Employers are straddling remote and hybrid work environments while investing in new ways to engage with their workforce more effectively. That means rethinking offsite company outings.
Naturally, approaches vary depending on the company. Some have gone all out and taken their staff on vacation. Others are reviving offsite events by providing employees with a choose-your-own-adventure itinerary.
And the stakes are higher than ever: Return-to-office mandates have proved highly unpopular, while some employees still haven’t ever met in person. Employers are looking more to offsites as the nucleus of company culture, and the time where employees can build meaningful connections with each other and their employer, in turn improving talent retention.
“Pre-pandemic, offsites used to be really heavy with meetings and work sessions, maybe in conference rooms, with a few meals or an activity together sprinkled in,” said Liz Hall, chief people officer at event marketing platform Splash. “The evolution to where we are now, the trend is all team-building, culture-building, all activities of some sort to get that face-to-face time, especially as more companies are all remote.” Even for the companies that have permanent offices, offsites have changed to center on ways to counter the experiences of the last few years and prioritize more employee wellness, she added.
“Offsites are pockets of realism, tactile moments that transcend the new normal and bring us back to the way in which we were taught to learn, strive, accomplish together.” said Erin Mills, CEO of Strat House, a consultancy dedicated to event strategy.
The pressure of talent churn during the great resignation has also motivated employers to evolve offsites to ensure employees are as engaged as possible.
“Offsites have become a critical part of budgets,” said Kevin Conroy Smith, founder and CEO of the Number Project, an event agency which helps plan company offsites. “Ten years ago, it became a trend of offering free lunch and dinner where every startup felt like they had to do it because you were competing for the same resources of talent. If one company is offering free lunch, you kind of have to do the same thing, otherwise you lose talent. Retreats have become very similar.”
Conroy Smith said even new hires frequently ask if there are retreats or if there is a travel policy.
However, while these events can remind an employee why they love their job, they can also have the opposite effect if a person feels forced into participating in events they wouldn’t usually choose to. That’s where the choose-your-own-adventure piece comes into play. It allows employees to opt into an experience they are interested in and groups them with folks who have similar passions.
“Employees having autonomy is really important because it makes someone more engaged in the activity,” said Hall. “They got to select it, vs. potentially feeling forced into it. The choose-your-own-adventure style makes it less forced to bond and it’s ‘oh you also enjoy making jewelry together.’ It also shows the company cares and acknowledges that the employee base is diverse in interest and cultural backgrounds.”
For example, e-commerce company Shopify’s offsite, planned in part by Splash, spanned three days and was broken up into different sections: play, nourish, craft, jam and explore. Employees were able to choose what section they were most interested in and got to bond with other team members that enjoyed similar hobbies such as cooking, hiking or entertainment.
“Having interest-based programming at events allows deeper moments of identity between colleagues,” said Mills.
Hall is planning Splash’s all-company offsite, which will take place over four days in November in California, where employees from all over the world will be flown in. Most of the trip will be broken out into smaller group activities for people to choose from, but there will be one all-hands event as well, which will focus on the company’s vision and mission rather than numbers and data.
“You really need to know your employees,” said Hall. “Some people like to be active, some like to be creative, some really enjoy the extrovert element, and some are introverts and will bond in smaller settings. I like to always have at least three options ahead of time.”
Hall said one example of that is offering horseback riding, botanical garden tours or golf at the same time. Or, it could be meeting with a local artist for ceramic art, bumper cars or a forest hike.
“There’s elements of ‘I want to chill,’ or ‘I want to be active,’” said Hall. “It shows some thoughtfulness that is appreciated and really helps individuals successfully have those meaningful interactions and conversations and relationship building because it is in a safe space for them.”
When only one event is offered at a time, and say it is someone’s least favorite thing to do, they aren’t going to have fond memories of the offsite.
“They’re not going to have a good experience, they’re not going to want to be there, they might even be a little resentful that something was scheduled forcing them to do something they don’t want to,” said Hall.
Conroy Smith said the most successful offsites which feature choose-your-own-adventure activities, tend to have a central theme. For example, that could be a field day where there is softball and lawn games, but also yoga and meditation. This way the company is within the same vicinity, but an employee can pick their activity based on preference.
Free time is also a critical component of a successful offsite event.
“What a lot of companies say they’re missing is those water cooler conversations that no longer happen,” said Conroy Smith. “What I’ve seen happen that’s not always great is over-programming and people don’t have a minute to get out to just step away and have conversations with other people in the company.”
GooseChase, an online platform that organizes real-world scavenger hunts, has also been used for many offsite events and can be set up to encourage intermingling between departments. For example, a person could be instructed to find someone from a different department who is wearing the same color shirt and take a photo at their desk pretending to work in their role.
“It clearly gets people bonding over something in common, chatting about their differences, and getting creative together in a fun way,” said Alyshahn Kara, chief revenue officer at GooseChase.
Following a company-wide offsite, Hall said she has seen employee productivity skyrocket. Also, employees are often keener to chat online with people from other departments after meeting them at the in-person event.
“Feeling connected that everyone is here for the same reasons in terms of mission and vision and that everyone is aligned helps people assume positive intent,” said Hall.