Retreats: why and how should you implement them?

Retreats are the most important ways in which remote workers interact with each other in person. We talk about why and how to implement them.

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4 minute read

There are many reasons why a company would organize a retreat. They can be used for strategic planning and brainstorming in a setting which gets the team into a different headspace. They might be used to pound out an important project in a flurry of activity. Or they might just be a good place for the team to get to know everyone.

In the case of a remote worker retreat, the last point is by far the most important. Remote workers do not see each other on a daily basis, and thus do not know each other intimately. This can be a cause of great concern for some workers, particularly those who are “people persons” and highly empathetic.

The importance of this cannot be overstated, at least for some of the members of the team. A retreat can be a significant cost, especially when team members and their families need to be flown in from many different locations. But the experience shows that it is worth it.

Why hold retreats?

Back in 1994, Susan Glaser at the University of Oregon followed teams and noted how effectively they communicated over a three year period. This included a series of retreats planned as “interventions,” designed to improve their communication skills and ability to function as a team.

Her results showed that the most effective aspect of the retreats was not the formal program, but the simple fact that the employees were on a retreat and had the chance to get to know each other. The unstructured time spent talking and having impromptu activities together made the most difference. In the end, the teams studied were much more collaborative and communicated without frustration.

This study is the basis for the subsequent research and understanding of team dynamics. Remote team retreats may seem more important than those in companies that share an office, as it is the only chance for everyone to see each other. Given that unstructured time is critical for a healthy team dynamic, time spent working hard in an office is not as productive for team building as you might think.

What makes a successful remote worker retreat?

One comprehensive guide to retreats was devised by consultants Ora Grodsky and Jeremy Phillips. They cited that these aspects make up a successful retreat:

  • Laying aside daily business
  • Conducting extraordinary business
  • Being fully present
  • Stepping back, taking stock, thinking more broadly
  • Sharing a sense of hallowed time

While they leave room for “extraordinary business” such as strategic planning in their formula, it is about being fully present and having “hallowed time” together, which will be remembered for years to come.

This general consensus about the purpose of retreats, and what makes them successful, is reflected in the general literature. They are not about getting work done, per se, but making each employee feel valued and valuable to the company, the team, and themselves.

Beware of cultural issues

A remote-first company which has a global team has special concerns when it comes to retreats. For example, in South America, it is common for men and women to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. This practice would be taken as strange at best to most people in the United States, and as a complete invasion of personal space by many people in the Middle East.

In order to avoid these issues, it is important for global teams to set expectations before the retreat begins. A sense of understanding about each other has to start in the planning stages. Like most aspects of remote work, being deliberate and explicit upfront is the key to success.

Rules for conduct should be written, and if necessary, explained. In general, the company language or language of daily business will have to be the language of the retreat. Finally, it needs to be stated explicitly just what each member can expect.

The goal is inclusion

Such formalism may seem to get in the way of fun, but the goal is to make sure that everyone is on a level playing field from the very beginning. A 2015 review of successful practices for global teams in the Harvard Business Review found there were several key aspects which distinguished global teams and they worked well across cultural issues, particularly:

  • Structure, and the perception of power
  • Process, and the importance of empathy

The structure of all interactions across cultural lines were found to be most effective when no one had any perceived differential status than anyone else.

The second point shows the importance of unstructured time or, when there are team events, the perception of “hallowed time.” The purpose of a retreat is for employees to connect in a personal and meaningful way. Everything else is secondary.

Making it work

It does not matter how often you have a retreat or how exotic the location is. These will have to fit your budget, so they are up to you. What matters most are the elements outlined.

There are some other tips to making a successful retreat which may suit your plans, but in the end, what matters is everyone getting to know each other on a levelled playing field.

Teams are formed by inclusion and assuring that everyone knows they're valued. Such practices are essential for understanding one of the key benefits of global remote teams, which is diversity. The purpose of a remote worker retreat is to reinforce these values and make them tangible to every team member.