NACA BLOG - 5 Steps to Planning a Virtual Retreat - 6/5/2020
5 Steps to Planning a Virtual Retreat

June 5, 2020
Brynne Wyatt & Nikki Williamson
University of Miami (FL)

Hurricane Productions (HP), the University of Miami's largest programming board, hosts a 3-day overnight retreat each year to onboard the new leaders of its seven committees. This immersive experience typically includes more than 22 hours of in-person education, development, and team building to prepare these students for the more than 200 events their committees will host during the year.

However, with the move to virtual learning in the wake of COVID-19, HP and our advising team took on the challenge of transitioning our retreat to a 12-hour online, virtual experience.

Below are five steps to consider if your team makes the switch.

1. Prepare

Before we even developed our plan, we spent time with our outgoing and incoming chairs to review our normal agenda to sift through what was important and identify what would not be digestible in this online format. Our advising team then spent several hours brainstorming the true purpose of a retreat and how we can maintain those outcomes in a virtual experience.

We relied on our network of #SApros across the country who are experts in technology for student training. Due to their expertise, we began preparing helpful resources and solidifying logistics to make this virtual experience a success. Once we assessed the situation, evaluated our needs, and collected our toolbox of resources, we began to shape the virtual retreat experience.

2. Innovate

To keep our retreat focused, we identified content the students needed to know right now and what could be taught later in the summer or fall. Based on student feedback, we aimed to deliver content that accounted for many different learning styles and our new virtual landscape.

We created a shared Box folder for all students to access the content library throughout the retreat and to refer to after the retreat was over. In addition to serving as a resource for our executive board members, this library could be shared by our committee chairs when training their members. To develop this library, we gathered our own resource documents, reached out to campus partners to help create/teach content (ex. Reservations team made a video on how to create a reservation and event policies), and asked outgoing executive members to create a video for peer-to-peer learning.

To keep students engaged, we used a variety of digital tools including:

  • Zoom's "Breakout Rooms" for small group discussions, its "Whiteboard" feature for brainstorming sessions, and the "Need a Break" option to passively gauge how students were doing
  • "Spin the Wheel" for icebreakers and dialogue to add fun and excitement (
  • Digital worksheets for students to complete during sessions
  • Our board's GroupMe for scheduling reminders, fun updates, and social engagement throughout the retreat

3. Adapt

Since we recognized that providing authentic opportunities for team building would be difficult in our virtual environment, we focused our content on education and getting the new board comfortable working with each other. We also knew we were unable to provide all the necessary content in an abbreviated time, so we made the commitment to continue our board's development throughout summer and into fall using a digital library of videos, worksheets, Zoom meetings, and presentations.

Although we had set time blocks for each session, they were not shared with our students so that we could remain flexible as the retreat unfolded. Not too surprisingly, our students sometimes wanted to spend more time on some topics than we had originally planned. Especially in a remote environment, we felt these important discussions created the intergroup connectivity that we were unable to replicate since we had to remove traditional team building activities. As sessions went over the allotted time, we worked behind the scenes to revise our agenda and edit content to reflect the board's real-time needs. 

We remained conscious of the physical and mental toll that 12 hours of Zoom can have on a person. We scheduled intentional breaks throughout the two days and added a few spontaneous ones based on students' needs and energy levels. We also utilized the board's GroupMe as a tool to continue group connectivity during the breaks. For example, students would post photos of what they were having for lunch and break activities.

4. Assess

We created a pre- and post-retreat survey that asked a reflection question on each retreat topic. The results of these surveys identified the topics the students will need additional training and education on during summer and fall. From our assessment data, this virtual retreat led to a 29 percent growth in our students' overall knowledge of the information covered. Additionally, we have identified several categories to add to our virtual library, such as program assessment and evaluation.

5. Look Ahead

Since the retreat, our advising team and board leadership have continued to check in on students through individual conversations and our board's GroupMe. To promote self-care, we made it clear that our students' terms do not start now, and their focus should be on finishing classes and life at home. To support this mandate, our advising team implemented a one-month break from Zoom and HP involvements.

After the break, our board has committed to meeting monthly throughout the summer which will include continued education, development, and an added emphasis on team building. Our advising team will be updating our content library with bi-weekly videos and resources for students to access throughout the summer and into academic year. Our advising team will offer additional one-on-one support during summer as requested by our students.

As demonstrated by our assessment data and positive student feedback, our virtual retreat was a success because students remained our focus. Every activity, presentation, and video intentionally met the needs of our students. While the past two months of virtual learning have not been ideal, they forced us get creative and develop new practices that may become the norm. We are eager to see our students use the toolkits and digital library and are excited to work with our new executive board in this unique landscape.

Brynne Wyatt is the assistant director for Student Activities and Student Organizations at the University of Miami. She currently serves as the Volunteer Development Coordinator for the 2020 NACA South Regional Conference Program Committee. 

Nikki Williamson is the associate director for Student Activities and Student Organizations at the University of Miami. She has been a NACA member for six years.

Related Professional Competencies: Training, Technology, and Relationship Development

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