Off and on
The offsite is variously viewed as essential, inspiring, frustrating or, quite simply, a chance to make merry on the company account. Matthew Gwyther, former editor of Management Today, considers the pros and cons of this business institution.
From herding geese and horse-whispering, through building towers with dry spaghetti sticks, to constructing rafts from oil drums, rope and planks of wood – it can sometimes seem as if no activity is off-limits at an offsite. Often, a tub-thumping motivational speaker is thrown into the mix for good measure. And as evening falls, the boss’s company plastic is behind the bar, with memorable outcomes, particularly at British events.
The offsite can arouse an array of emotions, from pleasure at the prospect of a night at the Heathrow Holiday Inn to a jaded sense of dread. There is even a spoof Enid Blyton book, Five Go On A Strategy Away Day, in which young friends George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy “are booked into an exciting hotel right next to a jolly motorway services”.
One CEO from a global communications firm recalls his favourite: “The facilitator got us into the swing of it with an early morning ‘warm-up’ exercise where we had to jump into a trust circle if we had done something similar to the first jumper... eaten muesli for breakfast, liked jazz – whatever. One participant obviously forgot this was not a drinking game. ‘Jump into the middle if you’ve ever had a threesome with your boss!’ she entreated. Nobody moved.”
His PowerPoint featured a sequence in which a rival publication was peppered with bullet holes, complete with rifle-fire sound effects
I remember being locked up for the day in a chintzy and moth-eaten country hotel in Surrey where our boss – who clearly thought we lacked a competitive edge – tried to turn us into natural born killers. His PowerPoint featured a sequence in which a rival publication was peppered with bullet holes, complete with rifle-fire sound effects. Just one problem: his laptop sound card refused to work. I can still hear the muffled sniggers.
The theory behind off-site meetings is relatively simple and sound: staff leave behind the daily grind of the inbox and find an opportunity to clear their minds and innovate in a space uncluttered by day-to-day minutiae.
As Miranda Kennet, an experienced coach and facilitator, explains: “They can be hugely worthwhile because, when done well, they enable a group to get beyond the pre-frontal cortex – where all the judging takes place – and participants’ minds are properly freed to dare to be imaginative.”
Consultant Mark Bouch has designed, facilitated, observed and participated in more than 200 offsites. He has witnessed tears, explosive meltdowns, walkouts and even “a senior leadership team insisting on playing a ‘marry, kiss, kill’ game late at night in the bar”. But, he says, “many, perhaps the majority, have been positive and refreshing experiences that helped people develop and clarify strategy and get to grips with important issues”.
So how should businesses try to make the best of an offsite?
First, agree goals, structures and parameters beforehand. A professional facilitator can be helpful on the day, as they have no axe to grind, the boss is ranked equally with colleagues and the least vocal are more likely to be heard.
Second, ensure the agenda is balanced – let things breathe and allow participants to spend quality time and break bread with one another.
When done well, they enable a group to get beyond the pre-frontal cortex – where all the judging takes place – so participants can dare to be imaginative
Third, be aware of latent office tensions and personality issues. Address them early on or before the event, rather than over drinks after dinner.
Finally, make sure there is an agreed follow-up process. Scan and distribute flip charts; summarise and distribute agreed decisions.
And if you want colleagues to emerge inspired rather than appalled, never force anyone to participate in supposedly fun but potentially humiliating activities – paintballing, karaoke, face-offs with a goose. Do not let evening drinks get too out of hand. And try to avoid typecasting people’s Myers-Briggs personalities – it’s not a parlour game. Really n