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by Eileen Levitt | March 10, 2009

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Off-site company meetings and retreats can be inspirational, energizing and lead to a more cohesive staff, or they can be an irritating waste of time and money. The deciding factor is how well you plan the meeting.

Ideally, company meetings are an opportunity to get away from the daily office routine and step back (hence the name "retreat") for some strategic planning and goal-setting. To accomplish these objectives, participants need to be relaxed and feel comfortable engaging in the creative process. So the overall atmosphere of the meeting should stimulate feelings of comfort and creativity, but always with a focus on meeting clearly defined objectives.

  • Location.
    In choosing your location, make sure it's convenient for most employees, but far enough from the workplace that it feels like an outing. If a large percentage of the employees rely on public transportation, consider providing shuttles from the office to the retreat site. However, keep in mind that staying overnight for meetings may place a serious burden on many families, especially single parents.

  • Set the agenda.
    Determine the organization's goals for the meeting. Are you planning a major new initiative, or just looking to boost morale? If there are specific challenges in your workplace that should be addressed, make sure you use this opportunity to work on those issues as a group. Also, make sure participants know the purpose of the meeting. Some organizations select a theme for their meeting that reflects its focus, whether it's customer service or internal communication. Without being too corny, carry the theme through to the decorations and snacks.

  • Involvement is key.
    Give careful thought to the right mix of presentation and participation. Encourage participation and buy-in by giving significant roles to as many people as possible. Ask employees to present material or lead breakout sessions. One company concerned about dress code violations presented a light-hearted fashion show during lunch, complete with examples of appropriate and inappropriate attire, all worn by employees. It was very well-received. Make participation in strenuous physical activities optional, so those not physically up to the challenge can sit out. Better yet, ensure that there are no strenuous physical activities.

  • Seek professional help.
    Outside facilitators can be a big help in maintaining the right atmosphere, creating a comfortable buffer between employees and management, and keeping participants on track with the meeting's objectives. They will impartially guide discussions, lead the group through its exercises and extract solutions from the process.

  • Evaluate.
    At the meeting's conclusion, or very soon after, ask employees to evaluate the retreat. What did they believe was accomplished, and how did they feel about participating? Use this feedback in planning future meetings.

  • Details.
    Make sure participants turn off cell phones during sessions. Provide plenty of snacks, drinks and bathroom breaks. If unable to close the office for the day, order in lunch for those employees who are holding down the fort, and make sure they are apprised of significant outcomes from the event they missed.

    And last, but not least ...

  • Follow through.
    All the great ideas in the world won't have any value if there's no follow-through. So, when you come back from the meeting full of terrific ideas, be sure to implement some of them. Develop an action plan as part of the retreat. In subsequent company meetings, always refer to the action plan and assess where progress is on each item.

Eileen Levitt is our vault recruiting expert and president of The HR Team, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm based in Columbia. She can be reached at (410) 381-9700 or elevitt@thehrteam.com, Keep up with human resources trends and issues, subscribe to "The Team Player," The HR Team's free monthly newsletter. Just click the link to send a subscription e-mail: team-player@aweber.com.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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