COVID-19 erased in-person company retreats from calendars for much of 2020. But now, as businesses assess the post-pandemic future, embracing hybrid or distributed teams indefinitely, holding an offsite — catalysts for building social capital, trust, and camaraderie — has taken on new meaning.
“We’re getting a lot of interest and excitement around in-person [offsites] in Q4,” says Mathew MacDonell, chief executive officer at The Offsite Co., a bespoke retreat planning agency for start-ups. “A lot of our clients have doubled their headcount over the last year, and people haven’t met face-to-face.”
Whether your retreat is planned for later this year or further in the future, here are four strategies to transform it into a meaningful setting for reflection, alignment, and rejuvenation.
Envision the Big Picture
Nail down the offsite’s vision and goals with the leadership team well before the excursion, MacDonell urges. “What does it look like when we’re all in sight? What’s our work to play ratio? What does it feel like when we’re there, and what’s a key performance indicator we can put on the board six months from now?” he adds, sharing some questions he poses on an initial client call.
Encourage participants to do their homework, too. “Preparation is more important than the offsite itself,” says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach and author of the forthcoming book, From Start-Up to Grown-Up. “There’s a lot of people coming together, and that’s a lot of salary, so you want to make sure you’re using the time effectively,” she continues, stressing the importance of assigning pre-work and pre-reading.
Don’t Forget to Plan Activities
When conducted in-house, offsite execution is often passed to employees with little event planning experience, such as an office manager or the head of HR, MacDonell notes. As a result, it’s common that “everyone gets hung up on the location,” he says, citing a common roadblock.
Instead, MacDonnell recommends devoting 35% of your company’s target budget to venue sourcing — which also includes hotel rooms, location fees, etc. — then using the rest for impactful experiences, which can range from keynotes to kayaking. “Focus on the important stuff,” he says.
Break Down Barriers
Ditch the cliched icebreakers and dig deeper, Cohn insists, making a case for pairing structured and unstructured pursuits. “You’re coming together to get to know each other, and then you’ve got to have that [feeling] last until you see each other again, so make it count,” she says.
MacDonell and crew typically dedicate one day to a “choose your own adventure” style itinerary. On a recent offsite along Florida’s Atlantic coast, for example, they let participants select from an activity menu that included sailing, poolside lounging, or whale-watching. “The secret is that we’re getting a [small group] of people with a shared interest stuck together for two and a half hours,” he explains. “Something interesting is going to come out of that.”
Much like the rituals and inside jokes that uplift friends and families during turbulent times, teams need intimate experiences to remind them of their ties. “We want the whole group to go home feeling like they are on the inside of something really special, while also being inspired by the mission and the vision of the company,” MacDonell says, singling out an especially memorable speech by a CEO: Over a casual happy hour, she relayed the company’s nascent days, when she and her co-founders camped out in a Starbucks, tipping the barista extra so they could dash off one last email.
“Those kinds of stories, when told at these retreats, really inspire people,” he says. MacDonell also highlights the power of repeat events like talent shows and karaoke nights — traditions of choice for some of the larger companies he designs consecutive retreats for. “That’s when you know a company has a culture, and people are excited about it.”