The Treats of a Retreat

For the uninitiated, the notion of setting up a staff retreat may appear daunting; it takes time, planning, and money, and the payoff can feel vague.

But do it once and the benefits—for both staff and management—become so clear, you’ll vow to do it again.

Below you’ll find some best practices for planning your own retreat, whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a mom-and-pop shop. But first, here are a few reasons why a well-thought-out company retreat can boost the power of productivity in all phases of the business.

  1. It shifts the company’s social model. Something happens when you take people out of the office and put them together on a trail through the woods, for example. C-Suite occupants tend to mingle more—and boundaries loosen—once everybody is charged with working together on some non-work-related project. Perhaps it’s deciding who does what during a cooking competition, figuring out how to get out of an escape room, or even just listening to a facilitator talk you through better in-company interactions; the result is a group less obsessed with hierarchy and more able to take advantage of the unique skills everyone has to offer. Aaron Schmookler, co-founder and trainer at team-building consultancy, The Yes Works, puts it this way: “When we leave the office and bring our colleagues, it provides a unique opportunity to change the way we relate… If we consciously engage in new behaviors together, we can develop better communication and collaboration practice, for example—and we can bring those new behaviors back to the shop.”
  2. It promotes bonding. Something magical happens when you do an exercise designed to overcome fear—like zip-lining or even karaoke—at a company off-site: not only does everybody get to see how you react, but they also get to put themselves in your shoes. It tends to level the company playing field and can lead to bonding over any number of other topics. Company retreats are a great way to discover things you didn’t know about your team. Maybe your manager is also an incredible chef, or that software developer is actually an accomplished musician. Or maybe—big shock—everybody loves an evening of candlepin bowling. Suddenly, the person across the office who you thought was pretty stiff becomes a kindred spirit.
  3. It gives teams a change of pace. You spend enough days creating deliverables for that big client; why not spend some time creating fun? Everybody tends to ease into a less frenzied and more fluid pace on a retreat, which can feel like a mini-vacation and recharge staff for the next big push. The benefits are doubled on a retreat that’s also a corporate social-responsibility event, such as volunteering as a team to help build a house, paint a school, or stuff backpacks with school supplies for local students.
  4. It shows employees you care. Putting resources into your team—even if your retreat is as modest as a picnic in a local park—shows them you value them, which in turn inspires them to put more of themselves into your projects. What could be better than that? Well, here’s one thing: the chance to see the way everybody in the company interacts after the retreat. That kind of bonding increases employee camaraderie and, ultimately, retention, which is priceless.

Best Practices

There are as many ways to put on a successful corporate retreat as there are corporations. But it pays to keep a few ground rules in mind:

Right-size your event

It pays to take into account your company’s resources, culture, and immanent deliverables when planning a retreat. If everyone is staring a deadline in the face, skipping out of the office on a multiday retreat is bound to cause more problems than it solves. Instead, plan a meaningful mini-retreat like an afternoon workshop or beach-cleanup event.

And, let’s face it, many teams would benefit from a retreat, but not all companies have the resources for a resort-based blowout. Paige NeJame, the owner of Boston-based CertaPro Painters, told The FruitGuys Magazine, “Small business owners often don’t have the budget to spend on hotel accommodations for a one-day off-site. The few times I used a hotel, the cost was $600 for the day, including food for my staff of nine. Now, instead, we use the conference room at our local library. For $75, the library offers the same large conference room accommodations and has better technology that most hotels.”

Mix it up

Plan some activities that have clear goals—such as team-building or skill-building. (Pro tip: If your budget allows, hire a facilitator for these activities. Sometimes lessons just land better when they come from an outsider rather than the manager employees see on a daily basis.) If your retreat lasts for more than a day, schedule some purely social or fun activities—and let employees decide if they want to participate or take advantage of the downtime to recharge on their own. Schmookler concurs, saying, “Our brains need to shift gears frequently. Make sure when planning your retreat (or in selecting a retreat activity) that there’s plenty of scheduled gear-shifting.”

Set expectations.

Schmookler says that one of the biggest problems he sees in retreats is not making it clear that the retreat should be both fun and professional, at the same time. That can be a fine line to walk, which is why setting clear and measurable goals for the retreat—and communicating them to employees—is so crucial.

Don’t lose sight of the goal.

It can be tempting to focus on winner-take-all activities at a retreat—after all, who doesn’t love a spirited game of capture the flag? But a retreat should be about teamwork—less about competing with your co-workers and more about achieving shared goals. Activities that encourage working together in a low-pressure way are great for retreats. You could try breaking into teams to design a new corporate logo or gathering clues and answers for a scavenger hunt, like the ones put on all over the country by Watson Adventures.

In the end, a successful corporate retreat is less about key performance metrics as much as getting to the same conclusion—together. The lessons learned in getting there will energize and inspire employees for months.

Robert Edelstein writes about entertainment, travel, and sports. His books include Nascar Legends: Memorable Men, Moments, and Machines in Racing History and Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of Curtis Turner.

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