Just a few days before, she had been a high-powered, well-adjusted human resources executive. But the voice on the phone was that of a broken woman. "How'd it go? Are you all right?" I asked my friend. "Let me put it this way," Isabel replied, "by the end of it, we were all wearing beanies and whistles. You tell me how it went." Another victim of Corporate Retreat Defeat.
There was a time when bonding with coworkers was confined to getting hammered together after hours and indiscreet gropings at the annual holiday bacchanal. That's all changed. Now it's generally held that for a company to be truly successful, employees must be able to work and play together with near-telepathic precision.
What makes the corporate retreat so terrifying is the pop-quiz feel of it all. In day-to-day life, our value to our employer is measured by how well we perform the tasks we were hired to do. Off-site, however, we can be judged according to criteria we haven't considered since junior-high gym class. I used to work at a nonprofit, a world of mostly young, mostly overworked individuals who spent days on end staring at computer screens and kissing the butts of trustees. Where better to prove our skills and educations than on the field of athletic competition?
We all lived in dread of the twice-yearly enforced-fun staff retreat to the vacation home of a board member, where we would be compelled to engage in all manner of humiliating spectacle. My department manager at the time was the poster boy for Type-A personality disorder, a man who possessed all the charm of an attack dog in a tie. In the office, his snarly joie de vivre was not entirely out of place. At the interdepartmental softball game, it was downright unsettling. Wiser and more experienced staff members made themselves conveniently scarce at the first sign of group activity. Like an antelope who has fallen away from the herd, I was quickly snared.
My manager spent the game screaming. The athletic incompetence of his pasty, overeducated minions was a personal affront. I recall not catching a fly ball, and being forever stigmatized in his eyes as "not a team player."
I have one friend whose annual corporate retreats are a ritualized exercise in debasement that fly in the face of basic human dignity. I suspect they also violate the Geneva convention. "Every year it gets bigger and cheesier," admits Pat nostalgically. "Four years ago, when we had only about 80 employees, they'd take us to a cabin in Tahoe and the president would mandate skinny dipping in the hot tub. Their idea of team building was to do a couple of shots and play Jeopardy."
In recent years, the company's events have lost some of that festively naked, drunken quality, but the closeness is still there. "They took us to Golden Gate Park one year, blindfolded us, and ordered us to line up according to shoe size," he recalls. "We were basically stumbling around grabbing each other's feet. There are a lot of things about my colleagues I don't want to feel. I always wondered about the liability on something like that." He adds soberly, "Some year they're going to put us in sumo suits and make us wrestle each other, I just know it."
While colleague bonding in San Francisco might look like a get-acquainted party on the Love Boat, that kind of fraternization doesn't fly everywhere. "Two days is too much time to spend with anyone, let alone100 of your coworkers," says Brigid, an executive at a new-media firm in Manhattan and a veteran of the Bunk It Junket. "It reminded me of our seventh-grade class trip to Washington, DC, except that no one wound up handcuffed to a toilet."
The first day they brought in consultants for team building exercises — "West Coast touchy-feely freaks. They were so guileless and earnest, and they were talking to the 150 most cynical people in America. It gives me stomach cramps just thinking about it," she winces. "There was a carpet with squares, some of which buzzed when you stepped on them. You had to get your team across without speaking." In the end, she says, after endless gestures and signs and attempts to not make the rug buzz, "I just wanted to kill the other people on my team." Brigid pauses. "That's a really bad way to get to know people."
I couldn't agree more. Though there's no reason off-site pow-wowing can't be as pleasurable and enlightening as, say, holiday dinner with the family or freshman hazing week at college, I still believe that if I want to share and learn with my colleagues, I'll take happy hour and a game of quarters, thank you. But if I have to be sent away to Fortune 500 Sleepaway Camp, then there's got to be more to it than a weekend in a hotel and a buzzing carpet.
I want Troop 401K singing rousing campfire favorites like "Our Clients Are Jackals" sung to the tune of "On Top of Old Smoky." I want short-sheeting of the CEO's bed. I want wacky hijinks when the multinational firm encamped across the lake challenges us to a pie-eating contest. The hell with team building and empowerment — I want care packages, food fights, and wedgies. If we're coming home tired, sore, and wearing matching T-shirts, then by God, I want it to mean something.
The Spy is a writer living and corporate retreating in New England.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.