HR Leads Business

May 15, 2018 | Tim Lemke, HRCI Staff Writer

The Art of a Productive and Engaging Corporate Retreat

Sometimes you just need to get your people out of the office.

A corporate retreat is a common event for many organizations. We see more of these outings as the warm weather invites us to ditch the cubicles and take our work on the road. There are goals and strategies to discuss. New initiatives to plan. Relationships to foster. And there’s fresh air to breathe.

A well-run corporate retreat, whether it involves an entire office or single business unit, is a great way to bolster teamwork and focus on planning. It can also be downright fun for employees. HR professionals can play a big role in ensuring these retreats are useful and well-received.

Why Have a Retreat?

Organizations have retreats for all kinds of reasons, but they are often set up to allow teams to work in a focused way on long-term planning or other initiatives. Many others focus on team-building exercises. In addition, retreats usually give employees a chance to relax and have fun.

An ideal retreat allows time for focused discussion with all team members present and it gives employees a break from the day-to-day routine. A single-day retreat commonly involves a coordinated work session in the morning, followed by a leisure or social activity in the afternoon.

In an age when more workers are telecommuting or working non-traditional schedules, corporate retreats can take on new importance because they can bring people together in one setting for a meaningful stretch of time. This can allow a lot of good work to get done and employees may enjoy a more relaxed time with their colleagues outside of the office.

“A successful retreat will seem relaxed, creative, engaging, and fun,” says Anita Rodriguez, SPHR, learning and development manager with MRA-The Management Association.

In other words, it strikes the right balance of work and enjoyment.

Rodriguez outlines seven benefits to a well-run corporate retreat:

  • Shifting thinking patterns by inviting members to think differently.
  • Appreciation of individual team members.
  • Deepening of trust and nurturing of teamwork with colleagues.
  • Learning a new skill or strengthening a competency.
  • Establishing clarity of upcoming strategies and deliverables and articulating action steps.
  • Bringing diverse voices to the center of the conversation.
  • Encouraging the leader to model collaborative behaviors.

Where to Go?

The locations of corporate retreats can run the gamut from simple afternoons at a local hotel conference room to week-long trips to the Scottish Highlands. Most involve a spot that’s relatively local, but a strong contrast to the office. Conference centers and lodges nestled in natural settings are often popular retreat spots, especially for those accustomed to working in urban or suburban offices.

“Nature has long been recognized as an elixir for the human spirit,” Rodriguez says. “It replenishes and nurtures people. A great retreat setting offers traditional comfort, pleasing aesthetics and lots of natural light featuring large windows with natural panoramas.”

These types of settings can offer recreational activities like hiking, horseback riding, kayaking or ropes courses that offer team-building opportunities.

Even if your team is unable to go anyplace too exotic, it helps if the meeting spaces themselves are conducive to open and relaxed dialogue. Rodriguez points to “round tables, chairs oozing comfort, a beautiful display of yummy food and flowers, and fun props,” as part of an ideal retreat setting.

Who Should Lead?

Depending on the goal of the retreat, it may be a good idea for managers to hand off leadership responsibilities to an outside person. This is especially true when the retreat is based on team-building rather than specific business initiatives. An outside voice can approach every exercise in an unbiased way, and allow managers to participate alongside their employees.

“[Managers] will not be seen as objective and may even give the impression that they have hidden agendas as they facilitate the conversations,” Rodriguez says. Moreover, team managers often don’t have “the experience or expertise in creating a dynamic and fulfilling experience.”

Thus, the leadership role can be filled by someone from HR or a professional retreat leader skilled at directing conversation, keeping each employee engaged and moving things along purposefully. This outside facilitator can also help craft an agenda that will keep a meeting focused and useful.

“Agendas that are unfocused, overloaded and don’t have specific outcomes stated are an invitation to failure,” Meeting Facilitators International writes in Smart Meetings magazine. “These agendas try to cover too much in too little time, with the end result being that nothing gets done properly. The lack of focus makes it all too easy for discussions to get off track.”

This is also an argument to cap the number of people involved in a retreat. Sizable organizations should avoid having retreats involving every employee, as it can become unwieldy and expensive. Rather, it’s best for individual departments and teams to have their own gatherings, where discussions can be more focused.

Following Up

A corporate retreat is most useful when employees walk away with key takeaways. Be sure to reinforce the takeaways with a short recap session. In the days or weeks after a retreat, consider holding a short meeting to get feedback and remind people of the key discussion points.

It’s common at retreats for ideas to be placed in a virtual “parking lot” with the intent to follow up. Don’t let the parking lot become an abandoned sea of asphalt.

“Pictures from the day posted in the workplace, an icebreaker at the next team meeting asking participants to share a memorable experience from that day, reviewing any work output created during the retreat, making agreements to continue conversations on items placed in a parking lot . . . can help carry the benefit of the day moving forward,” Rodriguez says.