The Advance

Design thinking rescues offsite from COVID

By Wendy Nyx
Beautiful rock formations at Red Rocks Park in Colorado.

Every year we hold an offsite. Some people call it a retreat, but being the smart asses we are, we decided to call it an Advance. We don’t retreat; we move forward!

Early in 2020, we decided it’d be in San Diego. Most of us live in Southern California, so our Advances are usually around here. Chris wanted to see a music band there, so we planned the Advance around that music event. We started working on the agenda and doing virtual reconnaissance on the places where we could set up camp for a couple of hours at a time. It was all coming together until…you guessed it, SARS-CoV-2 and its arrival to the US.

Offsite going virtual

Needless to say, the pandemic threw a wrench into planning the Advance. We couldn’t get together in person, and air travel was out of the question. At first, we postponed it, thinking there would be a way to do it in person, but after months of the stay-at-home order, we decided to go ahead and have it virtually.

As it is, we are in front of the computer day in and day out. The thought of us spending an entire day on a video conference at our desk was dreadful, the opposite of the joy and excitement we feel during our yearly get-togethers. For example, one year, we went to the LA Zoo and watched the animals (or were they watching us?) as we conjured our list of dream clients. Another time we hiked up Kenneth Hahn Park’s trails while designing an online source for inspiration in our heads. The Metro E Line took us to Exposition Park, stopping at the Natural History Museum’s dioramas and reviewing our financials. And another time, the ancient statues of Rome and Greece tried to hide from us at the Getty Villa while trying to decipher the riddles from our “Fun Activity.” So we wanted to keep the vibe going.

Mind over virtual matter

So, how might we create the same exploration, connection, and creativity of previous Advances? Fueled by the wish to be away from our desks to have an adventure, we put on our design-thinking hats to find the answer. We held self-empathy in our hearts and let our desires rise. We wanted:

  • To feel connected as if we were in the same physical space
  • To be outdoors
  • To have a sense of adventure and exploration
  • To evade the invisible virus
  • To feel inspired

The solution seemed to fall out of my mouth: “Why don’t we go wherever we would like to hold the Advance…each one of us? That way, we could all be surrounded by whatever inspires us most!”

Thinking outside the cubicle

The following week we each spent some time researching places nearby that met our collective and individual criteria. The locations had to be inspiring. It was essential to make sure we had good phone reception and, better yet, if we could have enough bandwidth to send or post photos to our channel. We had fun coming up with options, taking a drive on the weekend, exploring new places, and imagining the team there with us as holographic beings.

Bridge in Japanese Garden in Lake Balboa, California

Concurrently we planned the agenda to include some new items of interest. And we were being mindful of allowing time between items for us to move around for a change in scenery. It looked like it might work.

Fresh air, at last

On the day of the Advance, masked-face, and journal in hand, we each felt inspired by our own surroundings and still connected. The places we picked were either remote or had almost nobody around since it was on a Monday. Since we all wore earbuds, we felt close to each other despite being apart (literally, we were in each others’ heads)! We talked about the important things at a personal and business level – there was room for both. We took turns jotting items down as each one of us led a specific item from the agenda.

A homemade tree swing in Malibu, California

During our “Fun Activity,” we got off the call and did a scavenger hunt taking pictures of things that represented:

  • Something we each want more of in our personal life or business
  • Something we each want less of in our personal life or business
  • Something that captures the essence of the place and time

It worked like a charm

I’m not sure if it was because we were away from our desks or the excitement of finally holding the Advance, but it was one of the best we’ve had so far. Ok, yes, the year we went to Ojai, and two crazy people jumped in the freezing waters of the pool late at night was fun, but this one had a different essence. Everything flowed: our ideas, the conversations, the weather, it was effortless. We got deep into what we want to do as people, co-workers, and members of society. How will our work and our relationships make an impact? How can we take better care of our company and simultaneously make sure it takes care of us?

Go for it, be brave

If you are part of your organization’s leadership and don’t think a virtual offsite will work, go ahead, fill yourself with courage, and explore what is possible. Ask for ideas from members of your team. Create a virtual whiteboard so that people can put up their thoughts. Hold a virtual happy hour and put the question out there. Or even search the interweb and see what others have done. You won’t know what is possible until you start looking behind the fears and doubts. My guess is you’ll come up with something perfect if it is aligned with your company.

If you have any thoughts or ideas on how to hold a virtual offsite, or you’d like to share what happened at one of yours, please do leave me a note. I also take questions; yes, you in the back, what’s up?