When the pandemic first started, most companies asked their employees to work remotely—and Merit was no exception.
"We used to be an in-person company, so our traditional structure of knowledge transfer was in person," said Eliza White, vice president of people operations at the Millbrae, Calif.-based identity verification company with 100 employees. "COVID pushed us fully remote quite quickly without giving us time to thoughtfully transition to remote knowledge and culture transfer."
This past July, the company finally gathered again in person for a companywide retreat, where employees engaged in team-building activities and spend time together socially.
"Events like these play an enormous role in preventing isolation and further developing the company culture," White said. "If we can come out of a retreat making people feel more developed and connected to their colleagues, and remembering that we're all humans, that alone can be a huge infusion of conscious culture updating."
Now that the worst of the pandemic seems to be over, companies around the country are holding retreats again and encouraging employees to attend for a range of critical reasons. Some of the most important, according to HR professionals, focus on the following four goals:
1. Encourage One-on-One Interactions Between Employees
During their company retreats, Walker & Dunlop, a commercial real estate finance firm based in Bethesda, Md., includes time for its 1,400 employees to interact one-on-one in smaller settings, said Paula Pryor, executive vice president and chief human resources officer.
"Our employees' retreat feedback underscores the importance of team building and social events, all of the things that cannot be recreated over Zoom," she said, adding that employees use retreats to host meals, engage in volunteer activities, play sports and gather for happy hours.
"If done well, they are team building on steroids, re-energizing and re-engaging colleagues to carry forward together with gusto," Pryor said. "As colleagues are spread across locations and time zones, it's more imperative than ever to create meaningful opportunities for employees to gather with purpose. Whether to hug, break bread or just laugh, we need more time to be human together," both in small groups and one-on-one, she said.
2. Give Parents and Caregivers a Break
A recent Ohio State University survey revealed that 66 percent of parents still report feeling burned out from the pandemic. Retreats can be a welcome break from parental duties.
"I'm a parent, and I immensely enjoy work conferences and retreats," Pryor said. "More than ever this past year, a number of working parents and caretakers were looking to see if they were needed early at our all-company retreat."
While leaving family for a few days can certainly be hard, it also gives parents much-needed space. "As work travel resumes post-COVID, some parents feel it is the only time they can justify for themselves—to leave their home responsibilities without guilt," Pryor said. "Many have become chained to their homes, and work travel and office visits allow for a 'separation of church and state.' "
Angela Anderson, chief operating officer at McDermott + Bull, an executive search firm in Irvine, Calif., said retreats are a refreshing option for parents and caretakers who haven't had space or time away from their home lives and have been unable to relax.
"By offering a day or multiday sanctuaries, employers convey to their employees that they are valuable, deserve to invest in themselves and should truly take a break from the monotonous routines they have been living," said Anderson, who works with 122 employees. "This rejuvenation, which results from having a genuine break, can immensely benefit the quality of work that individuals complete, their turnaround time on projects and their willingness to engage at work."
As a parent, Laura Henry said she enjoys the opportunity to meet other people in her industry and socialize with them at company retreats.
"[Retreats] give parents and caretakers a break from the norm," said Henry, an executive director and HR business partner at Cirrus Aircraft, an airplane manufacturer in Knoxville, Tenn., with 2,200 employees. "Sometimes it's nice to spend time together with co-workers and professional peers without having the obligations that come with being a parent or caregiver."
3. Help Employees Learn and Grow
Company gatherings often include some aspect of learning and development, which gives employees the chance to learn more about their company and industry and then incorporate that new knowledge into their work, Henry said.
"We encourage our employees to continually seek opportunities for learning, engaging with industry and discipline peers, and collaborating with others to learn best practices and new ideas to bring back to Cirrus Aircraft," she said, adding that it's HR's responsibility to support employees in furthering their careers and personal lives.
"Personal and professional development are among the top engagement items for employees," Henry said. "Employees want to know that their company is supporting their growth and development, and, as HR professionals, we need to encourage our employees and leaders to invest in these opportunities."
4. Bring Greater Direction and Meaning to the Workplace
When Merit holds its two company retreats per year, one is more work-focused and the other is more fun and community-focused.
"We try not to overschedule," White said. "We instead offer a schedule that includes some downtime and the ability for our people to self-select what they wish to engage in. We want everyone to be comfortable, well-fed, have their basic needs met and just feel that the experience is easy on them."
While White acknowledged that there is an impulse to make retreats fancy, to overschedule them or to hold them in a flashy location, that can work against what her company aims to do, which is to create an experience that forges connection.
"It's important to realize that retreats can also go the other way and increase someone's burnout or increase the burden of caregiving by asking them to travel for several days and potentially be exposed to COVID along the way," White said. "Give people the opportunity to opt in or out of these things."
Rob Nimmer, chief growth officer at Perfect Search Media, a digital marketing firm in Chicago with 30 employees, said retreats should focus on team-building and social activities. His company is hosting its first post-pandemic retreat this fall in Scottsdale, Ariz., as part of a larger effort to ensure employees are approaching work from a healthy place.
"Now that the home is the office and the office is home, the boundaries between personal and professional life are so blurred," he said. "We uphold a variety of practices to help our team with work/life balance and prevent burnout, including flexible schedules, summer Fridays, unlimited paid time off and more. Still, a planned company retreat that breaks away from routine is a great opportunity for our parents and caretakers to recharge and reconnect outside of their day-to-day lives."
Even though company retreats require an investment on employers' and employees' parts, the benefits are well worth it.
"By setting aside time and energy to attend in-person retreats, team members can feel a greater sense of togetherness," Nimmer said. "While we love our remote flexibility and how we've gotten creative with virtual company culture practices, nothing can replace how it feels to gather as a team."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.