company has an office, encourage the attendees to consider themselves foreign ambassadors. Leaders from different locations and functions have so much to share with a host site. For the local employees, it’s an ideal opportunity to welcome those traveling with open arms and share the local work product with the visitors.
 
My extended leadership team of about 21 people meets in person for a two-day off-site once every quarter. The off-site focus tends to dictate the participants list, with a select team of direct and cross-functional attendees. In my years of planning these events, I’ve found that the average sweet spot for off-sites is 15 attendees. It’s important to the success of the session that everyone contributes actively. As groups get too large, some people lose their confidence to openly participate, and the role of the facilitator becomes more challenging.
 
Based upon the quarter of the year, we have a specific theme that is contextually relevant to our annual strategy and planning process. This coming quarter, our theme is Strategy, a standard for Q3, ensuring that we measure the effectiveness of our annual strategy for business performance. The final off-site of the year will occur in Q4, focused on our 2019 planning. Q1 will be focused on evaluating the results so far and tweaking the plan, and Q2 will be about adjusting the plan further.
 
Well before the event, build a skeleton of the agenda and share it with the core planning team. To maximize the impact, we develop content in advance, and attendees are expected to review the material before they arrive. This approach lets us focus on debate and discussion vs. a march through hundreds of presentation slides.
 
We reserve the first half of the first day of the off-site for team building — getting to know each other, catching up and reflecting on the past three months. Start an off-site with a “what does success look like?” brainstorm, adding each person’s contribution on a flip chart. The first afternoon is for collaborating and discussing topics applicable to our part of the business. As the day draws to a close, it’s worthwhile to review the success indicators as a group, to ensure your progress is aligned with what people wanted as they kicked off the day. At the ideal off-site, the information is beneficial to everyone in attendance.
 
I’ve found that the most productive meetings are laptop-free zones where we use flip charts and whiteboards instead. We provide paper notebooks for each of our attendees and encourage people to take handwritten notes to avoid electronic distractions. Leave the email checking and phone calls to breaks (they will be there when you return) to ensure you’re 100 percent focused on the topics at hand. We debate various topics and devise concrete action items, typically spending one-third of the time looking back on past achievements and failures and two-thirds preparing for the future. If we get off-topic and start discussing something that doesn’t tie to the larger theme of the day or doesn’t apply to everyone in attendance, we write it in the “Parking Lot” section of a whiteboard, as something to revisit another time with the group that it concerns.
 
Outside of core meetings, we encourage “ride alongs” with the local sales, customer success and support reps, so that off-site attendees — especially those from far-flung global offices -- have an opportunity to engage with other departments and see what they do all day, which can be inspiring and insightful. We’ve had executives sit in on sales calls to observe the team, hear customer feedback directly and open the floor to questions on both sides. It helps us all do a better job of sharing and communicating knowledge with each other. We’re often so tuned into our own tasks and responsibilities that stepping back and observing other moving parts helps us with our own ability to perform.
 
In conjunction with witnessing others do their jobs, if you’re managing people and leading the off-site, take time to step back. Find a facilitator to take your place so you can play a participatory role. This shakes up the dynamics of the group and lets conversation patterns shift. It also might allow for others to speak up.
 
All work and no play isn’t fun for anyone, though. Wrapping up after a day or two of meetings with dinner or a happy hour is a great way to catch up on the things that really matter in our lives: families, travel plans, hobbies and anything else that happens when we’re not sitting at a desk. Going out to dinner is a great way to wrap up the day and celebrate your productive teamwork. I make sure that everyone sits with people they don’t necessarily work with, to invite unique conversations and topics into the fold. Shake it up, if you can — we’ve seen that bowling, axe throwing or an improv comedy class can put people in a great mood, build deeper bonds and push everyone outside of their comfort zones.
 
With off-site meetings, teams go in with great ambitions, but people are usually exhausted by the end of the day. Sometimes, you may find that only about 60 percent of what you hoped to tackle is achieved. Don’t stress about it; the team bonding and clarity in direction is invaluable and sets the tone for the time spent apart until you get together again.
 
In the interim, keep the momentum going by outlining action items and a clear operating plan with pre-scheduled follow-up meetings. Setting up a collaborative place online for everyone to drop in their notes and share decks from every session is helpful for reference and to fill in any blanks (we do this in Evernote Spaces, of course). It’s interesting to see how everyone’s notes vary, illustrating how the exact same content can result in different perspectives and takeaways. Most importantly, at the close of the off-site, ask the attendees for feedback to ensure that every quarterly meeting is better than the last.
 
Norm Happ is senior vice president of sales, partnerships and customer support, at Evernote. He previously held leadership positions at companies including Intuit and H&R Block.