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What to Expect from Off-Site Meetings

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

 

Bottom Line: Workshops in another setting can provide employees with a valuable means of thinking critically about their company’s vision.

Whatever you want to call them — strategy retreats, away days, off-sites — out-of-office group meetings have become ubiquitous in the business world. In exchange for the cost and resources required to pull them off, top executives and analysts expect workshops to deliver tangible strategic benefits and the type of team bonding experience that enhances employees’ focus and productivity.

But the jury is still out: Are these away days truly valuable or just an excuse for employees to cut loose from their usual routines and enjoy lunch on the company? Many businesses see workshops as a necessary way of allowing employees to step back from the daily grind and ruminate over larger issues. Others say off-sites lack an overriding goal and send mixed messages to the participants. The few empirical studies of the effects of off-site meetings have been inconclusive, small-scale case reports. What’s more, previous research has typically judged retreats mainly by whether they contribute to sweeping organizational changes within a firm.

A new study from a team of researchers in the U.K. surveyed those who collectively participated in more than 650 company-led workshops conducted in a wide range of settings. The study provides a more nuanced appraisal of the impact of strategic retreats.

The authors did indeed find that off-sites leave few long-lasting, overarching effects on firms, and that success stories — such as the case of Philips Electronics, which shifted from the semiconductor industry into the burgeoning health technology sector largely as a result of the discussions held at board retreats — are relatively rare.

However, that doesn’t mean managers should dismiss the potential of workshops out of hand, the authors write. Instead of looking for company-changing results, managers should look deeper for meaningful workshop-related outcomes, particularly those that affect “soft” aspects of corporate culture, such as employees’ interpersonal dealings and their comprehension of the firm’s strategic approach.

Managers should look for meaningful workshop outcomes, such as those that affect corporate culture.

In examining the results of extensive surveys of middle- and senior-level managers at firms of various sizes, from small localized companies to multinationals, the authors found that several basic design elements of workshops determine their effectiveness. These elements include how clearly organizers articulate the purpose of the off-site, the level of detachment from everyday routines, the duration and scheduling of meetings, the number and variety of stakeholders invited, and the extent to which participants challenge existing strategies.

The aftereffects of corporate retreats trickle down into three areas of corporate culture and performance, the authors found. Wide-ranging organizational outcomes, the most difficult to achieve, include impacts on a firm’s strategic direction, including its business plan, internal processes, and overall values.

Far more common, given the emphasis on team building predominant during many off-sites, are interpersonal outcomes — takeaways from workshops that help colleagues share knowledge and support with one another. Also prevalent are cognitive outcomes, or how much better executives, managers, and employees understand the firm’s strategic positioning and objectives, as well as its place in the wider marketplace.

The main difficulty is in turning the discussions and activities of a workshop into practical solutions once everyone’s back at the office. For example, one of the fundamental characteristics of strategy retreats is their disengagement from the day-to-day routine. Conventional wisdom suggests that this temporary remove helps managers break free from their habits and allows them to stimulate innovative brainstorming. But this very aspect could also mean that the creative thinking that happens away from the office is difficult to bring back into regular organizational processes. Indeed, the authors found a negative association between the level of detachment from normal rituals and the ability of managers to implement ideas thought up on a retreat.

Supervisors, therefore, should look for more ways to integrate takeaways from workshops into the everyday fabric of the company. For example, scheduling off-sites as a series of events boosts the likelihood that firms can translate the takeaways from workshops into concrete cognitive and organizational improvements. According to the researchers, serializing meetings requires employees to spend more time and effort considering strategic issues and affords them the ability to reflect on their ideas and think of ways to implement them.

Similarly, the more that employees from different areas of the company participate in off-sites together, the more their interpersonal relationships will flourish back at the office. Small group workshops were especially instrumental in allowing employees to bond with one another.

Because the authors found relatively small effects resulting from off-sites in general, they encourage managers first to establish clear goals for what they want to achieve during an off-site, and then to undertake objective evaluations of workshops to determine whether they’re worthwhile and cost-effective. These measures could include tallying the number of new initiatives that stem from a particular retreat, tracking the amount of time spent on challenging the status quo, or monitoring changes in communication patterns and in-office meetings among participants.

Source:Off to Plan or Out to Lunch? Relationships between Design Characteristics and Outcomes of Strategy Workshops,” by Mark P. Healey (University of Manchester), Gerard P. Hodgkinson (University of Warwick), Richard Whittington (University of Oxford), and Gerry Johnson (Lancaster University), British Journal of Management, July 2015, vol. 26, no. 3

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What to Expect from Off-Site Meetings