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7 steps to a great team retreat


Team-building retreats leave your veterinary team stronger, happier, and more efficient. Here's your guide to planning one.

Regular team meetings are invaluable. For some practices, they’re the only chance team members have to weigh in on day-to-day operations. But while these weekly or monthly meetings are great for everyday issues, they leave little time for big-picture planning and serious team building. To tackle this deficit—and have some fun along the way—schedule your own practice retreat for team members and veterinarians to attend. To get you started, here are the seven steps I take to plan a daylong team retreat.

Step 1: Get the owner on board

To reap the rewards of a retreat, you first need to get the boss’s permission to hold one. When I first approached my boss, Dr. Mark Romain, he worried that a retreat meant closing the hospital for a day, losing patient revenue for that day, and spending money to hold the retreat itself.

Erase any doubt the practice owner may harbor by reminding him or her that team members are the hospital’s most valuable asset. Present a list of estimated costs; in our case, we budget $50 per person. Pick an educational or inspirational theme. Point out that team building pays off—literally. Connected and rejuvenated team members work together more effectively, which ultimately provides higher quality care and increased revenues.

Step 2: Pick a location

Ideally, you want to select a site outside the hospital to give everyone an opportunity to see each other in a different environment, but cost can be an issue. Some of our team’s retreats were more expensive than others, but a retreat doesn’t have to cost a lot. You can plan an event at the park or other free venues. If the budget is really tight, an in-hospital retreat can still be fun and rewarding. Be creative. Engage in fun activities and plan for a special lunch, even if it’s a potluck.

Step 3: Know your objective

Do you want to concentrate on goals for the hospital, team communication issues, or something else altogether? Our annual retreats focus mainly on team building. To drive that point home, I enlist team members to present parts of the retreat. Whatever your agenda, be sure to schedule time to set purpose-related goals. For example, talk about the vision for the hospital now and five years from now. Where do you want to be? What will it take to get there?

Step 4: Figure out the food

It’s hard to think on an empty stomach. Start the day with coffee, juice, fruit, and pastries. Besides keeping the staff alert, it lets them know that this is their day and all their efforts are appreciated. Plan for a light lunch as well. Again, if feeding team members stretches the retreat outside the budget, consider going low-cost or potluck.

Step 5: Break the ice

Remember that the retreat is for everyone. Doctors and team members alike should be able to relax and enjoy the shared time and opportunity to see each other in a new light. Plan some group activities to get the whole team involved. People are more inclined to contribute if they're having fun and are engaged. Tip: Divvy up groups ahead of time, pairing staff members who don’t typically work together.

Step 6: Think outside the box

At our retreats, we spend half the day playing fun games that bond team members and the other half team building and brainstorming. Try creating a wish list for the hospital. Some of the ideas will be crazy, unrealistic dreams we know we can never achieve—for instance, a hot tub on the roof. But the list will also include attainable goals that you may later achieve—laptops in every exam room, a digital radiography machine, or an extra dental scaler. Suggestions can become realities.

Step 7: Keep what you learned alive

You can carry the motivation from your retreat back to the practice by giving team members a memento at the end of the day. Tangible objects help to jog team members’ memories. For example, little tackle boxes from a retreat held at a local outdoor outfitters store helped staff continue to practice "fish" philosophy, adapted from a series of management books. The philosophy asks employees to choose their attitude, be present, "make their day," and play. A laminated card that says "Choose your attitude" reminds team members who are having a bad day that it's in their power to change.

Need some more examples of retreat themes? Check out this photo gallery for some of my favorite past retreats.

Nancy Potter is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and the practice manager at Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kan. Please send comments to firstline@advanstar.com.

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