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Community Contribution

What happens to your in-person annual team retreat during COVID-19?

Apr 21, 2020
Molly Chen, Meagan Meekins, Rajeev Colaço

Group of six smiling people 

This blog is a response to our invitation to reflect on how this community is using CLA approaches to respond to COVID-19. We’d love to hear from you, too! To add a blog, click here and select “Add a Blog” in the blue bar.

We’re part of the Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, Learning and Adapting team in RTI’s global health division. Our six-person team is accustomed to using Zoom, which has been a saving grace during COVID-19. Split between Durham, NC, Washington D.C. and Atlanta, connecting weekly through Zoom to discuss projects and proposals and catch up with one another was the norm pre-pandemic.

However, once a year we come together for our much beloved team retreat to discuss our strategies and plans for the coming year. We schedule two straight days for the retreat and try our best to sequester ourselves into a conference room, focusing on strategy and goals for the next year. And we have a lot of fun! This year we had scheduled our retreat for April 21st and 22nd.

At the beginning of March, the signs started to show – “let’s hold off on buying plane tickets” became “well maybe we could all drive to North Carolina” and quickly ended as postponed indefinitely.

We realized that there was a clear need for group discussions as we try to sort out our roles in the time of COVID-19, not to mention the need for a revitalized team strategy. However, we had never conducted these in-depth discussions virtually. Many of us felt that more intensive and complex discussions needed to be held in-person to be meaningful.  

With the impact of COVID-19 on our current working environment, and our issues as present as ever, we decided to shift to a series of virtual “mini-retreats.” These have taken the form of two-hour blocks where we focus on one topic area at a time and seek to end the discussion with actionable takeaways. So far, we have been pleasantly surprised! Here are a few benefits of the “mini-retreat” that have been unexpected:

  • Less exhaustion Going through two whole days of intense conversation can wear team members out and make it hard to get through day two. Now we can stay focused for the whole two-hour discussion.
  • More concise discussion – With shorter time increments, we must get through our agenda items in the amount of time we’ve allotted. No going over into the next hour, because there is no next hour for another two weeks!
  • Honest conversation – Even without being there to assure each other in person, we’ve been able to have tough conversations without them being overly contentious. We have well established relationships, and trust each other, and recognize that this helps when having complex and difficult discussions virtually.
  • No disruptions Have you ever tried to block off two days for meetings? We’ve had many problems in the past with keeping all six team members in our retreat for the entire time, due to  many competing priorities. Two hours every two weeks is much more feasible for all six of us to commit to.
  • Surprise guests As many others are experiencing, the new co-workers in our life (partners, children, pets) like to stop by and make guest appearances on Zoom. This is a welcome change as we’ve gotten to connect with our coworker’s lives more than ever!

So far, we’ve enjoyed our mini-retreat series. That’s not to say the in-person retreats are gone forever; but for meaningful check-ins between retreats, or in moments where budget consciousness is more important, our COVID-19 adaptation has become a valuable alternative!