Make work fun: Corporate retreats

Hold a corporate retreat that produces great results.

At one of the annual corporate retreats Kate Saunders (not her real name) attended while working at large marketing firm in Toronto, she saw a company vice-president without any clothes on, running around looking for food. “I don't want to see my VPs naked,” says the 31-year-old data specialist, who is now on sabbatical from the company. “I don't want to know that that's how they got to the top.”

For Saunders, a sociable person by nature, company retreats were a frustrating experience. Sure, she enjoyed the team-building and networking events held during the day. “They had different work sessions, some interactive breakout sessions, and some fun team events,” she recalls. “It was great for networking and great for meeting people in different departments.” But then the alcohol started flowing. “It's just like all rules went to hell at night,” Saunders recalls.

Many companies hold retreats to take a time out from the daily grind, to address a particular business issue, or simply to help people bond and get to know each other better. The best retreats are off-site and overnight, which means they are costly — and they take key employees away from their work. So, according to the experts, before putting all those resources into a retreat, managers should be clear on what they want to accomplish: maybe, for instance, they want to address the underlying causes of high turnover and low employee morale, promote a new business approach, or create an overall vision for their organization. Having a retreat just because you had one last year is not a very good idea. Without any real work to do, employees may start to think of the event as a vacation, and act accordingly. That's when the partying will start.

According to Sheila Campbell, who has been organizing corporate retreats in the United States and Canada for 15 years and is co-author of the book Retreats that Work, it's best to hold a retreat in an informal setting with an outdoor component, rather than in a meeting-style setting at a conference-room table with an agenda. That's because you want your employees to be able to put everyday issues aside and start exploring new options and think creatively. “I'd rather be at a lodge in the woods,” she says. Being in a natural environment allows you to do things like give employees a long lunch so they can sit on the dock or take a walk along the beach. They'll also be able to reflect on the morning's discussions and be fresh for the afternoon. If you hold your retreat in a hotel, make sure there's a hospitality suite to congregate in.

“The worst thing you can do is park a bunch of people in a room and talk at them all day,” says Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto-based consulting firm that specializes in executive retreats and executive coaching. “That's really going to kill the energy.” Thornley-Brown advocates having at least two activities a day, preferably outside. The retreats she organizes tend to include some sort of theme, like a Donald Trump-style “Apprentice” or a wilderness survival game. “A theme will allow you to do things like introduce team colours, introduce team names, and have games — all of which add to the excitement,” she says. But tread carefully when you have a recreational activity, because the last thing you want to do is single people out who can't (or aren't comfortable) participating. “I would not suggest that people play golf,” says Campbell. In other words, don't hold a tennis tournament if the whole staff doesn't play tennis. And don't have a ropes or obstacle course if you've got employees who are overweight, older, or don't enjoy physical activities. Campbell recommends going horseback riding or for a nature walk. “Otherwise, you lose the team-building aspect.”

While it's great for employees to have a lot of relaxation and recreational time, remember: there is real work that needs to be accomplished at a retreat. A small group, between eight and 30 people, works best. The larger the group, the less authority participants have to make important decisions. In order to keep people engaged, your retreat should include a number of different exercises, no more than an hour and 15 minutes each, which allow employees to move around the room, break out into small groups and work with many different people. But, says Campbell, if your goal is for your staff to learn to work together better, you should shy away from actually using the term “team-building” to refer to what you are doing. “Team-building works best when the object of the exercise is not team-building but some sort of real work in which people have to work together as a team,” she explains. Rather than asking employees to guide each other around blindfolded, for example, break them into groups and have them come up with a sales pitch for a new product. That way, you'll be on your way to bettering your business — and to having a more cohesive staff.

The “work” part of your retreat, however, shouldn't run into the evening. Give employees time to relax before dinner. And keep in mind dinner doesn't necessarily mean having everyone sit around a dining table. You could hold a barbeque, a picnic, or, if facilities allow, you could even have participants cook their own dinners together in small groups. At this point, it's generally acceptable to serve some alcohol — but try to keep it contained. Serve only beer and wine, or have drink tickets, which limit consumption. And if there's an activity in the evening, like a bonfire or an improv show, people will tend to drink less. Remember: if folks overdo it in the evening, they'll compromise the next day's work. “I remember one instance,” says Thornley-Brown, “where people were to get up early and have their breakfast, because we had a recreational activity at 9 a.m. They were so hungover they didn't crawl out of bed until quite late. They didn't want to cut the activity short, so it meant that a lot of the business-related portions had to be scratched down quite a bit.”

Don't forget while some of your employees are at the retreat, there are others who are sitting back in the office, waiting to find out what was discussed and what decisions were made. Don't tell people left behind that you'll type up the minutes and let them know in three days. Instead, have something ready to tell them the morning you get back. Also, make sure you come up with a plan to actually get things done. Talk about how you will keep the spirit of your retreat alive — and when you will reconvene. Rather than coming up with an action list of 30 things to do, focus on two or three new initiatives that can actually be accomplished. Although employees can be very enthusiastic on a retreat, they are busy people — and won't be inclined to carry through with a laundry list of changes when they're back at the office.

If nothing actually gets accomplished as a result of a retreat, the next time management decides it wants to hold one, employees will no doubt have the attitude, “Oh, but those things don't work.”