Fun! Off-Site Retreats Are Back

Corporate retreats: Remember them? Off-site meetings where the entire company flies or drives to a cool location for a few days of team-building, networking, and fostering corporate culture. There might be costumed characters, escape rooms, water balloon battles, yacht cruises around the harbor, open bars, famous musicians on stage. Sometimes, real work actually gets done–brainstorming new ideas, developing big-picture strategies. A bonus for employees is that they’re often in really cool places like Barcelona, or the English countryside, or (if you have to stay domestic) Las Vegas. But in March 2020, everything was cancelled. Hotels went empty and planes didn’t fly for lack of passengers. And then the office closed and you didn’t see your colleagues except through Zoom. Actually, “Zoom retreats” became a thing–you can download oodles of activities from the web. It was better than doomscrolling, but really everyone was disappointed. It just wasn’t the same as being in Las Vegas.

From 2020 to 2022, the biggest loss from office closures was the power of collaboration to drive innovation. Individual workers were more productive, but lost innovation is harder to measure. My research shows the many ways that conversations drive creativity. Many of those things are impossible to recreate remotely. Zoom retreats don’t do much for collaboration either.

I’m excited to learn of a new development: Lots of companies are planning retreats even when their offices are still closed. What gives? Managers have accepted that their people aren’t going to all be together in the office for a long time, if ever. So the thinking is, let’s bring them together, all at once, and use a week to build culture and company loyalty. Maybe we’ll squeeze in some work. It can be the time when new workers actually get to see their colleagues in person and maybe get some in-person mentoring. If it’s really a special event, if it’s over the top, it might help you retain workers who are already interviewing for a better job. Here’s what Lora Kelley says in the New York Times:

Off-sites help companies convey messages efficiently to many employees, build trust among workers, and make the staff feel treated well. Off-sites are not just about leaving the office. They are about breaking up daily routines that, after nearly two pandemic years, can feel monotonous.

An off-site makes remote work feel more personal. It increases your attachment to the company beyond just your salary. When you see your co-worker’s tiny image on the screen, you’ll remember climbing through the ropes course or tossing a water balloon at them. Meghana Reddy, an HR manager, said that offsites are “a better use of money than trying to get people back in the office.” And you don’t have to sign a multi-year lease. Some companies that are closing their offices permanently are investing some of the savings into more off-sites. You can do a big one for the whole company where you bring in Beyonce (that was Uber); a medium-sized one for a division; and even a small one for a single project team.

I’m a huge fan of off-site meetings! But they’re very hard to do well. I’ve learned that it makes a big difference when you design it around the latest research on creativity and collaboration. When I organize events that align with creativity research and collaborative innovation, it’s not only a lot of fun–everyone learns together how to drive innovation with collaboration. So say YES to the retreat!

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