Here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask for a while. What’s your view on company retreats? I’m not talking about actual real estate in the countryside that the company bought decades ago and is used by burnt-out executives, families that are about to splinter and board-members and their flings, because I think these are always a great idea and should never, ever be offloaded.
I’m referring to short management jaunts that some might refer to as “away days” (a British term, I believe) or “off-sites” (more in use in the US and Canada). Does your heart sink when you receive a “save the date” from your company’s chief of staff? After all, you know it’s going to involve a round of awful team-building activities that might include wearing too much Gore-Tex, staying in a so-so hotel, and potentially two days packed with speakers talking a load of old guff about growth, innovation, work-life balance and all the other terms that reside in the cliché corner of corporations large, small and otherwise.
In some countries it feels like many companies are permanently off-site, as every time you attempt to book a meeting the staff are away skiing for a week or out of the office for half a day to learn about team-building through pasta-making. Sweden and Norway come to mind. In other companies, the corporate getaway is less about building a more nimble and fit company and more a chance to let the competition know that you can shell out for lavish events for top management in far-off destinations.
And, of course, there are many places where the company retreat is nothing more than an excuse to run up enormous bar and spa bills on the company dime and do as little work as possible.
For a long time I regarded such exercises as a complete waste of time, often devised by colleagues who felt as if they were still in boarding school and wanted to keep the tone juvenile but also vaguely exclusive and controlling at the same time. I’ve also long been wary of people who like wearing a tabard, find it thrilling to hand out coloured lanyards, and get excited about ridiculous group activities that are best left to the under-seven set.
But a few years ago I softened my view when I sent out my new year ambitions and marching orders to colleagues while sitting up in the mountains. After firing off emails to various addresses I concluded that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to get a few key people around the table to just talk. As I’m not one for whiteboards and flipcharts (and I find PowerPoint and its cousins too constraining), I decided that the format should be loose, the agenda flexible and the setting spare.
Two years on, we do four a year (two for our design agency, two for the magazine) and I find the more free-form the better. Of course there are key topics to cover and financials, forecasts and other essential data are close to hand but the only material required is a sharp mind, a notebook and a pen. As for extracurriculars, I think so long as the food and drink are good and the environment inspiring, people don’t need to be entertained. Given that we’re a small group (roughly 12-14 from both companies), we can look at the next 24 months quite quickly and find solutions to most problems without things getting too heavy.
For the past two summers we’ve been in Forte dei Marmi as Pisa airport is close by and, once in town, you only need a bicycle to get to dinner or make your way to the beach club. Last week we sampled the Vigilius above Merano in South Tyrol and did away with a table — opting for chunky side tables, sofas and club chairs. Remote yet still being connected to the rest of the world (this paper and many others all managed to make the early morning cable-car ride in order to be available by breakfast), it reminded me of the need to have as few distractions as possible.
Fine views aside, there was something appealing about the slightly monastic approach to dining (a hearty fixed menu chosen well in advance) and, while alarming at first, the hotel turns off the WiFi from 11pm to 7am so that guests can focus on sleep rather than checking emails or staying up late watching the latest serial thriller. Patchy mobile-phone reception also meant there was no relying on smartphones, either.
On the second night we ventured to the slopes on the other side of the valley and passed a series of villas with elaborate names, high walls and perfectly manicured gardens.
“Are these mostly private residences?” we asked.
“Some are,” said the driver. “But most are retreats belonging to various branches of the Italian security services and military. This is where they come to put their feet up and maybe do a bit of strategising.”
One assumes that these state assets never come up as possible targets during spending reviews.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine; firstname.lastname@example.org
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