Break Time

Refocus your employees with a company retreat.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the August 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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."

Planning Ahead

The key to holding a successful retreat is good planning. "You've got to go into it with a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish," says Duffey.

"Retreats won't work if they're thrown together. You need a concrete plan," agrees Plott. "You also need to know beforehand what you want to get out of the retreat."

That means, for instance, if you want to focus on marketing objectives, make sure the retreat agenda sticks to that topic and includes all the information participants need to know to make informed decisions. But don't get too ambitious, warns Houghton. "For any retreat to work, you want to present real information, but you also need to take into account people's attention spans," she says. "Some companies undermine their retreats with poor scheduling. You don't put on a heavy presentation right after lunch, for instance. People will fall asleep. Other retreats fail because the agenda is too packed--no room is left for the discussions that can spark creative ideas. Be sensitive to concerns like this, plan thoroughly, and you'll get a lot done at any retreat."

If you invited the right people, that is. "That's crucial, and who you invite is driven by the retreat's purpose. Define attendees by who will add value to the session and who the key players are who will make the aftermath happen," says Plott.

"A retreat will fail if the right people aren't involved," agrees Duffey. "You want to involve the people in the organization who make things happen."

And that has to include the owner, stresses Jody Murphy Smith, assistant director of the National Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland's University College in College Park. "Sometimes we're asked to stage retreats that don't include senior management," she says. "But we know that won't work. To be effective, a retreat has to involve the highest-level managers."

The Right Stuff

Stick to this recipe for a retreat, and you can expect a lot of good to come from it. But also be realistic: "Retreats aren't cure-alls. Often when people complain a retreat didn't work, the problem is with their expectations, not the retreat. If you haven't gotten a project on track in six months, a one-day retreat won't change it," says Murphy Smith.

Put more plainly: If profits are sagging or employees are bickering, a retreat by itself isn't the magic wand that, waved once, will wipe away all your woes. Think of it like weight loss: "Just joining a health club won't cut your waistline; you need to take specific action steps," Murphy Smith says. "The same is true for a retreat. It's the start of the process of change, but its real effectiveness happens afterward, back at the office."

Exactly how should a retreat carry over into the office? "Don't leave a retreat without first [setting] specific goals and action steps to be taken by the individual participants," says Murphy Smith.

Duffey says much the same about the importance of follow-up: "After the Ignition program, we go back to the company with a document that outlines the major goals that were agreed on, the tactics, and who has responsibility for what, by when. This puts action items into a concrete time line that makes positive results both more probable and easy to track."

The bottom line on retreats? "Holding one just to hold one makes no sense. It never gets results. Nor will you get results if you don't plan well," says Houghton. "But set a clear-cut objective, plan accordingly, invite the right participants, and actions can come out of a retreat that wouldn't happen anywhere else."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications.

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