This document was initially written in the context of selecting team offsites at Silicon Valley based tech companies. However, much of it is applicable to other settings.
What is an offsite?
For the purposes of this document, an offsite is an employer-sponsored social event, which takes place outside of the normal work setting. It may also be outside of the normal work hours. Offsites usually have an explicit or implicit goal of team-bonding and/or morale-building and/or strategic decision-making, and there is usually peer pressure to attend (“mandatory fun”). Offsites are distinct from conferences and interoffice travel. Offsites may vary in scale, from e.g., an overnight ski trip for thousands to a mini-golfing outing for a handful of people.
What is inclusivity?
For the purposes of this document, inclusivity is the intention of including people and groups who might otherwise be excluded. In the context of tech companies, the term often refers to including women and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, but inclusivity also applies to including individuals who are not members of visibly distinct groups.
Why should I read this?
When you come up with ideas for offsites, you probably come up with ideas you would personally enjoy. You may also think that because you would enjoy them, your teammates would enjoy them. That’s totally natural, but not everyone enjoys the same things, and if a few people always come up with ideas, they may unintentionally plan offsites that make other people feel unwelcome or excluded. Sometimes, they may even come up with ideas that make it infeasible for some people to participate at all. As an offsite planner, this is probably not what you want! Fortunately, once you are aware of this tendency, you can keep it in check by explicitly considering inclusivity when planning offsites. Many of the things which can prevent offsites from being inclusive are non-obvious, so here are some guidelines.
- Know who the offsite is for, and identify potential barriers to participation. What are the attendees’ physical abilities, dietary restrictions, activity preferences, etc? Talk to your intended participants. Solicit their requirements as well as their preferences, and make sure they can do so without broadcasting to the whole team.
- Remember that more than just the offsite participants are witness to the decisions you make about your offsite. It’s good to think about what potential message you are sending with your prioritizations for the offsite. Future recruits may research the kinds of offsites you’ve had in the past in order to gauge their likely fit with your company. Families of your participants will have opinions about your offsite, as will those within the organization who don’t attend for whatever reason.
- Don’t just solicit ideas and votes for top offsite choices. Allow people to tell you what they will do (approval voting or similar), and even more importantly, what they won’t or can’t do. The best offsite for the whole team might not be the offsite that is most popular with the majority of the team. You probably can’t get everyone to agree on their top choice for an offsite idea, but it is usually possible to plan an offsite that satisfies everyone.
- Don’t have the same kind of offsite every time. If you have an athletic offsite one round, have a non-athletic one the next round. You may not be able to please everyone all the time, but you can make sure that no single person, or group of people, is consistently being left out.
- If there’s no single option that satisfies everyone, you may want to have multiple options. If you have a large team, you may be able to split into small groups, so some people can do one thing while others do another. Avoid treating one offsite activity as the primary regular activity for most of the team and the other as a lesser special activity for those who cannot participate in the primary activity. If you split up into groups, finishing up with a single combined event can be a good way to bring the group back together.
- Encourage people to attend and/or help come up with offsites that they will attend, but don’t pressure people if they’ve said no.
- If you’re trying to promote team unity, focus on collaboration rather than individual competition. Offsites that involve making something, solving something together, or volunteering seem to be especially good for this.
- Have a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy and make sure attendees are familiar with it before the offsite. If you already have a code of conduct while in the office, it should apply to company offsites as well.
- When a suggestion seems really weird or confronting and likely exclusionary to you, trust your instincts and your team members over external experts and salespeople.
- Solicit feedback after the offsite. Send out a survey and allow anonymous comments. Use the feedback to help plan the next offsite.
Specific inclusion concerns
This is not an exhaustive list.
Eating and drinking
- Ask about dietary restrictions (e.g., vegetarian, vegan, halal, kosher, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, food allergies, diabetics, etc.), and general food preferences.
- Choose restaurants with a variety of options. Choose restaurants that are not focused on a particular type of food; for example, while a steakhouse with a salad bar is strictly speaking vegetarian-friendly, it still suggests that vegetarians are an afterthought.
- If possible, make menus available ahead of time. If someone has specific restrictions, let them veto restaurant options.
