Planning the Perfect Company Retreat – 352 Noodles & Doodles

In addition to the Race to 3:52 Hackathon, this week we’re also holding our annual retreat. As you’d hopefully guess, we don’t like to do the common sort of company retreat – no trust falls, no shenanigans. Our retreat is the one time each year that we bring all of our offices together to mingle and reconnect across offices. But it took us a while to get to the perfect retreat, so we’d like to help you refine yours.

In this week’s 352 Noodles & Doodles, I’ll reveal the secrets of the perfect company retreat (pro tip: it ends in a big party.

Transcript below.

[Peter VanRysdam:] Hi, I’m Peter VanRysdam, one of the founding partners here at 352, and today I’m going to talk to you about planning the perfect company retreat. It’s been something that’s really important for us, and we’re actually in retreat week here at 352. I’ve got some great feedback and tips that hopefully should help you guys.First, I want to talk about why we have retreats. It kind of seems obvious, but people think about retreats more like trust falls and things like that. That’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m going to tell you a little bit of story about the history of why we got into them, and maybe that will explain why they’re important.

We started here in Gainesville, Florida and then our company expanded. We added an office in Atlanta. We added an office in Tampa. 

It became really difficult to get all those people together. We actually went a few years where we never had everyone in the same room at one time, and we started to see some problems from that. I don’t want to say things got adversarial, but it started to seem like people were kind of out on an island by themselves. Bringing them back together at least once a year was something that was really important for us to get that teamwork and camaraderie back together. That’s kind of why we started. 

Once you’re planning you want to figure out where to do your retreat. I would recommend that you want to get off site if possible. We’ve done our retreats before at hotel ballrooms, at a theater in town. There are lots of different options depending on the size of your company for where you could have your retreat. 

The reason why you want to get off site is you want to pull people away from their computers, away from their phones, otherwise every break you get they’re going to be running to their desk checking their email and they’re not going to be completely engaged. You want those breaks in the day to be times when people can interact with each other and interact with people that they don’t always get to see. Getting people out of the office kind of breaks up that mindset and lets people know that this is important. 

Next, we want to talk about who. Obviously, everyone in your company, but how are those people going to work together? Here at 352 we have people that work in different groups based on a lot of different things. We have geography. We have Tampa, Atlanta, and Gainesville, so those people are comfortable with each other. We have individual development teams that are made of designers and programmers and development team coordinators that are obviously very comfortable with each other. Then, we have the groups of designers, the groups of programmers, sales, marketing. Those people work together on a daily basis.

What we want to do when it comes time for the retreat is kind of break up those groups. We want to take a designer from Atlanta and pair them with a sales person from Tampa and a marketing person from Gainesville, for example, just to kind of break up those traditional groups that people are used to working in and start to kind of branch out and meet new people. I’ve found personally that’s been really helpful for me to meet people that I wouldn’t have necessarily interacted with on a daily basis otherwise, because after the retreat’s over I’ve found that I reach out to those people when I need them for help. 

How, when you’re actually doing the retreat, do you want to make it happen? A couple of tips that I have that have been effective for us that hopefully you can use as well. One of the first things is interaction. You want to get people up out of their seats. This isn’t just a lecture. You want to have people talking to the rest of the group and talking in smaller groups on different group exercises. That’s going to keep people from falling asleep and get them really engaged and into the message. 

A great way to do that is to hire an outside moderator. You can probably do that on a budget, too, by getting someone who’s a colleague from maybe another company or vendor to come in and just kind of help facilitate the conversation. That can help you in a few ways. The biggest is if the CEO is just getting up and talking again then it’s no different than a regular staff meeting. 

You want people to know that the retreat is something different. You have a goal in mind that you want to accomplish. By bringing in a moderator you may be able to lead the conversation down paths that it wouldn’t have taken otherwise, and people are a little more comfortable, because it’s not the CEO and you’re voicing concerns directly to the person in charge. Getting everyone involved can help. 

After the fact, you want to definitely make sure that you guys follow through. From a leadership perspective in a company you want to make sure that you follow through with what comes out of the retreat. Next year people will take it much more seriously if they know that last year all these different things came as a result of the retreat, so definitely follow through. 

The last thing is to party. It sounds obvious, just go out and have a few drinks, but getting people involved socially can really help kind of fix the problem that we had in the beginning for ourselves and help that problem in your company as well. We do that in a couple of different ways. Early on in the retreat we’ll have a barbecue or something to bring people together. It’s kind of meet and greet. People can reacclimate themselves with each other before we get to the meat and potatoes of the retreat days. 

In the evenings then we’ll do group dinners. We’ll also do a physical activity normally like a field day or going out and playing paintball, things like that that get people interacting in different ways. Finally, we end our retreat with a gala, our awards ceremony, where everyone gets all dressed up to the nines and we have a great time. 

At this point now you’ve met everyone. You’ve worked with them. You have collaborated with them. You’ve broken bread with them. You’ve had drinks with them. You really are able to foster that relationship and that’s something that will last at least until the next year when you do it all again. 

Those are some tips for executing the perfect retreat, and I hope they help you. If you have some tips from retreats you’ve done or some questions, please post them in the comments on our blog and let us know. We’d love to hear your ideas and ways we can improve our own retreats. 

If you like what you saw here, please be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel, that’s 352 Inc. Thank you so much, and we’ll see you next time.

  • Katie Griggs

    Great job, Peter. The retreat was a blast!

  • Chris Manning

    It really was a amazing week and many many fond memories.