• Kevin Nourse, PhD

Leadership Retreats in the Era of COVID

Leadership retreats have traditionally provided valuable opportunities to build relationships and trust, share insights, advance organizational change priorities, and reinforce corporate culture. When conducted at the end of a fiscal or calendar year, they provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on achievements and lessons learned and set clear intentions for a new year. With the magnitude of changes many leaders currently face in the new normal triggered by COVID, there has never been a more critical time to bring leaders together to align on a vision for the future and share insights from the past six months.


These realities beg the question: How can organizations conduct leadership retreats that create value using a virtual platform?  

In this blog post, I share my observations on five key challenges organizations face in conducting virtual retreats and mitigation strategies to ensure success.

Challenge #1: Death by passivity

Whether conducted in-person or via Zoom, many leadership retreats fail because participants are overwhelmed by the amount of content introduced without any interactivity. In many instances, organizers fear drives them to pack retreat agendas with too much material. When they begin to run out of time, presenters begin to speak even faster and eliminate opportunities to interact with the audience. To address this:

  • Review the presentations proposed by each speaker to make sure they have built interactivity into their talks; aim for every 6-8 minutes using such features as a chat, poll, whiteboard, or breakout groups. 

  • Be ruthlessly honest when reviewing the program design in terms of realistic time allocations of each segment.

  • Provide opportunities for regular breaks after 90-minute parts of the content and informal breaks as needed, such as inviting everyone to stand up and stretch. 

  • Avoid using a monotone voice that can lull people to sleep; consider standing when you facilitate or present and use your hands naturally to inject more energy and vocal variety.

  • For a multi-day retreat, poll participants at the end of the first day to determine if there is enough interactivity.

  • Invite participants to turn off their video cameras – not only does this reduce the bandwidth needed for the session, but it also reduces the exhaustion participants might experience.

Challenge #2: Frustrations of Zoom-newbies

Many new Zoom users get frustrated when a leadership retreat begins, and they are unsure how to use the software features. This frustration can spill over and lead them to disengage from the retreat content. Consider:

  • Orienting new Zoom users on how to use software features before the start of the retreat

  • Explaining to participants how to maximize their participation such as using a workstation (versus a PDA or cell phone), printing the materials in advance, and joining the session in a location that is quiet and has a powerful WIFI signal.

  • Inviting participants to sign-on 15-20 minutes early to work through any technical issues, especially audio.

  • Polling your group in advance to find out who has experience or skill in using Zoom.

Challenge #3: Technical snafus, poor sound, and lighting 

Producing a polished, well-facilitated virtual retreat with sufficient lighting and audio can significantly impact whether you achieve your envisioned outcomes. Early in the pandemic this spring, Zoom session participants were much more forgiving of technical snafus since many were still learning how to use it. However, as Zoom has become more commonplace, expectations of a well-produced session have become higher. To prevent technical snafus:

  • If you are the facilitator starting the Zoom session, consider hardwiring your system to a network instead of using a WIFI.

  • Each session should have a producer running the meeting and managing the technology, enabling a subject-matter expert to focus on content delivery.

  • Be sure to do dry runs if you’ve never used specific Zoom features, such as breakout groups or whiteboards.

  • Ensure you have adequate security, including passcodes.

  • Test both the audio and lighting for presenters to ensure higher quality communication. 

Challenge #4: Lack of relevance, organization, and flow

With in-person retreats, it is much easier to spontaneously adapt the program in the moment. On the other hand, successful online retreats typically need much more preparation. The lack of significance for participants can result in disengagement, frustration, and wasted resources. To build relevance:

  • Conduct focus groups to gather input from selected participants about their challenges, envisioned outcomes for the retreat, and logistical issues or concerns.

  • Poll front-line staff to gather their feedback on issues that limit their ability to perform their roles or perspectives on how well the leadership team collaborates; use this information in the retreat to improve overall organizational functioning.

  • Clarify both the retreat objectives or outcomes and the detailed design for each segment, including the start and end time, the speaker, and interactive activities.

  • Consider using a time-bound approach that addresses and explores past accomplishments, present realities, and plans or goals for the future.

  • Poll the group periodically to assess how well the session are meeting their needs and addressing the stated objectives.  

Challenge #5: Lack of real-time human connection

One of the most significant benefits of an in-person retreat is the ease of access to colleagues for spontaneous relationship building. However, there are strategies you can use to inject human connection in a Zoom retreat, such as:

  • Conduct icebreakers throughout the retreat in breakout groups of 4-5 people to give everyone a chance to engage; provide some powerful open-ended questions to guide the conversations.

  • Poll the group at various intervals to learn more about participants and their backgrounds (e.g., tenure, title, college degrees, etc.)  

  • Invite participants to share a personal artifact near their workstation on video, such as a photograph, paperweight, or diploma.

  • Schedule an informal, unstructured happy hour as the final session and invite participants to breakout groups for networking and relationship building.  

  • Enable participants to customize their Zoom name to reflect their role, location, pet name or other descriptive information (e.g., “Kevin – Palm Springs”).

Virtual leadership retreats that focus on building alignment, clarity, and trust are more critical than ever given the uncertainties many organizations face in the COVID pandemic. Through preparation and purposeful design of the agenda, interactivity, organizations can achieve a substantial return on the investment of time and resources. 

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2020 Kevin Nourse

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