- Alcohol and tobacco
- For some teams, it may be best to simply avoid alcohol at offsites entirely; for others, it may be appropriate to avoid alcohol-centric offsites, while still having alcohol available (e.g., a group meal at which some people order drinks).
- People may not drink for a variety of reasons, including religious beliefs, experience with or predisposition to alcoholism, pregnancy, and medical reasons. If appropriate, find out if there is anyone on your team doesn’t drink or who doesn’t drink in a work context. Asking people why they aren’t drinking can be especially awkward for people who are pregnant or taking medications that don’t mix with alcohol, but don’t want to disclose that to their team.
- Some people (e.g., people who grew up in households with alcoholics, women in a predominantly male environment) may feel uncomfortable or unsafe around their teammates when alcohol is involved.
- If anyone on your team is under the legal drinking age (21 in the U.S.), it’s best to avoid alcohol entirely. (In some U.S. states, people under 21 cannot even be in some places that serve alcohol at certain times of the day.)
- If you do have alcohol at an offsite, discourage excessive drinking, make sure no one is driving drunk, and don’t allow people to pressure others to drink.
- Cigar lounges and other smoking offsites are unwelcoming to non-smokers and those with respiratory conditions or who otherwise do not enjoy exposure to second-hand smoke.
- More on inclusivity and alcohol.
- Disabilities and injuries
- Consider whether the event and the location are accessible. If someone can’t walk, they probably don’t want to go hiking (unless there’s a wheelchair/scooter/segway accessible trail).
- Don’t make assumptions about what people with disabilities can or cannot do. Ask them if they want to participate rather than assume that their disability prohibits them.
- Many disabilities are visible, but not all are. For example, some people may be unable to handle loud noises, strobe lights, etc. Even if a disability is visible, it is often not obvious what restrictions the disability entails. For example, someone who wears a hearing aid may not be able to participate in water activities because many hearing aids are not waterproof (and temporarily removing a hearing aid would be unsafe and would isolate them from participating in conversations).
- People may have undisclosed disabilities or other limitations. Allow people to provide feedback (possibly anonymously) about events they physically cannot attend without requiring them to provide specific details.
- Ask people for their input early in the planning event, and allow people to veto an event if they are physically unable to participate.
- Do not pressure people to attend events if they are unsure whether they can participate safely and/or enjoyably.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Although many people are very active throughout pregnancy, some activities are off-limits for some people who are pregnant. As with people with physical disabilities, involve known pregnant people in the offsite planning process, rather than making assumptions about restrictions. Also keep in mind that people may not want to disclose their pregnancy to some/all of the team.
- Breastfeeding mothers may need a quiet, clean space to pump milk. Having such a space and frequent breaks during a longer offsite allows them to do so without missing out on the offsite.
- More on inclusivity and pregnancy/breastfeeding.
- Religious restrictions
- Be aware if anyone in your team cannot participate in a certain type of event. For example, people who wear turbans cannot participate in activities that require helmets, such as go-karting.
- Size/weight restrictions
- Some activities, such as skydiving, trapeze, and anything else that requires belaying, may have weight restrictions.
- Athletic ability/skill level
- Events which reward specific athletic ability or experience may exclude others. This doesn’t mean you can’t have athletic events, just that they need to be enjoyable by people new to that activity, or there should be alternatives. Additionally, try to find events where people of different skill levels can participate together, rather than in separate groups.
Timing and location
- General scheduling
- Consider carefully before scheduling on weekends, since this will seriously disrupt people's social and family lives. Schedule on workdays where possible. If occasionally scheduling for weekends, note that Saturday and Sunday are both significant days in different religions: do not always schedule on either of them.
- Consult a calendar before scheduling. If possible, avoid scheduling offsites on days when people have known conflicts. For larger offsites, it may be impossible to accommodate everyone’s schedules, but you may want to especially avoid overlapping with days of religious observance, military reserve duty, and medical leave. Also avoid offsites during local school breaks, as parents may have additional responsibilities then or may have already planned travel.
- Give as much advance notice as possible so people can plan their schedules.
