The Benefits of Staff Retreats

Overnighting your way to greater team (and company) building...

Jennifer Murray is an often unseen force at Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour, but she makes a whole lot of things happen around here. For instance, she and VP Strategy/Chief Culture Officer Shawn Adamsson recently made a two-day, off-site retreat happen for the nearly 30 people who make up our two teams…

Why did we decide to have a retreat in the first place?

“We needed to bring the team together,” says Jen. We’d missed our annual “rtraction day”—the yearly celebration of the company’s anniversary, and a darned good party—and this seemed like a good way to have all of the staff interact both casually and in a more structured way.

Our last staff retreat was three years ago, and a lot had changed since then: not only had the company grown, but it had become two separate working entities. In part due to this evolution, we’d had some communications breakdowns, and those needed mending. And as was the case with the previous retreat, it was a planned opportunity for the entire company to consider our direction(s) and hear from all of our team members.

We brought in Chris Moss to facilitate the two-day session. We’ve worked with Chris since 2012, so her familiarity with the team (and our familiarity with her) upped our comfort while still ensuring an objective voice was driving the retreat.

Chris helped flesh out an agenda that was based on our manifesto, and focused on areas we wanted to improve (including team building, and communication and feedback).

Over the course of the two days, we got comfortable talking about what was on our minds, what was important to each of us, what currently was making us happy (or not). Our preset agenda underwent some ad hoc revisions. (Fortunately, we’re agile and Agile.) We discovered that our tendency to want to do all the cool things—not just a few at a time—was becoming detrimental to some of the team members. We also found out that while our large “leadership team” considers each one of us leaders in our own right, that message wasn’t getting through to every one of us.

Shawn, the other mastermind behind the retreat, chimes in. “The partners [Shawn, David Billson and Josh Dow] sensed a need for the team to discuss things without us in the room and we gave that space… and, arguably, the most valuable (office-related) stuff came out of that.”

Shawn adds, “The feedback from the evening was really great as well. Staying overnight, while not cheap, was money very well spent.”

Jen says that yearly company retreats are the standard, but she wonders if perhaps every eight months might be better. “That would mix up the yearly timing and not have us pre-programmed for the open discussion.”

What did we get from our overnight retreat? Well, besides some delicious meals, the chance to spend some non-work time together and learn more about each other, and an impromptu late-night jam session/singalong? (Our team includes some talented musicians.) Jen can answer: “For the staff, it was an opportunity to voice their observations and concerns, and also hear about their teammates’ experiences. For our leadership team, it was an opportunity to be ‘real people,’ and listen without judgement. It defined where management and leadership boundaries are, and the realities of both.” And for all the attendees? “We also witnessed how much we care about each other and our genuine concern for the issues other teammates raised.”

Jen notes additional considerations when planning a staff retreat:

“Think about what kind of fun you want to pair with all the thinking and sharing. Also consider your group and make allowances for the introvert/extrovert dynamic.” (Helping the introverts speak up is always important—they’re often the ones paying the most attention while the extroverts are being noisy. And as is the case with many tech companies, the introverts are in the majority.) Back to Jen: “And get people to move. It’s better than pumping them up with sugar. Add booze and music at some point. And have good food. Always!”


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As one of those noisy extroverts (most of the time), copywriter Laurie Bursch is always comfortable talking or writing about what’s on her mind, and she loves adding words to the cool things we create.


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