Rapidly growing GoldMine Software Corp. had a problem: The success of the company's contact management software had bred its own difficulties. GoldMine's performance had been stellar--revenues had been doubling every year--but "we were going through growing pains," says Brenda Christensen, human resources director for the 70-employee company. "So many people on staff were newly hired, we started seeing internal communications problems. Plus, we [were] so busy putting out day-to-day fires, there was a lack of focus on the big picture."
So the Pacific Palisades, California, company took a step more businesses are taking when they face tough problems: "We held an off-site retreat. Every employee was invited; about 35 of our 50 [people] on staff at the time went," says Christensen, who adds that attendance was optional for nonmanagement personnel. The weekend retreat--held on nearby Catalina Island--featured some leisure time, but "we worked hard on improving communications. One night, for instance, we all sat on the beach and, one by one, talked about what we liked about the company, what we didn't like, and what changes we wanted to see," says Christensen. In the meantime, management used the retreat to give employees insight into the company's mission and goals.
Did it work? The privately held company has retained its position as a leader in the contact management marketplace--and, what's more, "there's no question that the employees who went came back recharged. The ones who didn't go felt they'd missed out," says Christensen. "We're scheduling another retreat now, and I'm sure we'll get even higher attendance. Retreats work--for the company and the employees."
Still, many executives believe retreats are usually a waste of time, at best a disguised perk. "But retreats can have real bottom-line payoffs," says Lee Duffey, president and owner of Duffey Communications Inc., an Atlanta public relations and marketing firm that offers its clients a retreat program--dubbed "Ignition"--aimed at recharging marketing programs. "Retreats got a bad rap because many were done poorly. Who has time to go out in the woods with co-workers to hold hands and sing songs? Retreats don't have to be that way. They can be very focused on business issues, and when they are, companies see the results back at the office."
Can a small business afford a retreat? While the stereotypical retreat is held someplace like Hawaii, these days fewer companies are scheduling that sort of expensive blowout. Cost-consciousness and effectiveness are today's touchstones, and the upshot is more businesses are discovering there are many ways to hold down expenses but still get results, says Curtis Plott, president and CEO of the American Society for Training & Development in Alexandria, Virginia. "We just did a retreat ourselves, and we held it in a local motel," he says. "You don't have to travel to an exotic location." In fact, adds Plott, retreats in distant locales aren't even desirable to many workers nowadays: "We're all short [on] time. Work demands are high, and we have busy personal lives. Who has time for a faraway retreat? Suggest it, and many employees will look at you as though you're crazy."
Another related trend is brevity. A few decades ago, four- and five-day retreats were commonplace. No more. "Today's typical retreat is one day," says Dianne Houghton, president and COO of strategic and communications consulting firm Jaffe Associates in Washington, DC. "There are still two-day retreats, too, but you rarely see the four-day retreats that used to be normal."
Why hold a retreat in the first place? "The main reason is that when you go off site, you get away from the day-to-day issues and can get a perspective on bigger issues--the crucial forces driving the company, its competitors and the marketplace," says Houghton. Go away from the office, and immediately, that silences the phones, halts the interruptions and gives participants the chance to reflect on big questions--and answers. "A retreat allows for the sort of thinking that can jump-start a company's growth," adds Houghton, who herself holds twice-yearly retreats for her entire staff. "We do it because we continue to get value. Four years ago we had seven employees; now we're at 33. And retreats have played a significant role in our growth."