- Evening offsites
- Some people (people with kids, people taking classes, people relying on public transportation, and many others) can’t easily attend offsites outside of working hours. Find out which people on your team will be particularly inconvenienced or unable to attend. For small teams, if one person can’t attend an evening event, that might be enough to rule it out.
- Coordinate with public transportation schedules or provide alternative transportation options. (This is especially true if there will be alcohol at the offsite.)
- Multiday/travel offsites
- Multiday/travel offsites can be awesome, but travel is not easy or possible for everyone, especially people who have partners, are breastfeeding, have children or other caregiver responsibilities, or who have disabilities or medical issues. Again, this is where having a variety of offsites is useful; someone who can’t travel shouldn’t have to miss out on every offsite.
- Consider allowing people to travel with their families. If possible, provide information about childcare assistance and/or breastfeeding facilities.
- While sharing a room (or tent) saves money, some people may be hesitant or unable to attend without a separate room (sleep difficulties, medical needs, safety concerns, other specific needs for personal space). People may not be comfortable disclosing these reasons. Give people a way to request a private room without making this known to all their coworkers. Best practice is to automatically offer separate rooms to all offsite participants.
- Beach offsites are popular, but many people are not comfortable being around their coworkers in bathing suits. This can be especially uncomfortable or unsafe for women, who are more likely to be objectified or the object of unwanted attention, particularly when there is a significant gender imbalance.
- Consider safety when picking a location. A place which is safe for you may not be safe for someone else on your team. There are some areas where women may be especially unsafe traveling to/from. For the safety of LGBT members of your team, avoid locations which are known to be homophobic or transphobic.
- International travel considerations: Make sure the chosen destination is one that everyone is allowed to visit, and give people enough time to get necessary paperwork. If the offsite attendees are coming from multiple countries, avoid timing the offsite during/near their local holidays.
Break and exit plans
- All attendees should, if at all possible, the ability to leave entirely at any point. Examples include: becoming ill, becoming tired, being overwhelmed, needing to leave for a family emergency. Consider:
- having an emergency exit plan eg, numbers for local taxis and a last minute taxi (bus, airfare) budget
- holding the offsite near to where attendees live
- allowing the use of private cars alongside any group transport and holding the offsite where private car parking is available
- planning for staggered arrival and departure times, eg, "buses home will depart at 3pm and 5pm", or a minibus to office/town center/local transport hub running hourly
- have spare space on your group transport for, eg, people whose driver needed to leave early
- If the offsite is unpleasant for anyone, or they need a break from social contact, or they are tired, or they become ill, they may need a break. Plan:
- for rest or down periods during the event, such as long meal breaks or "unplanned time" or similar, ideally near the accommodation so that people can rest or nap
- the ability to opt-out at any time, without anyone coercing them into continued participation
- activities that can be interrupted easily and without danger, where possible (eg, not a day long hike or a caving expedition where the exit takes 2 hours to reach)
- a place to rest that is quiet, shady, and cool, and lets attendees sit or ideally lie down, for example, a hotel room, a tent, a quiet room , a cafe.
- access to at least trained first aiders with a clear emergency escalation plan
Carers and others may need to be reachable by phone throughout the event.
- Does the venue have good cell coverage? Where possible avoid venues and activities that don't have coverage, or ones that insist on turning off or handing over cell phones.
- Provide a full itinerary for the off-site in advance, with times and contact details for each location (especially if there's any question of lack of cell coverage). Can you provide a phone number for reception or for a coordinator that will be reachable at all times during the event?
- Provide realistic return times: consider traffic and similar when stating when you'll return.
Appendix: Some offsite ideas
Do not just use this as a checklist of approved activities. Every team is composed of different people, so what worked for one team may not be inclusive or fun for yours.
- Make something: Cooking, painting, pottery, industrial arts.
- Food: Dinner at restaurant with many vegan options, fondue, tea ceremony, chocolate-tasting, mystery theater lunch.
- Puzzles: Scavenger hunt, urban adventure quest.
- Tabletop Games: Board games, card games, tabletop/pen-and-paper RPGs.
- Include both casual games and geeky/nerdy games.
