How To Plan a Successful Office Retreat

First, clearly define the objective. Then, decide on who needs to attend.

By Kathy Prentice for

Aug. 16, 2000 — A staff retreat can be an afternoon when the office closes down and everyone takes box lunches and the budget for the upcoming year to the local library and holes up in a meeting room for a planning session.

Or, the staff can take off for a long weekend at a country lodge, attending work sessions in the mornings, team-building exercises in the afternoon and motivational speeches in the evening.

Whichever the direction, certain rules of engagement always apply, experienced retreat planners say. And while reasons for retreats can be as varied as the way they are planned, a key element is determining beforehand what the event should accomplish.

"The reasons range from pure team-building — a way for people to know each other better so they'll work more efficiently and better together — at one end of the spectrum. At the other end is (meeting) for a specific purpose," says Peg Kelley, principal at Boston-based Facilitation Plus, a consulting company specializing in meeting management and problem solving. "You've suddenly lost funding or need to reorganize. So, you get together to address something but also hope that team building will happen."

Key first questions: Who should attend? The whole staff or just a few departments? And should attendance be mandatory?

That depends on the objectives, Kelley says.

"I've done ones where the intent was a couple of departments merging who got away for two days to talk about what was working and not working," she says. "In that case, only the departments involved needed to be there. Or you could be working on programming issues and may not need everybody. Maybe just administration and finance need to be there."

Once the roster is set, Kelley believes it should be mandatory for those staffers to attend. Administration should do whatever needs to be done to facilitate that. "If that means renting a shuttle, then you should do that or arrange car pools," she says.

On the other hand, if some staff members are reluctant, it might be better to leave them behind, says Helen Burnstad, director of staff and organizational development for Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan. "I think invitations work very well. I think subtle encouragement by peers works well. We should be willing to go with 20 or 25 staff the first time out and demonstrate that this worked well, that people were engaged. ... With word of mouth, next time out you'll have 40."

Should you mix staff and board members?

Staff and board aren't necessarily a successful retreat mix, Kelley says.

"Boards try to keep distinctions between roles and work with the executive director," she says. "I could see it in terms of an awards event or a celebration. But not a retreat."

Agenda and goals should be shared with staff ahead of time to ease apprehension about an away-from-the-office meeting. "Let them know it's going to be, 'Look at where we've been and where we're going' and not, 'Oh my God, they're going to announce some bad news,'" Kelley says.

Some nonprofits use committees to plan details. In other cases, the executive director takes over. Either way, giving staff members a few weeks lead time allows them time to prepare for their part in the meetings and to make arrangements on the home front.

"You need to understand that it's a risk anytime you do something like this," Burnstad says. "So planning and preparation are very important. Be sure that your goals are clearly stated. You can get there in a number of ways, but you need to know what outcome you're aiming for."

Ground rules should be presented with the morning coffee on the first day. Everybody has equal contribution time. Respect differences in opinion. No mobile phones or beepers allowed. "And always leave it open for participants to add ground rules," Burnstad says.

Whether the goal is team building or developing next year's program, retreat organizers should pay attention to the structure of each day, or each part, of the retreat. "In general, morning is a more productive time for most people," Kelley says. So, she generally plans meetings, lectures and heavy-duty work sessions for early in the day. After lunch, she leaves free time for people to visit or take a walk or even to nap. Then dinner and more "real work."

Activities like ropes courses work best when they're voluntary. And trust exercises that are what Kelley calls "touchy-feely" are also best when presented as an option and when participants are warned in advance.

Kelley sometimes brings in Brookline, Mass.-based Leapfrog Innovations — team-building specialists that bring participants together by sending them out on citywide scavenger hunts or having them build vehicles from pipes and bike parts.

"One of the most important things you can do during a retreat is help break down naturally occurring barriers," says Dick Eaton, Leapfrog's co-founder and president. "When you get people working together intensely, but in a way that involves laughing and having fun together, it can unleash creativity and innovation that's been lying dormant."

Two-day retreats provide time for working and networking, says Kelly Powell, a print and Web publications consultant for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Powell recently worked on a committee planning a staff retreat.

This was her group's approach: "One day to chill out, to talk about value — what we've really hit during the past year. Maybe to gripe a little bit. Then have some good food, maybe something fun to do. I find that building that kind of positive connection helps when we start the focused work."

Whether a retreat is one day or several, overnight attendance shouldn't be mandatory, says MIT's Powell. "You have to respect people's personal lives, and mandatory overnights are a lot to ask."

Getting away from the office environment — and phones, e-mail and pagers — is a necessity, both Kelley and Burnstad say. Destinations can range from a borrowed boardroom to a retreat house miles away. If you go to the waterfront, leave time for participants to walk on the beach. Make sure support services are available.

"Pick a place run by people who want to make sure your needs are met," Burnstad says. "That they'll let you move furniture, find you a white board, serve fresh cookies during the afternoon break."

Good food is important, says Powell. Whether it's potluck or catered — include it in your planning.

Another key element to a successful retreat is finding the right facilitator, paid or volunteer, to offer a fresh eye. "A person who has nothing to lose, who is able to ask questions in a nonthreatening way, who is not seen as a threat," Burnstad says.

A skilled facilitator helps keep the group focused and on task and winds things up by summarizing what's been accomplished before everyone heads back to the office.

And once everyone has returned to the office, it is essential to reinforce the gains made on retreat. Powell's MIT group follows up its summer retreat with a midwinter meeting to check on progress.

"The hardest thing is to get people energized to follow through with changes when they're back to the grind," she says.

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Peg Kelley is the founder of Facilitation Plus, a consulting firm specializing
in idea generation and creative problem-solving sessions in corporations, non-profit
agencies, government, and higher education. She was a
consultant/facilitator for 20 years with Synectics, Inc.

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