We spent three hours under the scorching heat running, walking, solving riddles and finding the next clue based on information gathered from signboards, landmarks and general knowledge. Oh, and we squeezed in a five-minute video shoot that tells a self-made tale about the epic warrior Hang Tuah and his search for a successor while trying to win over the heart of Chinese princess Hang Li Po.
The above is a short glimpse into a treasure hunt activity conducted during my company’s annual retreat this year. Yes, I had a lot of fun exploring Malacca’s Jonker Street with my colleagues, but I must say I also thoroughly enjoyed the Authentic Lives workshop led by Andrew Chua as it gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into my strengths, character and personality as well as those of my team members.
A corporate retreat is meant to get us out of our office frenzy for a specific period of time to brainstorm, realign and rediscover our individual, team and company’s core purpose and passion with minimum distractions.
As working professionals, we probably know the advantages and disadvantages of corporate retreats. Some believe that retreats are great for team-building and strategy planning, while others think it’s a waste of time and money as the objectives set can be accomplished in the office. So, how do we tell if a retreat is necessary or not?
My personal take
In any business, growth is a necessary but painful process. Looking back at 2016, my management wanted to reward its employees for all their hard work, help us develop a stronger sense of self-awareness, foster better understanding within teams, and let us have fun while doing all of the above.
I particularly enjoyed the reflection sessions where we could analyse our strengths and personalities, and connect them to the work we do. We discovered that the majority in the company are highly relational people. I found this knowledge incredibly valuable as it is a rare occasion for employees to explore ourselves and see how we fit into a team and the organisation as a whole.
Being in a different environment helped us achieve this objective as it set a comfortable platform for everyone to reflect and share.
The key highlights for me were the pyjamas party – an appreciation cum fellowship event – and an Amazing Race-like treasure hunt. While our company does present opportunities for inter-departmental interaction through events, projects and bi-weekly sports activities, the retreat gave us all the opportunity to explore each other’s strengths and weaknesses and build a greater bond along the way.
Mark Lovatt, chief executive officer (CEO) of Trident Integrity Solutions once said, “The most successful one (retreat) I have attended was over two days where the CEO and some of the top management employees came for dinner on the first night and presented their vision for the company. We then utilised this new knowledge over the next two days to develop our own division’s strategy.”
To him, dinner in an open, relaxed and informal setting opens up room for communication and allows people to ask pertinent questions that are important for workshops and brainstorming sessions.
“I don’t think we would have had the same result just conducting a session in the office for one morning or two.”
Waste of resources
Retreats, however, can be costly and a waste of time and energy when there are deep-rooted issues that need to be tackled such as low morale, disengaged employees, poor financial positions, etc. Journalist Rohit Vivekananda is one of those who think company retreats are unnecessary.
He had a horrible experience with his former employer. What started out with the objective to appreciate employees turned into a dubious agenda that patronised employees in an effort to get them to stay on. Attendees included employees who had tendered their resignations two weeks before the retreat.
What ticked him off was the fact that someone from the human resources (HR) department spoke patronisingly to one of the employees who had tendered her resignation, saying that “for a young girl she wouldn’t get a good salary elsewhere” and tried to woo her into staying. To make matters worse, the entire retreat was held at what seemed like an unsafe place with numerous “do not enter” signs and barbed wire. Creepy indeed.
On a slightly positive note, though, there was a birthday celebration and a sharing session that allowed employees to share how they felt about the company and how they could contribute to make things better.
Objectives are not always met
Founder of TerraCycle, Tom Szaky believes that while it is important that his employees are doing work that is “fun, rewarding and enjoyable”, going off for a retreat to increase employee morale and to strategise is ineffective.
He wrote in the New York Times: “In the past, as a compromise, I have hosted full-day off-sites at my house for the entire business to discuss these kinds of issues. The cost was always high and the results were generally modest. People liked the off-sites but didn’t learn much.
“When I was recently asked about doing another, we decided that instead of a company off-site meet, we would just have the senior team for an hour every month to discuss big-picture issues. The results were significantly better. ”
The first two retreat stories had clear agendas and focused goals that resulted in good experiences. The third story seemed unauthentic on the part of the employer (including HR) and I would have to take Tom Szaky’s point into consideration that we can’t really meet the set objectives when there are underlying issues which can’t be resolved in a retreat, especially one that was planned rather haphazardly.
The last point shared by Szaky, which speaks about undesirable results derived from full-day off-site meetings, does justify his next point on why retreats may be a waste of time.
So to answer the question I posed earlier on whether retreats are necessary, it comes down to knowing your objectives and what you intend to accomplish. This also includes knowing who to involve.
While Lovatt says that most outputs can be just as successfully achieved by having a well-designed brainstorming session in a familiar environment like the office, retreats may do the job from time to time.
Johan Merican, deputy director-general at the Malaysian Economic Planning Unit, says what works best for an organisation depends on its people, culture and situation.
Say if an organisation is going through a challenging period, it may send conflicting signals when the company suddenly spends a lot of money on a retreat while employees are being given the daily drill on cost-cutting.
He also made a great point in saying that, “A once-a-year retreat to foster social bonds can often be short-lived in its benefits. Organisations should be more focused on creating a platform and culture that fosters greater team cohesion throughout the year.
So, before you start ooh-ing and aah-ing over how company A or B takes all its employees out for lavish retreats, go back to your objectives and intentions. Think them through and see if retreats can indeed help you achieve the intended outcome.