One of our core responsibilities as product managers is to run experiments to validate assumptions that may be risky—and it’s understood that the more time we invest upfront to define an effective experiment, the better the experiment. 

The same philosophy is true of team off-sites. I’ve found that the more planning and thinking I put toward team off-sites, the more in tune I am with what my team needs, and the better the experience for everyone. I’m doubly convinced of this after a year of leading a distributed team during a global pandemic—off-sites are powerful tools for alignment, planning, and most importantly, team-building. 

Here are some of the strategies I use when planning these important, outside the day-to-day moments to think and bond with my team:

Make sure there is a purpose

Off-site planning always begins when we determine a need for it. While I could make the case that they should happen quarterly along with our regular cadence of planning, I’ve learned that the need doesn’t always map to a calendar. There are times I sense that my team needs to get out of the weeds and into a “room” together. Sometimes it’s after org changes or new people have joined; sometimes it’s after a massive launch or when we have a new set of priorities from our executive team. As a leader, you should start planning your off-site when it’s clear you have something to accomplish as a team.

Think of the off-site as a product

I like to plan my team’s off-sites like I do my products—by imagining the experience I want each individual to have alongside the outcome I hope for the team as a whole. When I’m intentional about the activities we do as a team, the speakers we invite, the goals we set, how we engage and involve team members, I’m modeling how I want them to approach their work. I want my team to understand there are things you just can’t wing—we need to be intentional in how we build, and how we bond and plan. 

Make it personal

I used to approach off-sites as 70% about the work, and 30% about the personal connection. During COVID times, that flip-flopped. If we’re going to be in the trenches and working hard together, then I want my team to think, “Thank goodness I work with fantastic people, and thank goodness we have each other.” One of my favorite activities over the last year has been a journey line exercise, where we plot our own paths and share our “why”. The team has been energized learning more about each other—I’m now convinced the most transformation for our product happens after we’ve invested the time getting to know each other. 

Another important component of our off-sites is recognition. We recently created a trophy to highlight a product person of the quarter. This person is chosen by colleagues, not me. Without the little moments of validation that seemed to happen naturally when we sat together in an office, it has meant a lot for people to be celebrated and spotlighted for their work. I’ve noticed a sense of pride in knowing that the recognition came from the team. 

Change up the format

This may feel like a no-brainer considering the Zoom fatigue we’ve all felt this past year. But I want to stress the importance of designing a virtual team experience that leaves people with energy and momentum. My team spaces our off-site out over a couple of weeks. We prioritize team-building first, which gets everyone excited to work together on the more intense product strategy work that happens a week or two later. That second session is more focused and productive after we’ve fostered a sense of belonging on the team, and then taken a break.

We’ve also learned to prioritize team initiatives alongside the business objectives. That insight came during a recent team connection workshop. Our first project is to build a more organized product team onboarding experience. That’s since become a functional goal tied to a business outcome, and it’s one the whole team has rallied around.

It is no coincidence that our team is operating well, engagement is high, and eNPS is up. When we invest the time and planning to get together and have really great discussions, empathy increases and we are more effective working together as a team.

Ready to plan your next team off-site? Check out our new workshop series based on The Product-Led Organization. Get your free box of materials here.

About the Author

Brian Crofts is the Chief Product Officer of Pendo. Before Pendo, Brian spent 12 years as a product leader at Intuit, where he managed several successful products in both QuickBooks and Tax and contributed to the company's global expansion efforts worldwide.