Retreating in Residence Life: A Tradition Worth Keeping?

When you hear the word retreat, what comes to mind?  For me, it’s statements like, “Lets start with an icebreaker,” “Everyone say your name, title, and what you do,” and “What is a fun or little known fact about you?” It’s traveling to a near or far location and blocking off your calendar.  It’s sharing space with people you may barely see with the hopes of working through topics to set us up for a successful year.

In Residence Life, we utilize retreats particularly when it’s time for department-wide training or preparing for the next academic year.  But what purpose do they serve and are we actually achieving our goals?  From what I have seen, we spend valuable time engaging in activities unrelated to the purpose of the retreat in order to prime folks to work together.  However, since our work rarely stops, folks are prone to distractions be it by a phone call they have to take or an email that requires their immediate attention. When we eventually shift to addressing work-related topics, silence or “safe” responses are commonplace if the departmental culture feels stifled or unsupportive. And by the end of the day, we likely have semi-complete lists of reflections and brainstorms that scratch the surface of a topic, but lack action steps on what to do going forward and go unreferenced until the next retreat.

These observations give way to the following questions:

  • Is value added by going on retreats? If so, in which areas do we see the benefit?
  • Are we retreating from the work, or work itself? 
  • Is the time, energy, and money spent on pulling a group of folks together outside of their normal work environment getting us closer to our goals?

I surmise that retreats still hold value beyond their ceremonious place in our toolkit as student affairs practitioners, but not without some consideration for what it takes to create a productive, meaningful, and engaging environment. Below are 3 areas of focus to set yourself up with success.

Determine Y(our) Purpose

As simple as it sounds, starting with the “why” when planning an experience is a great way to keep your efforts grounded in pursuit of your end goal. Perhaps your department has hired a batch of new employees and you observe relationships are superficial or non-existent. Maybe you need to review or create new policies, procedures, and training to support the day-to-day functions but your standing meetings can’t accommodate such a heavy lift.  Or it could be that your team has worked really hard this year and you want to create time and space to recognize one another and recharge before starting a new year. Whatever the reason, provided that a need exists for a group of people to come together, a retreat stands as a useful mechanism to do just that.  But if it’s so simple, why do we end up spending a whole day or days together and sometimes feeling the time was wasted or better spent elsewhere?  Oftentimes, the answer lies in who is planning it.

In my experience, retreats have fallen to a member of upper leadership or a committee or people to pull off for the rest of the department.  While not a bad idea, leaving a small body to determine the needs for a full department runs the risk of missing the mark unless input is solicited.  What might this look like?  Well, we start with another simple answer, a survey!  Asking the members of your organization what topics or needs they have that they feel could be addressed by spending time together can lead to insight on matters or areas of focus that the planning team was otherwise not aware of.  The key in this is how you ask the question.  If you ask me what I want to cover, it may yield different results than what I feel needs to be covered.  Here are some future-oriented questions you might find useful to make this happen.

Prompts for Setting the Purpose

What aspects of our work do vou feel needs review or further discussion going into next year?
What were areas of challenge for us this year?
What goals have you established for next year?
What are we not thinking of that you feel we should?

Not a fan of surveys?  Consider the annual or quarterly reports your team is likely doing to share their successes and challenges.  In looking at this information and aggregating it, you might see areas of opportunity or need that should be addressed in your retreat’s agenda.  For example, one point of discussion for a retreat I led centered on the findings of our EBI Skyfactor data in conjunction with our dwindling housing numbers for next year.  Seeing that our engagement satisfaction and housing interest were trending low our team felt the need to come together to consider what changes we could make on a systemic level for the following year to combat that.  In doing so, we established some adjustments to our housing processes as well as some additional training for staff around student engagement with the hopes of having a better year going forward.

Whatever the impetus is to embark on a retreat, it is always wise to consider the buy-in of your people.  If they hear they have to come to work and engage in something that does not seem necessary or important, then the experience you have planned for them is doomed.  While I have always observed that retreats have an element of surprise for what’s to happen on that day (perhaps because of last-minute planning or truly for the wow factor!), running your plans by others is a great way to measure if the plan is looking to meet the goal.

