On my drive to work, I pass a billboard for a venue with “Be that boss!” emblazoned over a businessman in a suit and tie on a surfboard. It makes me picture myself in a swimsuit in front of my coworkers, and wonder if that’s appropriate for a company retreat. 🙃This begs the question: what is it that makes an offsite meeting productive and memorable?
The key to an effective offsite is to learn, communicate, bond, and grow in a way that promotes your culture. But while the concept is simple, achieving these goals becomes a more complex logistical challenge as you add more people to your organization.
Offsite meetings give your organization one of its biggest chances to confirm its culture. When the way you spend time and resources on an offsite activity confirms what you value, it can strengthen how your employees feel about your culture. Let’s explore how your organization can develop an effective strategy for employee offsite meetings, and then cover some practical considerations to help make that strategy a reality.
Table of contents
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s the definition of company culture we’ll be working with in this article:
Company culture is the total effect of all decisions and interactions between employees in a given organization.
There are many other definitions of culture, but most of them refer to an ideal culture instead of an actual culture. While it’s good to have a vision for the culture your organization wants to build, it takes time before your efforts start to change employee perception, behavior, and attitudes.
Employee offsite meetings are one of the best chances to let employees interact with the leadership level of the organization. When the culture message leadership sends out aligns with their regular efforts to improve company culture, it shows that leadership is in touch with the realities of working life. This alignment is the first step toward giving employees authentic recognition from leadership—even when your organization grows past the point where everyone works on the same floor or in the same building.
Before you pick a caterer or search for relay races, take stock of your current culture. It helps to start with the most important question:
What are our mission, vision, and values?
These three facets of your organization should play a part in every decision your organization makes, and that includes the scope and content of an employee offsite meetings. Like culture, these three abstract terms need a solid definition.
- Mission: What is your organization’s main reason for existing? Is it to produce a product? To serve a community? To take investment money and provide a return for investors? Defining and communicating your mission is the first step to moving beyond operational concerns.
- Vision: What is your primary goal for your organization? A specific goal provides a checkpoint to measure your progress. Are you looking to be the number one software in your field? Are you expanding your outreach to serve 20,000 people in need?
- Values: If the mission is the engine and the vision the destination, then your values are your fuel. How are you going to get from here to there? Are you going to build a high-octane sales team that takes no prisoners? Are you encouraging people to be friendly at work, or are they polite rivals who fight each other to climb the ladder?
How you answer these questions about your mission, vision, and values matters immensely—both to your employees and to your clients. A global survey of 30,000 people from Accenture found that 62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on issues like sustainability, transparency, or fair employment practices. And in the age of Glassdoor and other employer review sites, your employees can post their workday experience where any consumer or candidate can find it, shaping your employer brand and cementing your reputation.
Ideas for your company offsite meetings need to align with your mission, vision, and values before any other consideration. While ice sculptures, a big-ticket raffle, and deluxe accommodations wouldn’t be out of place at a corporate retreat for a successful business, a nonprofit that receives grant money would have a hard time justifying the expense.
Aligning employee offsite meetings with employee recognition
Again, your company offsite should prove that the leadership of your organization is in touch with your employees. What do your employees care about at work? At home?
My most memorable company offsite was a holiday party in my first real job after college. My wife and I drove downtown only to find that the validated parking in the hotel was already filled to capacity because of a Neil Diamond concert.
We ended up paying for parking so we could eat some decent food and listen to the CEO talk before presenting the big gift: a free subscription to the software the company sold. “We’re creating moments in time,” he said, “for the time of your life.” He then cued the 80’s pop hit, The Time of My Life.
The strongest takeaway from that experience: Neil Diamond still owes me $10. $10 was a lot back then, especially when (a few weeks later) the CEO and the other co-founders rented four luxury cars for a day and chatted excitedly about their afternoon as they walked past my small cubicle. Knowing the expense of their private offsite put our gift of free-to-provide-to-employees software in a less flattering perspective.
There is so much more to employee recognition than dollar amounts. An elaborate company meeting can strengthen your organization’s peer relationships, but it won’t replace them when it comes to keeping employees engaged. A generous giveaway can supplement an employee’s compensation, but it won’t provide security if their salary doesn’t.
As you plan out activities for your employee offsite meeting, keep your employees’ needs in mind. Here are some activity suggestions that can be meaningful for everyone attending:
- Games: It’s not often you get all your employees in one spot, so pick activities that are both fun and meaningful! Selecting a more involved, collaborative game like any of these from the Survival Simulation Series raises the stakes and provides an opportunity for bonding and learning about each other outside of work. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone, either—a company talent show gives employees a peek into the extracurricular passions of other team members.
