Planning the Right Retreat for Your Team

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Just as every business is unique, so too are the team members that contribute to it. Taking personalities into account can turn an otherwise dysfunctional retreat into a value-packed getaway.

First rule of thumb: plan a retreat only if your team is healthy. Often companies look at a retreat as something that’s going to fix a deeper problem, such as fractious relationships between employees or an unclear sense of purpose. Putting everyone together to do something fun won’t magically make your team communicate better. “It might be a short-term fix, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem,” says Nora Cumming, senior consultant with Chemistry Consulting. “This is usually more of a management-type issue where there is a lack of leadership or policies in place so that all employees are operating with the same vision.” If this is the case, your leadership team needs to prioritize strategic planning instead of taking staff on a retreat.

Know the purpose of your retreat. Is it team building? A think tank? Assimilating new staff into the group? Structure accordingly. Once you’ve figured out the nature of the retreat, you can choose a destination that’s appropriate. Do you want to be in a city centre where your people can enjoy a variety of entertainment? Are you holding a golf tournament? Aiming to give employees an opportunity for restoration and reflection?

Retreats should be positive events to bring your people together, show them your appreciation and develop the company culture. Planned wisely, they can also move your business farther toward the things you want to celebrate in the future. It’s always a good idea to hire an expert facilitator to run the agenda. “People don’t tend to share much when the company president is facilitating the meeting,” says Wendy Sears, principal of Lewis & Sears Marketing & Event Management Inc.

A retreat is a particularly relevant way of rewarding your team if you’re in a results-driven industry. At Redbrick, where analytics and performance are tied to the very DNA of the company in the form of metrics, revenue and conversion, retreats have been used as rewards for when the team reaches a certain goal. “We set 30-, 60- and 90-day goals, and when the team achieved those, we would collaborate on what they wanted to do,” explains Nicole How, VP of operations. For example, the team decided on a day at Poets Cove on Pender Island, complete with a float-plane trip, swimming and lunch on the outdoor patio.

Experiential events — cake decorating, scavenger hunts, kayaking or zip lining — are powerful and fun ways to draw your team together. Keep in mind that not everyone wants the same experience. Taking your team’s preferences and personalities into account is important to ensure your retreat experience has value for all members. No one wants to feel excluded or that they can’t keep up.

There’s always a push-pull between introverts and extroverts, and you can’t nail it every time, especially if your company is large and diverse. Know your team. Make every event a little bit different and aim to please the majority, and you’ll manage to reach the whole team over time. “My primary objective is to improve employee engagement, because we know happy people are more engaged at their jobs and perform well,” says How. Other ways Redbrick rewards its team have included lawn bowling, Monday-morning hikes, curling, pub meals, kayaking, skiing at Mount Washington and a wine tour.

For small companies or those with employees sharing similar personality types (programmers, for example), retreat planning is a bit easier. Stembolt, which designs scalable e-commerce solutions, has rewarded its employees by taking them away to conferences in different cities and then tacking a bit of extra time on for exploring. One retreat saw the group throw its own mini-conference with a partner company, booking a getaway in Whistler that included private cabins, yoga, time to run, three-course meals, a fridge with an infinite supply of beer, and, of course, some time to chase down corporate goals.

The most enjoyable retreats don’t involve activities that require a lot of skill; paintball or laser tag, say, can be a drag for someone who doesn’t enjoy those games. But everyone can participate in a bake-off, a wine tour or an activity that sees your team banding together to pay it forward for a philanthropic cause. Lewis & Sears has worked with one company that over time has bought and assembled bikes for charity, built a playground for a women and children’s shelter, sorted a warehouse full of donated clothing and rebuilt a cafeteria. “That’s a feel-good thing,” says Sears. “You give back to your community as per your mission, and it also helps your staff feel like they’ve done something great.”

In a black-box cooking competition, employees work with different ingredients to try and outdo other teams, Iron Chef-style. Up the fun factor with some celebrity judges. Or try out the Locked Room Mystery, like the team at AbeBooks did this past spring, where your team is split into two competing groups, each given an hour to figure its way out of a locked room. “Everyone was happy to do that,” says Richard Davies, PR and publicity manager. “That’s because they’re the right sort of activities.”

Keep your eye on the three ingredients needed to host a successful retreat: it should be purposeful; it should build connections and relationships between people; and it should offer the participants an opportunity to learn something about themselves. “If those exist at a retreat, you can change your business,” says leadership coach Diane Lloyd. “It’s about building that emotional intelligence in leadership. The business world wants this.”