Company Retreats Should Mix Fun and Work, Re-Engage Team

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 4, 2015
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Do organizational retreats have to be an annual event?

Given today’s fast-paced workplace, Kris Duggan, CEO BetterWorks—an information technology and services provider in the San Francisco Bay Area—thinks once a year is not often enough. He recommends that companies hold retreats twice yearly or even quarterly to rejuvenate employees and keep them on track with company goals and strategies.

“There are so many opportunities to move to a quarterly cadence. Doing annual retreats is great, but I think it needs to be supplemented with more check-ins and activity,” said Duggan, whose company holds two half-day retreats quarterly. In addition, employees check in monthly with their supervisors, and supervisors check in monthly with their teams.

Each half-day retreat usually is scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. and is largely devoted to reviewing past goals and discussing and setting new goals. The second half-day of the retreat may be devoted to four strategic topics and could include outside speakers or thought leaders.

It’s also important to make time for fun—“anything that just breaks up the day”—said Duggan, whose company’s retreats have included participating in Scotch and wine tastings and playing miniature golf.

That sense of playfulness will be dictated by how serious your culture is, but it’s important to make the retreat memorable and give employees an experience they ordinarily would not have, he emphasized.

‘The Best Retreats Re-engage the Team’

Holding retreats offsite whenever possible can help remove daily interruptions, according to Duggan.

“It elevates the retreat,” he said. His organization once rented a chateau in Napa Valley for four days. Fun activities took place in the mornings, followed by afternoons of work-related sessions.

“People get lost in a sea of noise, and they need to be reminded occasionally,” through retreats, “of what’s important and what’s not important,” Duggan said. “The best retreats re-engage the team, revitalize the energy, reflect on all the great work that’s been done, push the team for opportunities of improvement and set the tone,” whether that’s for the next six months or the next three years, he said.

Be clear on the purpose of the retreat, he advised. It could be to reward high performance; re-energize a team; review where the organization has been and where it’s going; or plan an element of the business, such as market strategy. Consider, too, who will participate. Is it leadership? Leadership and top performers? An entire team?

Nancy Everitt, founder, presidenet and CEO of Franklin, Tenn.-based insurance firm HEOPS Inc., noted in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) LinkedIn discussin that her organization holds an annual "staycation" for its 14-20 employees near its corporate office.

This way, "all employees can participate in strategic planning and team building," and employees' spouses or significant others are included at the retreat's kickoff dinner and wrap-up social event. Retreat participants include board members, contractors and others who are strategic to the orgnaization, she told SHRM Online in a follow-up conversation.

“It’s not always your employees who have something to say in your [organization’s] development,” she pointed.The retreat “serves as a catalyst” for creating project plans and refining the company’s plans for the future. This is sustained through communication and reporting of results to maintain the retreat’s momentum, she said.

Give Employees a Breather

Retreats are part of the culture at Konnect Public Relations, where a recent summer team-building retreat was literally a day at the beach with games, food trucks and time in the water.

“The goal is to remind people why they’re here, to remind them we’re a great [company] to work for,” said Sabina Gault, Konnect president. “We work really hard, and it’s nice for people to take a little breather and have fun and enjoy themselves.”

She’s adamant that retreats be held offsite and include a mix of work and fun. Konnect, located in the greater Los Angeles area, holds an annual three-day retreat in December for its 55 employees.

Holiday retreats are held on weekends and have included snow skiing and a three-day cruise. Last year, the company rented a hotel and everyone had the opportunity to go horseback riding, visit Temecula Vineyards for a wine tasting and ride in a hot air balloon.

The company also holds quarterly team-building retreats, and each manager schedules “some sort of monthly outing with their team.” Each October, managers participate in a retreat lasting one to three days; Gault described this retreat as “less fun and more work,” where there is a focus on strategy.

All retreats are employee-only events.

“We don’t bring families because then you take away from that company and team mentality,” Gault explained. HR handles the logistics and transportation for all of the retreats, but Gault and the CEO oversee everything else.

“What you need to do is spend time with your team and give them love and attention—and any kind of need they have, fulfill it.”

Retreats don’t have to be expensive, she noted, pointing to Konnect’s recent all-day beach event, and estimating that the 2014 December holiday retreat cost about $600-$800 per person over three days.

“People often are afraid they don’t have time for this,” Gault said of retreats. “You’ve got to let them enjoy life and have fun and be excited about what they’re doing.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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