- Don't assume everyone has significant preparation time outside of the event; have experienced players prepared to patiently teach games, and include pre-made characters for RPGs.
- Ensure that games and RPG adventures are work-appropriate and follow the code of conduct for the event.
- Active outdoor events: Hiking, ropes course, archery, biking, skiing, kayaking.
- Less active outdoors: Ferry trip, zoo with a rented wheelchair, baseball game.
- Indoor sports: Bowling, curling, rock climbing.
- Museums: Computer history museum, science museum, transportation museum.
- Volunteering: holiday present gift wrapping, cleaning up a park, talking about programming at a local school.
Appendix: Danger zone!
Again every team is different, but these are some categories of offsite activity which have a high probability of excluding some team members.
- Adult entertainment: An offsite to a strip club can be expected to be divisive. Even “tamer” sexualized events, such as going to restaurants whose primary appeal is the appearance of the waitstaff (e.g., Hooters in the U.S.), can be just as divisive. Many women (especially women in an overwhelmingly male team) are unlikely to feel comfortable in this environment with their teammates, and many men will be uncomfortable as well. Choosing such an offsite strongly signals that the intended offsite audience does not include most women nor gay men, nor people who prefer to keep sexual entertainment separate from their work life. Additionally, choosing such an offsite or asking people if they would like to attend such an offsite is likely to make some people uncomfortable even if they do not attend the offsite.
- Boundary-pushing: Activities designed to be way outside people's normal experiences and comfort zones such as fire-walking, sky-diving, eating bugs, and similar may trigger phobias or traumatic memories in attendees, especially difficult for them when there is social coercion to participate. In many cultures being naked, such as in saunaing, is also way outside people's normal experiences, particularly at an event with people of many genders. Having co-workers touch each other in ways they aren't accustomed to (catching each other while falling, passing oranges between each other's chins, hugging) may be uncomfortable for people who prefer not to be physically intimate with co-workers; traumatic for people who have experiences of physical assault; and exclusionary of people who have personal, cultural, or religious restrictions on touching people. These activities are often also run by coaches or leaders who will not just passively encourage participation but actively approach people trying to opt-out in order to aggressively insist they participate.
- Firearms: Comfort with firearms varies greatly, including (but not only) by nationality/regionality/culture, so this can be expected to be a divisive offsite choice on teams with people from different backgrounds. Some people have negative associations with firearms, due to either specific personal experiences or general moral objections to firearms or to their use for sport. Some people have no experience with firearms and will be uncomfortable around firearms or with learning to use firearms in the presence of their teammates. Some people have extensive experience with firearms in other settings, but have no desire to use them at a work event or with people who are less experienced.
- Martial Arts: In addition to the general guidelines about physical activities and competitive sports being potentially exclusionary, participating in combat or mock-combat/sparring will make some people uncomfortable.
- Outside Experts: It is a good idea to research outside experts extensively before incorporating them into your offsite plan. Consultants can help move a conversation forward immensely during an offsite, but if you hire someone known to behave badly in a sexist, racist, ableist, or any other -ist way, you send an implicit or explicit message to your participants and organization that you aren’t aware of intersectional concerns or don’t prioritize addressing them. Ideally, you would also hire a consultant who doesn’t come in with a known agenda that they promote without consideration of your organization’s goals.
- Religious Practices: Activities such as yoga, meditation, or group prayer, which are all part of religious traditions, may be uncomfortable both for people who observe those religions and don't want their practices divorced from their religious context or who don't want to make their religious observances in a workplace context, and people who do not observe those religions.
Contributors for v1 (March 2015): Sara Smollett and anonymous contributors
Contributors for v2 (June 2015): Sara Smollett, Crystal Huff, and anonymous contributors. [YOUR NAME HERE!] By commenting, you agree that we may incorporate your suggestions under the license of this document, crediting you among these contributors if you wish to be credited.
Contributors for v3 (October 2015): Sara Smollett, Crystal Huff, Mary Gardiner, and anonymous contributors. [YOUR NAME HERE!] By commenting, you agree that we may incorporate your suggestions under the license of this document, crediting you among these contributors if you wish to be credited.