Company retreats have been savaged by the likes of Dilbert and Saturday Night Live, to the point where many view them as soul-sucking boondoggles that should be avoided at all costs.
While there are examples of wasteful retreats, I find that the benefits (ROI, if you will) on these events can actually be quite considerable. If you value corporate culture, cohesion and communication, then there's nothing like getting your fellow workers out of the office where they can break out of their comfort zones and talk to colleagues that they otherwise wouldn't.
There's no science to creating a successful offsite, but I've found the following guidelines help to create retreats that accomplish what they set out to:
1. Offer a novel setting. There's no use setting up an offsite somewhere that's not that different from your day-to-day. If your office is in Manhattan, having an offsite in Brooklyn is probably not going to cut it. We've held retreats in London, Miami, San Francisco and even Possum Kingdom, Texas. Up next? Australia this fall. Many are places where most or hopefully all of our fellow workers won't feel comfortable. When people are placed in unfamiliar settings, they are more vulnerable. They turn to one another for more help. Time seems to slow down too and if employees realize that they're going to spend the next 72 hours or so away from the rest of the world, then withdrawing and marking time until the event ends is less of an option. At some point, even the most resistant employee will figure, "Well, I'm here, I might as well try to enjoy it.”
2. Offer a novel experience in a typical setting. New experiences are another way of breaking people out of their comfort zones. For instance, one of our recent retreats included a river rafting excursion at a water park outside of London. We've even done local excursions right here at home in New York City, such as jet-skiing in the Hudson River. For these unusual activities, everyone came together and it was quite an experience.
3. Invite everyone. At GlassView, we make a point of including everyone in most everything we do. Retreats are an awesome way to break down barriers and break down cliques that have naturally formed. We like to promote a flat structure and increased communication between teammates. The goal of a retreat should be to underscore this sense of inclusion.
4. Don't overly script it. Offsites that are highly structured reinforce the view of team members that the company is a top-down hierarchy and they basically have to do what the leaders say. Even if those events are enjoyable – and who doesn't love a good Segway ride through the streets of South Beach? – the net effect is that people can feel manipulated. We've learned it's important to leave some free time during these events that allow for serendipitous interactions.
The final point I'd make about offsites is that they should not be viewed as a means to rebuild morale or fix a broken organization. That's asking too much of these events. Ideally, a retreat should augment an already-healthy company culture.
It's also a good idea not to go crazy trying to prove ROI for an event. In fact, I personally don't even attempt to quantify ROI. Instead, I've noticed the payoff comes as colleagues establish new friendships and dialogues with fellow teammates which make coming to work a bit more enjoyable. Those kinds of things are hard to measure, but they're infinitely valuable, which more than makes up for whatever you're spending to put one of these events together.