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Executive View: A New Approach to Executive and Company Retreats

A group of business people holding champagne glasses.

​The "executive retreat" has had its share of detractors and bad press. Sometimes criticized as lavish and unnecessary, such getaways have been viewed as strictly for upper managers who booked retreats at extravagant places like Cancun, Portugal, the Caribbean, Cape Cod and Lake Tahoe. These trips occasionally involved private jets and featured activities such as African safari adventures and excursions to France's Provence region, with stays in a 17th-century chateau and daily cooking lessons with a French chef.

But after a pandemic-induced hiatus of two years, the corporate retreat is making a comeback. And not just for executives.

Concerned about a lack of employee engagement and connection following the pandemic, many businesses have found ways to host affordable retreats designed to improve employee morale, provide an opportunity for valuable training and foster better communication among employees.

As one  one  company that offers retreat experiences  explains online, "A corporation is not just a money maker. It is a living, breathing entity with organic relationships, and networking and branding needs. Its employees, the parts that create the whole, cannot survive from phone conversations and meetings in cramped closet spaces."

Reconnecting Employees

With pandemic-induced remote work and the now-skyrocketing remote and hybrid work opportunities, C-level executives are wringing their hands about what they perceive to be an astounding lack of employee connection and engagement.

A recent study by Thriver found that 39 percent of U.S. executives indicate that employee engagement is "the most significant challenge" companies faced during the pandemic.

Hence, the corporate retreat has perhaps become a useful management tool to strengthen employees' connection to their organization and to one another.

How to Avoid 'Forced Fun'

While some news articles have asserted that employees are "miserable" about "forced fun" at such getaways, research from one retreat-planning company found that 53 percent of employees said they formulated their most creative ideas on such company trips.

Eliza White is vice president of people operations at the Millbrae, Calif.-based identity verification company Merit. Her organization, like many, sent employees home to work remotely during the pandemic. It was only midsummer of this year when Merit arranged an in-person retreat so all employees could experience team-building activities and spend time together socially.

According to HR professionals, such getaways should focus on four things: encouraging one-on-one interactions between workers, giving parents and caregivers a break, helping employees learn and grow professionally, and bringing greater direction and meaning to the workplace.

From the Affordable to the Extravagant

Many of today's employees spend a great deal of their time working on teams. Younger workers, in particular, have grown accustomed to collaborative efforts rather than hierarchical structures. As a result, a company retreat that focuses on team building and trust can be an ideal way to enthuse and invigorate workers.

So what types of retreats tend to achieve this end?

They can range from the simple to the complex. From the affordable to the extravagant.

For instance, two popular company activities are scavenger hunts and ax throwing.

Workplace bonds can also be forged through volunteer projects like building bicycles or preparing meals in a soup kitchen.

Then there are escape rooms—simulated rooms in which people are locked and required to solve a series of puzzles within a certain amount of time to accomplish a goal, which is typically finding the key to unlock the room. These exercises tend to offer clues into how workers collaborate with one another and how each takes on a certain role to accomplish their "escape."

Here's an even more intense approach to the "escape" experience: Ten executives from Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment took a full-day water survival skills class that included various exercises in a pool and culminated in a simulated plane crash from which they had to escape.

Retreat-planning companies suggest that company executives consider these guidelines when planning a getaway:

*Hold sessions offsite if possible. There will be fewer distractions, and people can't sneak back to their desks. 

*Ask employees what types of activities they would enjoy, keeping in mind that not everyone is athletic, musically inclined or comfortable wearing bathing suits in front of colleagues. 

*Give workers ample notice for mandatory evening events or multiple-day retreats, so they have enough time to make alternative arrangements for personal responsibilities such as child care.

*Don't pressure people to go to nonmandatory weekend or evening "fun" events. It's not enjoyable if it's forced. 

*Limit out-of-office retreats to two days so employees don't spend too much time away from personal obligations and to avoid work piling up while they're away. 

*Be mindful of people's dietary restrictions and cultural customs. 

*Postpone any alcohol consumption until after the serious portions of the events are over.

More on Executive Getaways

Aside from the companywide retreat, there remains the getaway for top executives.  

Elisa Farri is vice president, co-lead of Capgemini Invent's Management Lab. She has a decade of experience designing and leading retreats for companies around the globe. She notes that unlike retreats of the past—which tended to focus on PowerPoint presentations and an overload of information from presenters—today's executive retreat should strive to achieve the following:

*Involve the audience. And not just with a post-presentation Q&A session. Executives should be actively engaged throughout the retreat.

*Encourage spontaneity and creativity. While it can be difficult to convince high-powered executives to be vulnerable or transparent, give it a try. Ask them to share their struggles, their doubts, even their perceived failures. You might be surprised, once one or two executives open up, how many more will follow. 

*Set ground rules for sharing. To encourage openness, tell participants from the start that while you expect them to be candid, they should express any disagreement with others in a healthy and respectful way. Warn them that they will be asked challenging questions. Remind them that the event is about learning and growing. And assure them that it's alright if they don't have all the answers.


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