Whether it’s for a department or the entire company, an annual retreat can be a great way to recalibrate a group’s purpose, set new goals, and prepare for the year to come. Or a retreat can be an incredible time suck.
Planned and executed correctly, a retreat should result in a concrete plan and even a strategy for achieving that plan. But without specific objectives and an effective facilitator, a retreat can become nothing more than a fun time away from the office, interrupted by endless pointless conversations that are quickly forgotten by the time attendees are in their cars driving home.
An effective retreat is something all companies should undertake, says Pubali C. Campbell, CEO of Human Resource Partners in Dover. “They are instrumental in making sure your strategic work and business goals are aligned,” she says.
Change of Scenery Is Vital
The first order of business is to get out of the office. After all, it is in the actual name—retreat.
Campbell says we are wired to associate feelings with locations. So a change of scenery to strategically think about the business is essential. It prevents attendees from getting bogged down with feelings they may have attached to the office, which are not always positive. “When we take ourselves physically out of a place we are accustomed to, it takes us out of a mindset,” she says.
An outside location also ensures that participants are focused on deeper thinking rather than being distracted by the daily routine of the office, such as phones ringing, Jim walking down the corridor, etc.
Campbell adds that retreats don’t have to break the budget and don’t require sending a team to Vegas. (Though no one is likely to complain about that if it’s in the budget.) A retreat can be held someplace local as long as the venue can accommodate your crew, Campbell says.
Peter Cooke, principal of Cooke Associates in Hooksett, agrees, adding that while three- and four-day retreats used to be the norm, companies now conduct one- or two-day retreats, which keeps expenses down while still setting the refresh button.
Goals and Transparency
Every retreat must have clearly stated goals. Campbell says mentioning a retreat can cause employees to roll their eyes, as everyone’s been to a bad retreat or seen executives use a retreat as an excuse for a boondoggle. “They go off and have a good time for two or three nights, and no one knows what they are doing or why they are there,” she says, which can cause resentment among staff.
Whether or not everyone is participating in the retreat, the goals and objectives should be known throughout the company, as well as the resulting action plan, Campbell says.
“What is the problem we are looking to solve? What is the purpose of this retreat?” are among the first questions companies need to ask, Campbell says. And she recommends planners consider how much time needs to be allocated during the retreat to addressing goals, discussing important issues, socializing and team building.
Campbell says make sure all attendees receive an agenda for the retreat ahead of time. “Whatever goes on the agenda needs to match” the purpose of the retreat, she adds.
Cooke says it is essential to make sure the retreat is planned to engage participants and allow for strategic thinking. “It’s the only time [most staff get] to slow down and think about the business [strategically],” he says.
Consider a Facilitator
Early on, retreat planners must decide whether someone internally will run the event or whether a facilitator will be hired. A facilitator should know how to spur strategic thinking and guide difficult conversations, Campbell says. They can also act as a referee and provide an objective viewpoint, she adds.
“Make sure whoever is facilitating understands the importance of reading the room,” Campbell says, adding that people who are not skilled in reading body language can miss vital cues that it’s time for a break or to move on. “The person in charge shouldn’t just be concerned about checking off boxes for the retreat but be nimble and make decisions based on what the audience needs.”
Cooke says a facilitator can also conduct a needs assessment prior to the retreat to make sure the issues critical to the company are being addressed.
In addition to giving everyone the agenda in advance, it’s not unusual to ask attendees to prepare or do homework in advance. Make sure people understand what the expectations are for the retreat and the behavior that is expected. Is the retreat a casual brainstorming or team building exercise, or a focused off-site meeting meant to help turn the company around?
“If you are having a raging party the day before and people are hung over the next day, which I have seen, that retreat will not be effective,” Campbell says, warning that if alcohol is served at the retreat, it is important to set boundaries.
“You need to balance fun with productivity, or you may have bigger fish to fry than you signed up for,” she says, explaining that companies could have HR issues they need to deal with as a result of any inappropriate behavior at an off-site meeting or overnight retreat.
Setting those expectations, she adds, can be done with a simple conversation at the beginning of the retreat led by the person organizing it. Facilitators might say, “We want you to have a great time but think about being productive the next day,” Campbell says.
Make It Interactive
Retreats should be interactive and not just attendees sitting around listening to one or two people blather on. Make it “fun, interactive and meaningful,” Cooke says.
But avoid doing an activity for its own sake. “It won’t go anywhere,” Cooke says. Instead, he recommends making sure activities align with the purpose of the retreat.
Whether it’s having employees write a news article about the business’s future accomplishments or having participants vote on priorities, activities should further the goals of the retreat, he says.
It’s About Results
At the end of the day, it is important that leadership demonstrate the value of the retreat. This means ensuring that action items from the retreat are implemented, Campbell says. “When companies have a lavish retreat and come back with nothing to show for it, it will be a ding to the culture.”
Cooke notes that retreats are ideal for examining the state of a company culture and addressing issues that may be affecting it, including issues of diversity and inclusion. For instance, “You can talk about built-in biases,” and how to address them, he says. “Retreats are an opportunity to build culture and make the culture more effective.”
Retreats can also be an opportunity to connect with customers and create plans to strengthen the customer experience, Cooke says. He suggests inviting key customers to attend part of the retreat to provide insights into what the company is doing well from a customer perspective and what it could be doing better. “That is powerful,” he says.
By the end of the retreat, there should be an action plan and people assigned to complete the actions, Cooke says.