This week, 6 of us have headed off to a Rural Retreats cottage in the cotswolds for a writing retreat. It looks and sounds pretty decadent, but in reality it is seriously productive. Not everyone has been able to stay in the 5 bedroom place for the entire week, but 5 of us have been here continuously since Tuesday and we are storming through the work.
The great thing about coming away is that you are away from all work distractions. No meetings, only email (and you can switch that off), and you have the key colleagues that you want to write with on hand.
We are in a huge 5-bedroom house with 2 conservatories, a snug, an office, a dining room and an enormous living room. Each of us can go to a different room to work, or two or more of us can get together to work collaboratively. On Monday there three people who worked here intensively and stayed overnight. Tuesday one it dropped to two, and they were very productive. Tuesday night three of us arrived (and the monday colleague returned) and the two who had been working on Tuesday left. One of the Tuesday colleagues joined us again on Wednesday morning and we have been five working together since then.
On Wednesday two of our team had a very useful meeting with 4 collaborators from Oxford University who spend from 9:30 to 12:30 giving inpact on the work from Monday/Tuesday which has informed our ongoing course material writing. One of the two conservatories has an enormous dining table, so this meeting went on there and no noise spilled out to disturb the rest of us.
Since then we have been working, noses to the grindstone.
Keys to success
So why does this work, and quite importantly, why is this more successful than a recent writing week we held in a local conference centre? The cost of the house is around £1800 for the week, plus food and travel. The cost of the rooms in the conference centre was about the same.
It is important to have a clear set of outputs in mind before you start. We each have papers that we want to write with each other, each of us leading on a different paper, and we are each working on producing materials for a different week of an 8 week badged open course that is one of the deliverables from the project that has provided the funding for this week. We all came to the week with a clear idea of what we aimed to do and put this in a shared spreadsheet.
The right people
You need the right set of people who need to collaborate with each other. The good thing about getting away from the office is that it allows you to focus on just one thing with no distractions. In the office, you may be writing or working on a course, and you need to have a discussion with a colleague. However they may be fully booked so you have to wait. You get interruptions, they get interruptions. And email is an ever-present time sapper. On a writing retreat, you can produce material very quickly because you can work together fast and effectively. We all check email, but only a couple of times a day – not continuously. Everybody needs to be committed to producing the outputs as well. One disruptive person could, I suspect, ruin things.
Fast broadband is essential. The broadband here is running at about 13Mbps which is good enough for our purposes. We need to use internet resources and work on collaborative shared documents. The internet goes down periodically, but it is easy to reboot it. You do need at least one person who is comfortable with technology to deal with the inevitable issues. We have had some issues with the software we are using to work collaboratively, and to be honest that is the only thing that has slowed progress.
A big house
It is essential to have a large enough venue that everyone can have some private space in which to work if they need to write alone, or collaborate without disturbing others. The nice thing about a house rather than a hotel or conference venue is the fact that it is quite isolated. We are surrounded by countryside, birds, wildlife, gardens. Relaxing and very conducive to concentration, yet we each have our own room in which to relax.
24 hours available
Because we are away, we can just keep writing. The village is tiny and there are just 2 pubs. We have bought salad and food for light lunches and snacks and we book a table at one of the local pubs, 20 meters away, for dinner each night. We are all happy to eat snack lunches – nobody is wasting writing time preparing big meals. I am waking up really early and can come down and start writing by 7am. Yesterday, we were all working until 7pm – but it was relaxing and fun.
A writing retreat in the cotswolds sounds very decadent. But in fact it is both cost effective and productive. I would definitely recommend it.