Skiing by Day, Hacking by Night: Welcome to the New Era of Work Retreats

Not sure how your small business could benefit from a "workation"? Discover how smaller companies are taking office retreats to the next level.
July 15, 2014

Companies of all sizes have long sought ways to build a sense of teamwork among their employees. For many years, the notion of corporate retreats—short trips where employees could have fun while also ostensibly working—were in vogue. Think days spent together on an obstacle course or performing trust falls.

The rub was, not much work was getting done on the ropes course, and no one really thought those kinds of activities were actually “fun”—which meant that going on a retreat could actually backfire on a business owner and wind up creating disillusionment, rather than cohesion, among a team. It’s understandable that many companies see corporate retreats as little more than a giant waste of time and money.

The Evolution of Office Retreats

But not all companies have given up hope: Some businesses have branched out in very imaginative ways to create retreats that truly combine fun and work.

Case in point: The entire 35-person team at ZenPayroll, an online automated payroll service started in 2011, goes on what they call a “workation” twice a year, spending a week in a fun location away from their office in San Francisco. The company's founders typically rent a giant house, or houses, so everyone on the team can stay in the same space—which provides a great opportunity for people working in different parts of the company to meet up and collaborate. And that’s when things get interesting.

Throughout the week, the company founders hold their version of a “hackathon,” where they create cross-functional teams that choose big projects to tackle. At the end of the week, everyone presents and celebrates what they were able to accomplish together. All the while, the entire team engages in plenty of just-plain-fun activities as well, such as hiking, cooking, going out to restaurants, wine tasting, watching movies, and participating in trivia and board game nights.

“The reason we go on a workation as a team is to give everyone a chance to collaborate in a different environment,” the company's CEO and co-founder Joshua Reeves says. “Not only does the time away allow us to build a strong community, we also get an opportunity to work on cross-functional projects that we wouldn't otherwise be able to complete.”

“The importance of taking retreats of this sort is important because it creates a fun and engaging environment,” says Nev Kraguljevic, a business consultant and founder of Diversity for Business, a company that offers diversity education and team building training. “Most of us are social creatures, and the majority of people enjoy an environment where the mood is light and people seem to enjoy themselves. Being playful feeds the brain and often supports creative thinking and problem solving.”

There’s a timeliness to retreats as well, Kraguljevic says: The new generation of millennial employees expects to be engaged in their work through events like these. “When they enter the workforce," he explains, "they're looking for jobs with meaning and office environments that are a continuation of what they've been brought up with."

Workations as a Retention Tool

While resources are typically tight at small and mid-sized businesses, more and more owners of such companies are seeing workations as worthy investments rather than just an expense to the bottom line.

Kraguljevic says that a new generation of companies has come to appreciate that taking a mini-retreat away from the office with the team can return a substantial return—especially in terms of retaining your best employees. “Companies lose a lot of money, talent and knowledge when an employee leaves,” he says, “especially if they've been with a company for a number of years. This is why many businesses are finally catching on and focusing on retention, not just recruitment.”

That’s exactly how Sabina Gault, CEO of Konnect Public Relations in Los Angeles, views the work retreats she holds for her 40-person team. So far, those trips have included a five-day ski trip to Lake Tahoe, California, a thee-day cruise to Mexico, and a two-day wine tasting trip to the Central Coast of California. Gault’s goal in making these retreats happen is to get her employees to think of working at Konnect PR as more than a job, and these workations help foster a new level of trust and closeness and make many employees feel truly appreciated.

“It can take months, even years, to replace an amazing employee,” says Gault, who founded her firm in 2007. “What I’m trying to do is create an environment where people get excited to come to work every day. That’s why we focus on making our team more cohesive by going on these trips. They allow everyone to build meaningful relationships by having fun and finding out more about each other’s lives.”

While many companies fear retreats because they're afraid they might bring productivity to a dead stop, Gault gets creative by choosing to go away at times when her business has been historically slow anyway, such as the beginning of the December holidays. That way, employees who might be feeling burned out or otherwise distracted get the chance to re-charge and re-focus.

Gault says her company's retreats are always a mix of work and fun, but just as important, they give people from her company’s four departments quality face time with each other and with her—something that's become less frequent for most team members as the company has continued to grow.

Giving people that kind of opportunity to build deeper connections with each other is why Gault thinks the retention rate among her employees is so high—more than 90 percent—in an industry that's notorious for its high turnover. She notes, “Work retreats are really a tool you can use to invest in your people.”

Workations as Sources for Inspiration

Going on a work retreat that takes employees away from their "day in, day out" office routines can also be a great way to inspire them to think big—even if it’s just for a single workday. Consider how Social Driver, a Washington, DC-based digital innovation firm, took its 20 employees on a surprise “Quest for the Best” series of tours in February. The company's founders first asked the team to think about what it means to be the best and what it takes to be the best. They then took the team on a one-day tour of other organizations whom many consider to be the best at what they do.

