It wasn’t until Allesandra de Santillana was covered in mud, at the bottom of a grave, that she realized the importance of corporate retreats.
In July, she and 19 of her colleagues at Internet Society, a nonprofit focused on Internet policy, went on a retreat in the English countryside. Following a morning of meetings, the team was broken into three groups and tasked with solving a murder mystery. De Santillana was in the "forensic" group. Trained actors came in to facilitate.
"They put us in white investigator suits with hoods—straight out of CSI—and pointed us to a garden that had been cordoned off with caution tape," she says. "We spent the next two hours digging into a grave, finding bones and photographing them," she recalls. "It was backbreaking work."
While she and her team looked for buried bones, the other two groups interviewed suspects and distilled case-related information in a pseudo "central command" station. The activity ended with the three teams working collaboratively to identify the perpetrator. A 15-minute time limit proved difficult when dissenting opinions were voiced, but eventually they arrived on a ruling.
"We ended up getting it wrong, but that wasn’t the point," De Santillana says. She adds:
It was amazing to see how we all worked together. When we were digging the grave, there were people pulling their weight and others standing around; some people were shy and others were vocal. Our group felt really isolated from the rest because we were in the garden, which made us think of feelings of isolation in our real lives, and we ended up discussing the importance of constantly keeping everyone in the loop at work.
Corporate retreats have been a mainstay throughout De Santillana’s career, but most haven’t come close to the impact of the murder mystery exercise. The majority have lacked meaning for attendees. She was once forced to complete an obstacle course dressed in a Sumo suit. "Ridiculous," she says. Or they have focused on socializing without concrete takeaways. While it was nice to learn about colleagues’ personal lives on a sailing trip, De Santillana points out, "I didn’t learn anything about their skills and what they brought to the team."
The conversation around corporate retreats has changed in past years, due in part to the increase of millennial workers—a cohort that will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. According to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, this age group is focused on meeting targets and making an impact with clients. That would indicate that retreats that include trust falls and golf and spa activities without any business takeaways are out, while murder mysteries and other experiential activities that can help foster employee growth are in.
It's important not to tie company retreats to performance, especially when you want everyone to attend. It can be easy to confuse retreats with incentive trips (net five new customers and win a trip to Hawaii!), but the contrast is an important one.
Sean Collins learned this distinction the hard way. As CEO of Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill, a fast-casual restaurant chain based in Salt Lake City, he spent his first three years at the company sending employees on a cruise as long as they hit their numbers. But in year four, the team came up short, putting Collins in a tight spot.
"I wanted us all to be together, so I changed the qualifications, which made some people angry," he remembers. "Now we do profit sharing based on numbers," says Collins. "We don’t tie our trips to performance if team building is the objective."
There should be a takeaway or benefit communicated to the team. "To go away for the sake of going away is really annoying for a lot of people," says Julie Smith, chief administrative officer at The Bozzuto Group, a Greenbelt, Maryland-based real estate firm. "If it isn’t worth it, your employees may ask why you aren’t spending that money on things like raises, or better coffee in the office," she says.
Corporate retreats don’t have to take place in Tahiti and cost a fortune. If your company can’t afford something lavish, head to the local park and get crafty. "We once did a dinner around a campfire where we gave out ‘paper plate awards’ celebrating individual contributions," says Smith.
"We gave the housekeeping award to our accounting guy who cleans up everyone’s financial messes, a positivity award to a person who always pumps everyone up, and so on." The cost was nominal, says Smith, because she made them with her daughter. "Our employees loved them so much that many have them hanging in their cubes," she says.
Not everyone will want to go on a 15-mile bike ride, participate in a yoga class, or go white-water rafting. Smith recommends scheduling in multiple activity options so everyone feels comfortable. For example, cooking classes are a good option for those who’d prefer to be indoors.
Corporate retreats are most effective when an entire team is present and participating. If a team member isn’t hot on the idea, reevaluate the format of the event, the location, and the communication.
"It is important to communicate the purpose of the event so people get excited about it," says Smith. Events need to be collaborative. "Each person attending should be responsible for delivering a piece of the meeting. Everyone should be doing a little homework and preparation before the big day."
What works for a team of 10 will not be as much fun or meaningful when you grow to 100. Collins realized this when reflecting on past snowmobiling retreats. He and his then team of 15 would ride to the top of a mountain to discuss challenges and come up with solutions. This relaxed format was perfect with such a small group, but proved more difficult when 70-plus people would try to squeeze in for a listen.
A corporate retreat should make employees think deeply and strategically, so steer clear of everyday topics.
"Make it personalized and different than what people hear all the time," says De Santillana. "Don’t talk about your quarterly update or show me a PowerPoint presentation," she says. "I could get that over the phone." Remember that attendees are being asked to travel to the retreat, so "you want to be discussing something you can’t finish with a conference call."
"You can only foster inspiration, not manifest it," Smith says. "Not everyone will have a eureka moment."
Katie Morell is a San Francisco-based business writer. Read more of her work at www.katiemorell.com