Corporations are finding that off-site retreats, particularly adventure themed ones, can bolster employee morale, increase team effectiveness, open lines of communication, and ultimately help reduce office stress.
Office buildings seem designed to keep its occupants sealed off from the great outdoors, don’t they? – Spaces without windows (or ones that don’t open), artificial lighting, and recycled air. Funny, though, that when companies want to enhance their operation, they take business outside. Whether it’s in water rapids, on a woodland trail, or the side of a cliff, companies are finding that coupling outdoor physical activity with learning is a recipe for better business. For a few days, many employers are exchanging the boardroom for a grassy knoll as willing participants in adventure learning based corporate retreats. Employees engage in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, hoping to gain insights into leadership and teamwork.
Mother Nature’s Boardroom
Over the past decade, adventure based, or experiential learning, corporate retreats have surged, offering a more tangible learning experience over a static classroom setting. These outdoorsy retreats have also evolved over time into something more than a pep-rally or camping trip. The purpose of adventure retreats in the past was to “provide an emotional high from physical activities,” says Karl Johnson, Dan Tillemans Director of Teambuilding at Cornell Outdoor Education, in Ithaca, NY. “Now clients are looking for cognitive learning and skill acquisition to be integrated into the process, so that they have something concrete to take home with them,” he says.
Activities are designed to teach participants about overcoming obstacles together, building trust, as well as developing skills that are immediately transferable to the work waiting on your desk. The key is that whatever the physical challenge or adventure, it requires teamwork for success, says Dr. Susan Harper, Ph.D., a business psychologist and president of Chicago-based Synergy Consulting LLC. Her company, for example, uses an indoor rock climbing challenge called the “Corporate Climb”, which demands a team to set goals, assign roles, create a strategic plan and execute it using good teamwork. “So, it simulates all of the activities inside a company”, says Harper.
“What outdoor retreats add is the elements, Nature as an uncontrollable variable,” says Erik Henyon, owner of the Outdoor Wilderness Leadership School (OWLS), in Bozeman, Montana. Basically, rain or shine, or snow – as can be the case in Montana – the retreat must go on. “The parallel in business would be dealing with IT being down, losing some of your market share, or a shipment that doesn’t arrive. Adventure learning activities show employees how to develop their individual leadership style in putting out fires at work”, says Henyon. For example, one of OWLS adventure learning experiences is a sailing trip where participants have to man an 80-foot vessel on Chesapeake Bay, which teaches teamwork, communication, organization, and tasking.
“Mountaineering and seafaring expeditions succeed or fail not primarily according to their technical expertise, but according to their teamwork and their leadership,” says Johnson. “Likewise in business, technical expertise is necessary but not sufficient. What distinguishes great organizations is rather how effectively people work together toward common goals.”
Among the outdoor courses Cornell offers is “Tarzan Meets Gandhi”, a three- to four-day workshop that couples climbing a network of treetop ropes with discussions about self-awareness, balance and vision. Another Cornell program, which uses the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator is called “MBTI-in-Action”. It entails problem-solving and navigating around obstacles with only partial information, in aiming to get from Point A to B. Part of the exercise is to review afterwards how information was solicited and shared to reach their goal, says Johnson.
Teaching Someone to Fish
What makes experiential training so popular is that it focuses on “learning by doing rather than talking alone”, says Harper. It buys into that philosophy of, give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and his fridge will be stocked for life.
“The various physical activities are a metaphor for the challenges people face in the workplace”, says Merianne Liteman, president and CEO of Liteman Rosse, Inc., in Arlington, VI, a consulting firm specialized in offsite retreats, and co-author of Retreats That Work: Designing and Conducting Effective Offsites for Groups and Organizations, (Pfeiffer, October 2002). However, combining physical challenges with other educational sessions is vital, “where people really focus on how they will apply those lessons back in the workplace,” she suggests. Otherwise, you’ve learned to sail a boat, but not necessarily to steer a business.
David Bess, Vice President at JP Morgan Chase, in Monroe, Louisiana, agrees that taking employees out of their regular setting and letting them share a unique experience lends another dimension to learning. Bess enrolled a group of 10 people in a Ropes and Knots program at Cornell after his company changed their IT platform, and a need arose for IT teams from various regional and international offices to collaborate on a three-year project. “The objective was to help them develop a vision, mission, and get them focused on working together to get the bigger job done”, says Bess. The results? “The program allowed team members to let down their guard, build trust, and created a different way of people relating. It managed to open up dialogues that are ultimately sensitive.”
Doing Business Better
Tara Hartnett, Human Resources Director for Momentum Marketing in Alexandria, Virginia, took her entire staff of 52 on a two-day ropes course and cardboard regatta with OWLS. “It’s an idea-generating process, great for consensus building, teaching leadership skills, building communication, and an opportunity to celebrate our successes,” she enthuses. Twenty-three people were new hires, so this year marked a milestone year for Momentum – it had doubled its staff. The retreat helped to introduce new hires to existing team members, says Hartnett.
Breeding that kind of collaborative work environment ultimately leads to better business. Bess believes that, explaining, “I definitely saw a drop in errors and a boost in productivity following our retreat.”
Says Harper, “Organizational research tells us that teams can produce better results than individuals on certain tasks, such as problem-solving, strategy, quality and process improvement initiatives. Also, satisfied employees provide better service to customers, take more initiative and are more committed to company performance. So, whether the program focuses on individual development or team development, these programs can impact the bottom line.”
Now What? – After the Retreat
Ideally, when the retreat ends, the lessons go home with you. Harper warns that it takes more than that post-retreat high of energy and enthusiasm to create lasting change. “If no attempt is made to make sure the new behaviors are supported by the organization and continue to be built, the team or the individual can quickly revert to old behaviors,” she says.
Many outfits build in a debriefing session to discuss lessons, how new knowledge can be applied, and to give coworkers a chance to talk to each other frankly about sensitive issues before returning to work. For example, extensive debriefing, and a 6-month post-retreat check-in – a-half-day teleconference to examine milestones and stumbling blocks – followed Bess’s team’s ropes course. Looking at a retreat as part of a longer term or ongoing training process adds lasting value, suggests Johnson.
Ideally, says Harper, companies should offer specific tools and/or content that you can apply back at work, such as surveys, personality assessment tools, competency models, etc. A bonus is if they also offer any follow-up consulting and/or training services. “Often, participants want to continue to build on the energy or skills they learn in a teambuilding program”, she explains.
“A good retreat leads to a detailed but flexible action plan, with obligations, responsibilities, target dates, follow-up, and commitments clearly spelled out,” adds Liteman. “It should be fun, with lots of laughter and good humor. And ultimately, a good retreat is one that gets results that move the organization forward over time.”
Angela Pirisi is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Here work has appeared in Yoga Journal and other publications.
Sidebar: Keeping the Retreat Spirit Alive
The toughest part of any retreat is the metaphorical mountain you have to climb afterwards. Liteman suggests some tactics to make a retreat work, once it’s back to work:
• Make a commitment to carrying out the action plan.
• Devote the proper resources to implement agreed strategies.
• Follow up on action steps agreed to at the retreat.
• Meet target dates.
• Maintain an open dialogue with your team.
• Be open to revising plans if conditions change.
Sidebar: Finding the Right Retreat
Want to find an offsite retreat to stoke your own team spirit? Your checklist for choosing a retreat should include checking out their safety record, facilitators’ credentials, past client references, and finding out if non-physical alternatives are available for employees who prefer not to paddle, pedal, or scale a rock face. CONTACT OWLS TODAY
by Angela Pirisi