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How away days can help practices

Have a clear objective and some ground rules to make an away day successful, writes Fiona Dalziel.

In a time of change, taking time out to plan can give everyone a feeling of being back in the driving seat (Photograph: Istockphoto)
In a time of change, taking time out to plan can give everyone a feeling of being back in the driving seat (Photograph: Istockphoto)

Practices that plan are successful. Practices that are effectively led, know where they are going, keep an eye on team morale (staff and GPs), as well as scanning the horizon for new opportunities or threats are the practices that go from strength to strength.

An away day offers an invaluable chance for time away from the day-to-day pressures of delivering a service to learn, think and look ahead. In a time of huge, externally imposed change, taking time out to plan can give everyone a feeling of being back in the driving seat.

Big decisions made on the hoof are very often the wrong decisions.

Taking time out
Giving consideration to an entire day out of the practice during the week or giving up a precious weekend day is a decision in itself. The practice may be at a significant watershed.

For example, reviews of practice procedures may be planned, there may be significant expansion in the local population, you may be taking on a neighbouring practice or planning new premises – or all of these at once.

Alternatively, you may be experiencing significant partner discord or unhappiness and something needs to be done.

In order for the decision to have an away day to be appropriate, practice team members need to agree that the potential costs of the day are outweighed by the potential benefits.

Getting the benefit
Having decided to have an away day, some important questions remain. Take the time to work out your answers to the following questions.

It is better not to do this alone because your understanding of the right answers may be surprisingly different from that of others.

  • Why are we having the away day?
  • Who should be there?
  • What do we want the outcome of the event to be?
  • What's our budget?
  • What's the right location?
  • What is the timescale?
  • How long should it last?
  • Can we do this ourselves or would we benefit from some outside help?

It is advisable to bear in mind the impact of choosing a location away from the practice premises and of missing out people who are the team's key influencers because they cannot attend on the day set.

Just getting a date when all of the key people can be present may lengthen your timescale.

Also if you have not decided beforehand on a clear, agreed outcome for the day, someone will be unhappy and frustrated after the event.

External facilitator
A specialist external facilitator does the following:

  • Helps plan and structure the event.
  • Helps the practice establish goals.
  • Helps work out a plan to translate the goals into action.
  • Ensures that everyone participates.
  • Ensures conflict and dissent are appropriately managed.
  • Ensures consensus and agreement are real.
  • Ensures the goals and actions are the practice's own.

However, the facilitator will not normally stay on at the practice after the away day.

Despite identifying goals and an action plan during the away day, someone back at the practice needs to make sure the plan is put into action and that progress is monitored and communication is effective.

Despite facilitation, practices can revert to old ways of working and the expected changes are not achieved or sustained.

Specialist facilitators with the right skill set, who also understand general practice, can be difficult to find and there is an associated cost.

Internal facilitation
Effective away days need effective facilitation; you need someone with the right skills. If this is a key team member, such as a GP partner or practice manager, remember that they are disempowered from contributing to the discussion because they are managing the process itself.

Having this team member function in a different way from normal will have an impact on the decisions you make.

If you decide on internal facilitation, the role of the facilitator should be agreed in advance and made clear to the participants. Ensure that the facilitator establishes ground rules as a group activity and that all participants stick to them.

Enjoying the day
You can just go and have a fun day away or you can have an away day where fun is one of the ingredients. There is no doubt that having fun together reinforces bonds and helps teamwork.

On a fun day away, the fun itself is the important element and its form is relatively unimportant. However, combining fun and a business away day can give you great value for money.

Games and activities as part of a business away day are sometimes regarded as a waste of time. In the hands of a good facilitator, games are an adjunct to the event itself and are used to communicate a point more effectively than just talking.

Benefits of games
Team games can help break down barriers such as status, role, age or the assumptions people make about each other. They can improve communication and understanding of other team members' behaviour and of group processes. They help people work together better 'back at the ranch' because they make people interact and co-operate in unfamiliar ways, and can also put the emphasis on shared values rather than concentrating on negatives.

Once you have clarified the key outcomes you want from the away day, your facilitator may consider games under these headings:

  • Team building: dealing with change, being sensitive to the feelings of others and working with different personality types.
  • Improving how the team works: understanding group stages, being a self-managed team, moving from old to new ways of working and seeing a situation from the perspective of others.
  • Team maintenance: conflict management, problem solving, communicating in times of change and giving positive feedback.

Properly planned and delivered, an away day may be just what you all need to lift morale and feel more confident about the future.

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