While some workers may be dreading trust falls and sitting around the fire singing "Kumbaya" while packing their bags, corporate retreats have been identified as a critical element to developing bonds, breaking through stuck team dynamics, and hitting the refresh button.
"I’m seeing more groups tap the wisdom of their teams by creating open space and unstructured time for group work," Leigh Marz, an organizational consultant and coach who has advised and facilitated retreats for NASA and University of California at Berkeley tells Fast Company. "I think this trend is a positive one that illustrates a trust in the abilities of the team and promotes shared leadership."
Marz says there are five indicators that signal when it may be time for an organization to plan a retreat.
- When departments are functioning in silos and communication is breaking down.
- When you are bringing on new people and you want to incorporate them into the company’s culture.
- After a challenging time, such as cutbacks or a downturn in the market.
- During a merger that plans to combine two companies’ cultures.
- Annually for maintenance, but have a clear purpose and objectives about what you want to get out of it.
Next, Marz advises finding the right setting for the culture of your organization, whether it’s a remote wilderness experience filled with outdoor activities or another setting to host team and leadership-building exercises to enjoy and remember.
When preparing, Marz cautions leaders to make the distinction between a retreat and an offsite meeting. She recommends asking the following questions to determine whether you are planning a true retreat versus an offsite work or strategy session:
- Is there downtime for reflection?
- Is there time for staff to connect with each other and network?
- Is it in a setting that helps to inspire and replenish?
Biba Binotti, founder of U.K.-based leadership development consultancy Red Hat People, believes that getting people out of the office and on to a farm is a crucial element of staff development. "We do that because it busts all of the myths around leadership and corporate professionals," she says. "Getting them out of their usual office clothes, their corporate ‘uniform,’ breaks down their preconception of who they are and who people expect them to be," Binotti says. "It's a great leveler, and it stops the heightened competitiveness and posturing."
Binotti partners with another organization, Acorn to Oaks, to do Equine Guided Leadership training. "The horses will reflect your congruence," she says. In other words, the horse will respond positively when what you feel inside matches your outward expression. "The great thing is that, unlike humans, they are nonjudgmental and don't hold any grudges, they respond in the moment so you can also change your behavior and get instant feedback. Plus, just being with horses reduces stress and is calming."
One woman who came had a horse of her own, Binotti recalls, but when she got into the arena she couldn’t get the horse to do what she wanted. "One of the things that came out for her is that she thought she had to be perfect and the best, and yet inside, she felt she wasn’t," Binotti says. "Her team was relieved to hear her say this," she remembers. They were then able to tell her they felt she was also trying to be the expert and perfect in the workplace, and so they couldn’t really connect with her. Says Binotti: "This totally transformed her relationship with herself and her team.’
Cocreating the agenda for the retreat can increase investment and participation, says Marz. "Examples of concrete objectives are to accomplish some piece of work together and to have something to show for it at the end," she says. "Be sure to include intangible goals as well, such as feeling replenished, inspired, and connected to one another," Marz adds.
"A great way to solicit people’s input for retreat planning is to ask them what they don’t want in a retreat," says Marz. "Ask them what would be a disaster. This helps surface some people’s concerns, usually in a playful way, that will tell you a lot about where people are coming from."
That doesn’t mean retreats shouldn’t push people past their comfort zones. When the CEO of a tech company told Jenny Sauer-Klein, founder of Play On Purpose, to design a summer camp theme for their corporate retreat, he mentioned he didn’t want any activities that involved too much intimacy or vulnerability.
"A lot of people have ideas of what team building is going to be. They think it is going to be cheesy, hokey and forced," says Sauer-Klein. "The art is creating conditions where play and fun arise naturally from the game itself." After a few of these exercises, she says, the level of risk taking, teamwork, communication, and trust increase exponentially.
On the third and final day of this particular retreat, after two days of play, Sauer-Klein had the group ready to do "car and driver," an initiative that blindfolds half of the participants.
"This kinesthetic exercise is a gold mine of information about how to build trust, teamwork, and leadership," Sauer-Klein explains. "People are afraid of momentary discomfort, which makes them want to avoid whole realms of experience," she says, "and they can miss out on building deep trust and connections."