What to consider when planning company retreats

Every organization, from a large corporation to a pickup basketball team or jazz band, involves individuals coming together to integrate their efforts for some meaningful collective purpose. As an organizational psychologist, I’ve studied and thought about such relationships and how we can feel connected to a larger organizational system and purpose.

Sometimes with company or department retreats, the goal or purpose is lost or taken for granted. It may be that the retreat is scheduled simply because it’s that time of year again. That’s not good enough for many people who, especially in this post-pandemic world of work, may be more sensitive about managing the encroachment of work on the rest of their life.

Setting the intention for the retreat should be the first order of business.

  • Why are we convening? Landing on a specific purpose shapes the retreat format.
  • Do we need to develop a new strategic vision? If so, does everyone need to be there? Or could we have top leaders engage in one session, and everyone else in a different session?
  • Do we want to address the broken sense of connection and engagement that so many companies are struggling with right now? Then, how will we create opportunities for people to spend time with each other, setting taskwork in the background? Everything else follows from that intention.

Some scholars have noted how retreats are unique opportunities for individuals to access the form of the whole organizational system. Such opportunities were always rare in the busy world of work, where we tend to focus on the division of labor and attend to the next deadline or demand from our bosses and clients. But being able to see and feel the larger system in which you’re embedded — the system that actually delivers the positive impact you hope you contribute to — is important for motivation and engagement. If an underlying intention is to help folks really feel part of something greater than themselves, think about what would really amp that up.

  • What kinds of spaces or spatial arrangements (the rooms, the chairs, the access to nature) would best energize your group?
  • What conversational patterns would help them feel seen and also really see and understand the other functions, units or departments that comprise the whole? Would it be a balance of large, plenary sessions and smaller breakout groups?
  • Can there be some balance of “work” time — maybe in the morning if that’s when folks are freshest — and “play” time, where the only work happening is building stronger and deeper connections?

Learning what is most appealing to organizational members, once there is agreement on the intention or goal, would be its own process.

Hopefully, the idea of setting an intention and then learning what would work for participants so they feel connected to a larger whole isn’t scary. The effort will be worthwhile as you observe your colleagues return to work refreshed, with new levels of mutual understanding and appreciation, and a hopeful look on their faces as they think about the next retreat. ●

John Paul Stephens, Ph.D., is associate professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management

John Paul Stephens

Associate professor of organizational behavior
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