The retreat recast: trading frivolity for forward planning

Some employees relish them as exercises in career enrichment, others dread them as after-hours obligations. And their value is often hotly debated.

Company retreats - a standard business tool since just after World War II - usually have standard goals: to boost morale and promote teamwork. But they have long varied in form, from paintball battles to trapeze lessons to trust-building exercises (think falling backward into the arms of colleagues).

"Retreats help people start rowing in the same direction," says Merianne Liteman, president and CEO of Liteman Rosse, Inc., a firm that designs and runs offsite retreats. "In a well-designed and well-run retreat, participants gain a deeper understanding of what their organization's big goals are and how they can contribute to [reaching] those goals," says Ms. Liteman.

A retreat - or "vision session," to use a term that's gaining currency - that keeps employees focused on improving operations can be useful, workplace experts say, particularly when economic times are rough. But the largess of the 1990s had pushed some retreats into a less productive mode.

Darlene, who asked that her full name not be used, was sent on three retreats by a New York media company at which she worked 10 years ago.

"At that time, retreats seemed to be either big fraternity-type parties or a 'mending relationship' counseling sessions held in fancy hotels with free-flowing alcohol," she says. "Either way, they felt inappropriate and unprofessional."

During one of the "counseling retreats," Darlene found herself being pushed into revealing many personal details in order to list the problems that might be "blocking her work."

"Ultimately, I was fired, [a move that] was hastened by the retreat," says Darlene. "This facilitator was like a chop-shop psychologist. I doubt she was even licensed. She encouraged us to 'tell it all' and I wondered just how much was I supposed to share in order to build our team stronger. I guess I shared too much, though at the time, I thought it was 'bonding.' "

Some experts maintain that such practices are being shown the door. "The 'feel good' retreat is over," says William Duggan, visiting professor of management at Columbia University. "There is a back-to-basics movement going on in the business world. Companies seem to feel as though they should have been paying more attention."

The recasting of the role of retreats, advocates say, is well timed. "People all over the country are apprehensive," says Liteman, coauthor of the new book "Retreats that Work." "Employees may be feeling distracted and unclear about what they should be focusing on."

Hassell McClellan, associate professor of strategic management at Boston College, agrees. "In difficult times, the worst thing a company can do is not strategically plan.

In times of difficulty, people need to get more focused and the most successful retreats are ones that have clear objectives," says Mr. McClellan, who also thinks that corporate retreats have become much more "focused on strategic goals."

Liteman, who has led retreats in the US, Africa, Latin America, and Europe, cites a number of ways of unlocking the creative energy of a retreat's attendees.

"One exercise that can really liberate people's thinking is to have them imagine how a well-known person or a successful organization might deal with a particular issue," she says. "Another powerful technique is storytelling. When people create stories about their own organization, they can see how their culture is hampering or fostering their success."

That may require a level of sophistication in planning that not all companies can pull off.

"Our yearly companywide retreat resembled a high school football pep rally more than anything," says Mackenzie Parks, who lives in New York and worked for a consulting company there for three years. She recalls the "skit" portion of the retreat: "The recruiters came dressed in hula skirts and leis, all the while performing their 'recruiting dance.' It was pretty ridiculous."

The retreat's objective was to build better teamwork and promote the company mission.

"It was a fun party, and I guess we got closer," says Ms. Parks. "But nothing was really accomplished."

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