The benefits to business of off-site retreats


Out-of-office meetings, off-site conferences, training retreats, away-day strategy sessions and out-of-office group meetings have been found by the most respected business publications to be more effective than in-house alternatives.

Ben Dattner, writing for the Harvard Business Review, says, ‘A successful team building offsite can provide an opportunity for the team to change old patterns and create and sustain new ways of communicating and collaborating.

David Roth, writing for Forbes, says, ‘You cannot think about things in new ways when you’re in the day-to-day craziness ... You need to plan to get everyone away from the distractions of the work environment, and into a place where they can focus on the task at hand. Don’t try to do this over lunch or dinner at a nearby restaurant. Plan a one or two-day retreat completely away from the work environment. New surroundings spark new thinking.’

Finding themselves in a new setting encourages more creative thinking. It has also been seen to encourage an open-minded attitude to new ideas and change.

Perhaps contributing to this is the sense that the company believes in the delegates chosen to attend. The expenditure shows you are prepared to invest in them, have confidence in their contribution and envisage a long-term relationship with them.

We're not talking a paid-for holiday here. Richard Moran, author of Sins and CEOs: Lessons from Leaders and Losers That Will Change Your Career, told Fortune magazine: ‘Contrary to popular belief, retreats are really hard work for all who attend. Foremost, there’s nowhere to hide.’ Delegates have to step up and contribute, especially in smaller break-away group sessions.

And by removing attendees from their natural work setting, you remove them from the distractions of coworkers, phone calls and emails. Their focus is completely on the task at hand. Importantly, a new setting also helps to embed the information being imparted more successfully.

Chantel Reynell has a wealth of experience organising off-site meetings, conferences and training. Hospitality Manager at the Langebaan Country Estate, Reynell says, ‘Off-sites are a great opportunity to get attendees to engage on a more personal level, especially if specific team-building exercises are built into the programme. This builds shared memories and more importantly a bond that can only be beneficial in the long term. It is especially important for teams that may be scattered over a wide geographical area, for example, sales teams.’

Richard Moran quoted in Fortune, concurs and stresses that activities away from the conference room are essential. ‘Why go someplace beautiful if there is no time for the pool or golf, and people are locked in dark rooms from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.? A total lack of leisure breeds resentment, he observes, and that can torpedo the whole event.’

In contrast, a well-planned off-site, with team-building and some at leisure time factored in, has been shown to invigorate attendees, improve their input and re-fire their passion for what they do. Says Reynell, ‘Whether attendees take time-out on the driving range or go for a solo run, play tennis or golf with other delegates, or participate in full-scale team-building exercises, we’ve seen that they use that time to go over what has been presented or discussed. Organisers are often blown away when they return to the conference centre - delegates come back with fresh insights and interesting contributions that might not have occurred to them without the “down time”. For this reason, I’d say that the activities offered by our venue are as important as our impressive conference facilities. I firmly believe that the complete range of activities at Langebaan Country Estate is the reason conferences here are so successful. And because we’re so close to Cape Town, many of our client’s schedule follow-ups six months later.’

The importance of follow-ups is also mentioned by Ben Dattner in his article in the Harvard Business Review. He suggests the following checklist for a successful off-site.

  1. ‘Be clear about goals for the offsite, and create an agenda that reflects and reinforces those goals.’
  2. ‘Set ground rules. Make sure that everyone knows that the offsite should be a safe space where people can constructively challenge one another, and … that the content of what is said at the offsite will not get shared with others.'
  3. ‘Plan activities that actually build the team.’ (He suggests cooking and eating a meal together – an activity ‘genuinely builds a sense of interdependence and collaboration’.
  4. ‘Build in process reflection time.’ This should be during ‘at leisure’ time, when attendees can take advantage of any activities on offer – which highlights the importance of choosing a venue that has a broad enough range of these to cater for all your delegates.
  5. ‘Schedule a follow-up.’ As Reynell also pointed out, this is essential, whether it happens back at work, via conference call, or – if your venue is close enough – back at the scene of the off-site. The follow-up will ensure that training was given, resolutions reached and information imparted is acted on or implemented as the results will be reported on at the follow-up.
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