Corporate retreat doesn't mean surrender

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Annual retreats bear the brunt of many jokes. Most employees hate them. Corporate leadership dreads their return. Some have even managed to turn "off-site" into something akin to a curse.

But why is it so difficult to make everyone set aside the daily grind and get out of the workplace for a structured planning meeting or corporate retreat?

With little exception, the first hang-up is the personal imposition of leaving home, loved ones, pets and other personal matters unattended. Add in the moving up or delaying of work deadlines, and it”s easy to see why some would rather skip the whole thing.

Still, retreats are a vital part of the operation, and they can be accomplished well. Take a look at how company president Bryan Cohen and those running the show at Touchstone Homes in Suwanee make good use of their huddle times.

Touchstone has consistently employed quarterly retreats for the last four years. The overall mission: get a group of about 10 key players out of the office for half the day or longer. These folks will then completely immerse themselves in what”s going on the business while they are free of their daily distractions.

"We”ve become very dependent on them," Cohen admits. "When we”re all brainstorming together, we”re all forced to turn off our cell phones and become prepared to open our minds, and all sorts of ideas come flowing."

In the end, Cohen and the team get "pretty fired-up and excited" about what it is they have agreed needs to be accomplished – "it gets everybody back to being on the same page."

Touchstone”s top management learned by trial and error that retreating at headquarters is not a good idea. They find their best results happen in mountain lodges, rented space in neighboring hotels and business club conference rooms.

And it hasn”t taken them long to reap the benefits of getting out of the office for a while.

During a recent meeting, the leadership team opted to restructure Touchstone”s construction and warranty areas, rename the department and shuffle employee duties. A third-party company completing customer surveys since the reorganization recently reported all-time high approval ratings.

"To see the tangible impact of that decision and the responses from people that are buying homes from us makes you look back and say, “I”m glad we had that discussion and turned it into a restructure,”" Cohen says. "It mattered; it”s done something very positive."

Producing easily recognizable results from a planning session takes effort up front. According to business coach/consultant Janet Waller of Lawrenceville-based Waller Management Group, retreats benefit from having established specific goals and objectives from the start.

Waller states that when a meeting is over, everyone should be united and returning to work prepared to implement plans. To set the goals, organizers should gather input from senior management, general managers and the common employees.

"If there was not an alignment with the goals of the company, the attendees would come back and tell their buddies exactly how they felt," Waller says of past retreat experiences. "But they would complete the survey or questionnaire with exactly what they thought the company wanted to hear."

Touchstone”s gatherings benefit from Cohen taking the functions personal. Retreats are a big deal to him, and he spends a lot time making sure they are helpful for the company.

"I hope people leave having felt like they contributed; it was a good experience for their time and they see there is enormous value added," Cohen says. "Then when you look at doing it again, it”s now with trepidation. It”s with a lot more internal excitement being built up about it."

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