Cut to the Chase

(less is more, be realistic about the time it takes to do good work)

Okay, so now we know we are retreating for a worthwhile cause.  But the work isn’t over.  Next we have to consider what makes the agenda based on the topics we gleaned in our needs assessment and/or inquiries. Unfortunately, everything can’t make the cut if we want folks to be engaged and productive. Think about it, how often are we in a meeting only to see a stacked agenda and think, “How are we going to cover all of this?”  Or worse, the agenda itself seems fine but you have a member or members of the team who are sucking up all the time with unproductive discussion or tangents making it evident that this day or days will be long?  Time is an important factor in retreats and to best maximize the amount that you have, it is useful to be asking yourself questions such as the ones below to identify what is most pertinent to cover.   When in doubt, less is more.

Prompts for Setting the Agenda

What is time sensitive?
What cannot be accomplished in a meeting/series of meetings?
What has a wide scope or range of impact?
Does this tie back to the basis for the retreat?
How much time is required to get this topic to action steps?

Even with a well-built agenda, that alone does not make a retreat. The people are equally, if not more important as they are the ones doing the work!  However, the more people that attend, the more voices, perspectives, egos, and personalities one has to manage.  Have you ever been in spaces where someone with a lot of social capital or hierarchical power speaks and it takes over the conversation?  Or perhaps others are noticeably silent and not contributing—leaving the dialogue one-sided.  While we cannot control everything that happens in our environment, we can establish a set of shared commitments that will hopefully guide all participants as they work together.  That is, in addition to the agenda, planning a retreat should involve setting ground rules and/or roles that will keep things organized.  I say and/or as the level of guidance honestly depends on your group dynamics and this is something that while you should plan for, it is a great exercise to establish collaboratively with others who will be attending that day as well.

Example Ground Rules

We will be mindful of time and how much time we are or are not taking up.
We will create actionable work that we can reference during and after the meeting
We will be respectful of who is speaking and only speak when it is our turn

Example Roles

Timekeeper: monitors the time allotted for the topic, gives notice of how much time is left, names when the conversation seems off track
Notetaker: takes notes of what is discussed, asks clarifying questions for comprehension, seeks actions steps before end
Facilitator: leads the dialogue, monitors participation, probes for deeper reflection, makes connections between points

Level the Playing Field

We have one last question to ask ourselves to put together a great retreat and its answer can make or break the experience; who is best to guide or lead the efforts of the day?  In some instances, I find we default again to the planning committee or a senior leader since they had a part in how they day will look, but given the group dynamics of your team and what you might intend for them to do, we should give some attention to how power structures could be a boon or hindrance to our efforts.  

For instance, if the goal of the retreat is to facilitate positive relationships and to become a stronger and more collaborative group, we should give weight to what led to this need in the first place.  Has the team undergone changes in its roster which resulted in a need to establish connections and a sense of camaraderie? Or has the team worked together for some time, but lacks trust and effective teamwork resulting in a need to reset or rebuild current dynamics?  If it’s the former, then an internal facilitator leading the day makes perfect sense.  They can set the tone and embody the culture of the department to new members while also being a reference point going forward.  If the latter, then an external facilitator might prove beneficial given that without a neutral party present, the team may be reticent to engage in dialogue, be vulnerable, and to provide feedback out of fear of negative repercussions or backlash.  To help determine the best facilitator for your retreat, ask yourself these questions

Prompts for Setting the Facilitator

How would you describe the working dynamics of your team?
What are the goals of this retreat?
How can systems of power be minimized during this day?

Determining who will best guide the efforts of your team on retreat day is actually quite easy—but it often goes awry if you fail to consider the other components mentioned prior (i.e. what’s the purpose, what are we doing, how do we work together). Regardless of who takes the lead on this day, know that folks will only get what they put in and sometimes, what we aspire to achieve may need more time to manifest and flourish than a series of hours or days.  With that in mind, it is worth recognizing that even with a well-designed retreat, sometimes its purpose serves more as a stepping stone toward the finish line as opposed to being an ending point.


Are retreats a tradition worth keeping?  Absolutely!  Do we need to spend more time on why we are doing them and how best to achieve the end results?  Definitely!  Just like other aspects of our work, retreats should function as an iterative process that is informed before, during, and after the experience.  Their needs will change as the needs of the team change, and our ability to identify and meet those needs will allow us to achieve significant strides in our work.  For those with a background in Restorative Practices, maybe you recognized the words or phrases bolded throughout this piece?  As I reflected on the tools and strategies at our disposal to create meaningful experiences for our teams, I realized that much of what came to mind connected to key steps when preparing a restorative circle.  That is, seeking buy-in from our participants and involving them in creating clear ground rules and roles with the guidance of a facilitator who can best lead the conversation from start to finish. 

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