I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.
I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.
I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.
Is Your Company New to Remote?
In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.
If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.
Does Work Get Done Efficiently?
You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?
It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.
Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues
In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.
Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.
Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.
I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.
Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders
If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.
There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.
Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.
In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.
How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?
Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.
In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.
Does Everyone Need to Go?
I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.
It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.
Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.