By Joe Issid
Monster Contributing Writer
What are your initial thoughts when you hear mention of a corporate retreat? Personally, several things typically go through my mind when the topic is raised, most of which are not wholly positive. (For the uninitiated, corporate retreats are ostensibly events that are scheduled by companies to include team building activities, promote corporate messaging and, to a lesser extent, allow employees to blow off steam away from the office. Some companies go so far as to host their retreats in exotic locations and pay for their employees' travel and accommodations. OK, so maybe they aren't all bad!)
On the surface, retreats can sound like a good investment and, if well organized, can be fun and productive for everyone involved. However, in reality, retreats can often be awkward, unproductive and without any measurable long-term benefit. Considering that the retreat is usually scheduled during regular working hours, the costs (both in terms of hosting the event as well as the time spent not working) can be extremely high. So, can a corporate retreat be valuable are they mostly a waste of time?
You'll be hard pressed to sit in on a manager's meeting at any company and not hear talk of ROI – return on investment. Whether it relates to hiring new personnel or providing free coffee, most business decisions are made with the notion that there will be some form of tangible return. The very same practice needs to be applied to corporate retreats. If you are looking to plan a 2-day retreat in the desert with your employees, you had best come up with a well-defined strategy on what the company stands to gain from the exercise. Far too often companies schedule retreats because they sound like a good idea before determining whether there is any real benefit. If you can't measure (or approximate) a return, then maybe a retreat is not the right move for your company at this time.
Can you force team chemistry?
If you've ever been on a brutal blind date, you can surely agree that good chemistry is extremely important and can't be ignored. Similarly, good team dynamics exist somewhat organically and many believe that it cannot be taught or forced. Compelling employees to build trust walls or accountability chains is probably not the answer. Nor is making them sit through endless lectures on organizational behavioral trends. Good team cohesion exists if the team has clear roles, are well-trained and the manager has a good idea of how to recruit new members to the team. The easiest way to ensure that new members are well-matched to the team is to involve parts (or all) of the team in the hiring process. Making them play tug-o-war against the team from shipping is probably not your long-term solution.
Many companies like to play games or encourage certain types of behaviours while on a retreat. For example, some companies will require their employees to disconnect entirely, forbidding them to use their mobile devices or computers while on a retreat. In this day and age, removing someone's access will likely have the opposite than desired impact. People get anxious when disconnected and may feel belittled if they are forbidden from performing seemingly innocuous tasks. Additionally, asking your employees to play silly games can often be met with reluctance and embarrassment. Pay close attention to your audience and try to fully understand their willingness to participate. You may find that your retreat will take on a very different look if you are more discerning in your approach.
Deconstructing the hierarchy
A common theme in retreats is to ensure that everyone is treated equally and that all voices are heard equally. This can certainly be empowering for many employees, whose ideas may be given additional amplification during this collaborative time. It can certainly be extremely beneficial for, say, an accountant, to be having supper with the CFO. Rest assured that the benefit goes both ways here. Having said that, the danger is that this type of interaction only happens once a year. If your company is committed to the notion of true vertical idea sharing, then it needs to be incorporated into the daily fabric of the company – and not simply reserved for an annual event.
If the principle motivation of having a company retreat is to get a specific collection of people together, think about if this can be achieved in a less expensive and obtrusive way. For example, if you like the idea of getting all of your software engineers in a room together to brainstorm ideas, forcing them to do so during a retreat may not get the results you are looking for. It may be more beneficial to, say, install a pool table in the office to encourage employees to socialize with one another organically. Large companies (such as Google and Yahoo!) have actually started banning remote workers as they have seen the benefits of having their employees physically together for long periods of time. Prolonged exposure to one another fosters greater working relationships than a once-a-year trip to the beach.