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Retreats

By Katherine Craig

Family Services EAP, Solutions Newsletter, June 2011


The Three Rs of Leadership: Retreats, Recruit & Retain
If they'd heard the words "corporate retreat" ten years ago there's a good possibility your staff would think of a beer-soaked golf tournament and a lukewarm meal in a clubhouse. Or, they'd be reminded of the two days of imprisonment they spent in a windowless banquet hall listening to an incessant string of pseudo-inspirational speeches from "the suits".

But corporate conferences have changed over the years, and companies of all sizes and composition are learning about the benefits of a well-planned, well-run retreat. Whether you offer a week-long program for your entire staff every year, or a two-day event catering to specific departments quarterly, corporate retreats are a valuable tool.

But what makes a good retreat?
A good retreat can take many forms, but let's be clear on one point at the outset: taking the staff out for beer and wings on a Friday is not considered a retreat. It doesn't have to take on the size and scope of a royal wedding, but a good program has some basic components that can be adapted to fit your specific needs and will produce significant benefits.

1) Learning & Skills Development
In a climate where skilled professionals are highly mobile and ambitious, a comprehensive education component can attract and retain the kind of employees you'd want in your organization, especially if your company relies on creative assets, or intellectual property. Think about offering courses that hone the "soft skills" such as:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Employee engagement
  • Time management

If your company is subject to regulatory scrutiny, i.e., health or financial services, then taking an opportunity to review and reinforce standards en masse can improve service delivery and create a culture of consistency throughout the entire organization. This is particularly valuable if your company is spread across the country - or the globe - and face-to-face contact isn't feasible.

2) Strategy Sessions
No matter the size of your organization, your staff will benefit from knowing the direction the company is headed, and you'll benefit equally from the input and observations provided by staff. Spending time discussing strategy will give your employees focus, and will galvanize that focus when they get back to their offices. Your team will have an opportunity to evaluate market trends, strengthening your response to changing consumer - and competitor - behaviour. It will give your staff a sense of inclusion through understanding the organization's short and long-term goals. Ultimately, it will increase loyalty and retention.

3) Team Building & Networking
Education and strategy sessions are certainly important ingredients at a conference, but just as important are the intangibles, the morale builders. Giving your staff an opportunity to "work" together in a less formal environment allows them to learn about their colleagues and fosters a sense of community. You can hold team building exercises at a variety of venues and they can range from bowling to bocce to a GPS treasure hunt. If you hold regularly scheduled retreats, the activities can become more adventurous as your staff becomes more comfortable with the format and more willing to 'colour outside the lines'.

4) Reflection on Success
The notion of "learning from our mistakes" has embedded itself in our corporate culture, but there's much more to be said for learning from our successes. Just ask the upstart founders of the web sensation 37Signals. As they point out in their book, ReWork, "Successes give you real ammunition. When something succeeds, you know what worked - and you can do it again. And the next time, you’ll probably do it even better." Want to see a team pull together and reach surprising heights at your retreat? Set them to the task of describing the things they did that worked. Or, better yet, the things their colleagues did that worked. Of all the activities your staff can pursue, this one is the cornerstone of retention.

5) Your Secret Weapon: A Professional Facilitator
Your HR staff might have the time and resources in-house to plan and run your company retreat, but if they don't then bringing in outside expertise can certainly elevate your game plan. Whether you enlist an expert to assist for the first few sessions or retain someone permanently, the services of a good facilitator will take your retreat from good to great.

Facilitators are trained to respond to the specific needs of your company and can manage your entire retreat. They will be:

  • A neutral gate-keeper - a vital ingredient if you want candid input from all parties during strategy sessions and seminars.
  • The glue that holds the speakers together.
  • The 'emergency response team' when the unexpected occurs.
  • The diplomatic time-keeper, ensuring a smooth transition from session to session, keeping the proceedings flowing so that schedules and targets are met.

They can also create an evaluation format and generate reports based on feedback gathered from participants, identifying areas that need further attention and assuring learning goals have been achieved. This is an excellent tool if you plan to hold a series of retreats; it will prevent redundancy and knowledge gaps in future seminars. It's also useful if you're trying to establish a need for ongoing training and want to be sure the exercise was beneficial.

There are some excellent online tools designed to help you frame your retreat if you chose to use in-house resources. Whether your event is designed and managed by an outside professional or internally, a consistent program can benefit companies large and small, and will help you achieve your organizational goals.