The tour included an interview with the publisher of the Washington Business Journal to discuss what it takes for a company to be the best; a tour of the financial information company Motley Fool, since it's consistently cited for having the best company culture; a tour of the Supreme Court to learn from the nation’s best lawyers; and a tour of the Newseum's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo exhibit. The team ended their day with a private reception at barmini, a "cocktail lab" founded by chef and James Beard award winner Jose Andres, to toast the day with custom cocktails and appetizers.

The Newseum Museum of News on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

Anthony Shop, Social Driver’s co-founder and chief strategy officer, admits that it wasn’t cheap to shut the business down for a day and take on extravagant, out-of-pocket expenses like renting out the city's top bar for a private reception. But Shop was gambling that giving his team an experience like this would help strengthen the company's culture and motivate his employees to give their personal best every day. And from his perspective, the bet paid off.

“We learned that the best teams work together in fundamentally different ways,” Shop says. “They push one another, support one another and have fun. Since this event, our team structure has evolved, with our people leading that change. Our employees have recruited even more of their friends to work with us, saving us time and money on recruitment. And our team clicks—getting better work done faster than ever. Focusing on our company culture in ways like this has allowed us to continue rapid growth without outside investment or debt.”

Workations as Engines for Innovation

Getting away from the office can also inspire new ideas and spur deeper collaboration among team members who might not ordinarily get to work together. “When you put a group of employees in the same room, they'll talk about work and the company,” Kraguljevic says. “[But] when you walk away from a problem and are allowed to focus on something completely different, often times, great ideas that are solutions to those problems come up—just like so many people come up with great ideas while taking a shower.”

The team at LiquidSpace, the leading online marketplace for booking office and meeting space (think Airbnb for workspace), credits its quarterly “pop-up HQ” gatherings as the source of some of the company’s most innovative new ideas. The company, which is based in San Francisco but whose 31 team members work from different locations around the world, flies everyone to the same place for a week to work and play together.

The destination for every pop-up HQ gathering is different: The three most recent destinations were San Francisco, Minneapolis and Sun Valley, Idaho, where the company got its start. Each gathering is structured so it includes both work and play activities that make the most of the face-to-face time the employees have. Typical pursuits include fun stuff, such as a “cookathon,” as well as more work-related tasks, like a hackathon, which is aimed at creating new strategic initiatives.

During the hackathon at the company’s pop-up HQ in February, the team came up with the idea for a new product, LiquidSpace Travel Manager—a solution for corporate travel managers that makes it as easy to book an office or meeting room as it is to book a flight or hotel. They were then able to launch that product into the marketplace just a few months later, where it's garnered lots of interest from the company’s customers.

For Mark Gilbreath, the company’s founder and CEO, that quick road from conception to development to release validates the notion that productivity doesn't have to be confined to the four walls of an office. As he points out, “The pop-up HQ really is a massive sugar rush of serendipity for our team.”

Workations as a Cultural Foundation

But just having a “workation” isn’t enough to ensure that your team is going to embrace it. “To ensure the events are authentic and employees welcome it, a new culture has to be developed,” Kraguljevic says. “You can't force mandatory fun. However, by asking employees to implement some events, providing those types of events and opportunities for them as well, they'll catch the bug.”

Creating a powerful employee-driven culture has long been a priority for New Belgium Brewing, a brewery based in Fort Collins, Colorado. New Belgium is widely recognized as one of the best companies to work for in the country and recently transitioned to becoming 100 percent owned by its employee-stock-ownership-plan, or ESOP.

As a way to build a strong foundation among its owner-workers, the company has long conducted twice-a-year, week-long retreats where its now 550 team members would historically converge on a spot along a river outside town and tackle everything from company-wide strategic planning and an industry SWOT analysis to volleyball games and forays into the river to fish. 

The retreats are also a special opportunity for the company, which is a big believer in practicing open-book management, to review its financial performance and for everyone, not just executives, to discuss ways to add fuel to their plans for growth.

“It’s such a refreshing opportunity to brainstorm, float concerns and opportunities and creative suggestions,” says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s PR director, who's been with the company for 17 years. “It feels like a safe place to tell the truth.”

Adding to the fun factor for those employees like Simpson who live in the Fort Collins area is the opportunity for a group of employees to make the 40-mile trip each way to the retreat on their bikes—which is almost an homage to the company’s best-known brew, Fat Tire Ale.

But as the company has grown—a growth it expects will skyrocket as it begins an East Coast-expansion by building another brewery in Asheville, North Carolina—the company's decided to hold its retreat just once a year. That will certainly increase its importance as a foundation for New Belgium’s culture, especially as the company’s workforce becomes more distributed.

“Our retreat is a big part of our culture,” Simpson says. “It’s part of why we have a 93 percent retention rate. It’s a way that all of us can begin to feel part of something bigger than our individual contributions.

"When everyone is in the same place, it's something to rally around and helps us all reconnect," he adds. "It takes a lot of work to pull it all together, but then you leave feeling energized and reconnected to everyone.”

And in the end, isn’t that everything you could ask from a successful workation?

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Photo: Getty Images