- Service: There’s nothing to say the competition can’t be service-related. In previous company retreats, BambooHR participated with Rise Against Hunger to package meals to send to food-insecure locations worldwide. Many service organizations offer professional coordinators to help with setup, making it easier to mobilize your workforce for a good cause.
- Roundtables: Among all the learning that goes on during company offsite meetings, some of the best insights can come through feedback from coworkers. Setting structured time aside for open discussions on communication, leadership, successes, and failures can lead to personal and career growth. Being open is also an important step in building unity in your organization.
Team building is an every day possibility—find more ideas in our post, Seven Team Building Activities That Actually Build Stronger Teams.
- Inspirational: A presenter with an impressive life story can provide a human element to your company retreat and show your employees you care about their personal growth.
- Functional: A functional keynote speaker can take your employees through exercises designed to improve common working skills, such as communication. Consider what it means for your company to be radically candid, or have a session to develop your company's mission and values.
- Leadership: Where possible, have leaders speak directly and authentically to their employees. What questions do they get from employees? How is the organization progressing toward their vision?
- Musicians/Comedians: An entertaining afternoon can provide a welcome brain break following a morning of learning and a delicious lunch. Of course, all presentations should be safe for work.
- Have fun: Offsites shouldn't be all work—you left the office for a reason! In addition to cementing company goals and culture, offsite meetings should also be an opportunity to bond. Organize fun local activities, like a pottery class or zip-lining session, to blow off steam and have fun with team members. Don't forget about mealtimes, and throw a happy hour in the mix.
- Unstructured time: While it’s fun to mix with new people and participate in programs, it’s also important for employees to have some discretionary time. Planning time buffers in the program can give employees the chance to catch up with friends from work or to take a walk and decompress (for my fellow introverts out there.)
Select a venue that can accommodate the groups that will be participating in the offsite. This includes connections and space for those who need to be on call, such as sales employees with scheduled client calls. Employees have less patience with an offsite if it costs them commissions for the day, or if attending an offsite is more inconvenient than it's worth.
Does the venue provide catering? Will you need to arrange this separately? How far is the venue? Can the venue handle parking for everyone who will attend, or would it be better to meet at the office and take a bus to the offsite location? While less "fun," these decisions can make or break your employees' perception of a relaxed, well-organized offsite meeting.
After selecting a venue, visit the venue before the event and measure some factors that will affect your employee offsite schedule.
- Scope out traveling times between areas where different activities are held during your venue visit.
- Ask your catering company approximate times for serving the number of employees you expect to attend.
- Provide buffers for technical difficulties (or police presence). Even if things go smoothly, your employees will be glad for a break to process.
- Will there be an evening portion? Will there be plus ones? Provide ample time for any travel and dress code changes between portions of the event.
Your offsite’s budget will be a primary concern for your organization’s decision-makers. Before presenting your recommendations, understand how possible choices affect the cost per head and be prepared to report them during the buy-in process. It’s also important to remember that offsite meetings set expectations that will need to be met in the future, so operating at the peak of the budget may lead to disappointment in the future.
While budget is important, it’s not the only concern. It’s important to address how your offsite event plans make productive use of employee time while providing a positive experience. Others in leadership positions may question the value of holding the event in the first place.
This need to find issues and respond to them is basic human behavior. You can take this into consideration when you ask for buy-in. Instead of presenting a completed plan, present a few carefully selected options, including at least one that is barely feasible. Providing leadership with options to reject makes them less likely to take apart your best ideas. The contrast between the options can also help illustrate the thought you put into the project.
As you get approvals, you’ll need to provide and explain firm deadlines. Depending on your company size and the scope of the event, your team may need to ask for additional resources from other departments to pull off a smooth event (and to prevent event-planner burnout in HR).
Here are a few important deadlines to consider:
- Deadline for booking the venue
- Repeated announcements to employees (who may also schedule their lives months in advance and don’t want to choose between vacation and the offsite their employer is pitching them)
- Confirming all participants: caterers, seminars, transportation
- Employee deadlines:
- Promotional messaging
- Leadership presentations
- Employee support
- Will teams be needed for setup?
- Is this cost-effective?
There is much to consider when planning a successful employee offsite meeting. But as with other types of recognition, it’s often the thought that counts long after the experience has ended. Employee offsites let your employees know that they are recognized, valued, and supported. As your organization demonstrates this high level of engagement, it encourages employees to respond in kind.
For more ideas on improving employee engagement, here's your next step:
What's been your most memorable offsite meeting? We're always open to ideas. 💚👇