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Get Out of the OFFICE

Posted on Sunday, July 3rd, 2005 by

Certain company discussions call for a change of scenery

It’s a typical day at your small business: You have ringing phones to answer, appointments to juggle, and emergencies to address. That daily routine can drain your time and energy—and leave you with little opportunity to consider bigger issues such as your firm’s long-term plans or the cohesiveness of your staff. “Small businesses spend most of their time frantically managing daily operations,” says Bob Frisch, a principal at Boston meeting-planning firm Strategic Offsites. “They need to go somewhere where the phone will stop ringing in order to see the big picture.”

Certain types of meetings are especially well-suited to off-site gatherings—including meetings on any subject that requires extended periods of in-depth discussion. Long-term strategizing, leadership development, brainstorming, and team-building all need the relative isolation and quiet that can be hard to find in the office. Off-site meetings also offer an opportunity to boost morale and reward valued employees.

For example, a small medical practice may desperately need a strategic plan to navigate the rapid changes in the health-care industry, from rising malpractice insurance to changes in Medicare reimbursement to competition from large healthcare corporations. It might be next to impossible to craft such a plan at the office between patient visits and insurance-company phone calls. For such complex issues, the business’ decision-makers need to get somewhere they can truly focus on the issues at hand, without interruption.

How to plan an off-site meeting

Your meeting will be more successful if you’re absolutely clear about its purpose. That purpose will determine the type of venue you need, the participants you invite, and how much it will cost. “Decide in advance what goals you wish to accomplish,” says Susan Friedmann, author of Meeting and Event Planning for Dummies. “Lack of a defined purpose is the number-one reason for failed meetings.”

You don’t need to spend huge sums to have a successful off-site meeting. True, some resorts are expensive. For example, you might pay $1,000 or more per employee for a three-day getaway package that includes rooms, food, meeting facilities, rental of audio-visual equipment, and a couple rounds of golf. All-inclusive facilities such as upscale hotels or resorts like Disney World offer some appealing perks for that money—for example, they might provide meeting coordinators, technology consultants, recreational activities, and other services that allow you to concentrate on the content of your meetings. Anteing up for a fancier venue also might help boost employee morale.

Less-expensive venues also can be fruitful, however. Local libraries, restaurants, colleges, high schools, and other institutions usually offer free or inexpensive use of their facilities, which might be perfect for a meeting that lasts an afternoon or full day. A small group might hold a weekend retreat at a vacation house—your own, if you have one, or a rental. Larger groups can seek out off-season deals at nearby hotels or camps.

PURPOSE: long-term strategizing

Off-site meetings provide an ideal forum for discussing the direction of your business, as well as the ways your firm should respond to changes in your industry or marketplace. “It’s very difficult to have serious, in-depth strategy meetings in the workplace,” says Frisch. “Just when you’re getting down to it, someone bangs on the door and interrupts your discussion.”

You may want to consider hiring a consultant to facilitate your meeting, especially if you’ve never done any strategic planning before, if previous plans have failed, or if there is a lack of consensus about the issues you need to discuss. Check with the business departments of local colleges or universities. Some industrial psychologists and business-school professors have a sideline in facilitating business meetings. Firms such as Frisch’s and knOwhere, Inc. (www.knowherestore.com) offer much more comprehensive services: They will help you design and run your strategic-planning meeting, from developing the agenda to choosing the site to providing note-takers. Consultant generally don’t come cheap—be prepared to spend $2,000 to $10,000 for a two-day session, in addition to facility expenses.

Strategic meetings call for venues that offer isolation and quiet, so participants can concentrate on the task at hand. Such meetings also typically demand enough time for multiple sessions, interspersed with opportunities for relaxation or recreation. Meeting several times during the course of two or three days will ensure that participants have time to consider ideas and plans thoroughly.

Repeated sessions also allow participants to improve their strategic thinking and communication skills. “People often don’t know how to talk about strategic issues,” says Frisch. “But they get much better at it over the course of several days.”

Circulate the agenda for your strategy meeting ahead of time, so participants can prepare themselves and offer feedback. Establish a timeframe for discussions: Are you going to talk about the next 12 months or the next 10 years? Also set explicit goals: Decide whether you want the meeting to reach specific decisions or just generate new ideas. And be realistic. “Most people try to do too much in one session,” says Frisch. “You won’t address every critical decision facing your firm in one long weekend.”

If you do want the meeting to produce specific decisions, invite everyone necessary to make them. For example, a decision that would require upgrading your technology systems will need input from a staff member armed with information about the feasibility and expense of such an upgrade. Resist the temptation to invite everyone to the meeting, since too many participants can bog down a strategic discussion.

If you expect to reach a decision that will require significant change, consider breaking the meeting into two parts: the retreat weekend, followed by a half-day meeting two weeks later at which you’ll finalize the decision. The second meeting can take place near your office—for example, at a restaurant or in a conference room. That approach will allow participants to sleep on the proposal and discuss it with their colleagues. They may become more comfortable with the change—or realize that certain concerns must be addressed.

For a brainstorming session, almost any venue outside the office, even the
rooftop of your own building (above), will do; for teambuilding, it’s hard to
beat the inevitable bonding generated by whitewater rafting (below, right).

PURPOSE: leadership training

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to leadership vacuums when a founder or high-ranking executive moves on. Off-site meetings can provide a forum for passing along a leader’s knowledge to the next generation.

Like strategic-planning sessions, leadership-training meetings may require multi-day retreats. They also require a firm’s current leaders to plan ahead thoroughly prior to the meeting, so that the retreat addresses the wide range of information and skills needed to run the
company.

Leadership-training retreats can be especially useful for family businesses, which encounter financial and emotional issues when a member of the older generation steps down. In that case, make sure to allow for the input of all relevant players and advisors—including attorneys, accountants, financial advisors, and perhaps family leaders, investors, and even important clients.

PURPOSE: brainstorming

Daily routines can be great for office efficiency, but they’re death to creativity. Taking meetings off-site can boost creativity by getting you and your staff away from mundane tasks and office hierarchies that can squelch good ideas.

Start by delegating the planning of the meeting. Giving staff members ownership of the meeting will not only preserve your time, but also might encourage positive, creative input from participants who might be less forthcoming at a meeting organized by the boss. Pick the planners carefully—energetic, competent, and popular employees are most likely to develop meetings that engage their colleagues. Give them a firm budget, which might range from $100 to $5,000 or more; the amount will depend on the type of food, venue, and activities you choose. Brainstorming meetings typically don’t require
overnight retreats.

Don’t hesitate to offer guidance to your team. Many consultants suggest featuring snacks, music, art, banners, and balloons to get people thinking in a creative vein. “Sensory stimulation motivates creative thinking,” says author Susan Friedmann. Icebreaking exercises also can help tap your participants’ creative energy. A number of books offer ideas for stimulating icebreakers. Friedmann recommends Games Trainers Play by Edward E. Scannell and John W. Newstrom, and The Big Book of Meeting
Games by Marlene Caroselli. Your meeting planners should be sure to schedule breaks every couple of hours, so participants can recharge their batteries.

Let someone else run the meeting to create a more democratic atmosphere. It might also help to hold some discussions in small groups, which might make it easier for some employees to express their ideas. A good brainstorming venue doesn’t have to cost much. Look for a facility with a quiet, well-lit room that is big enough for your group but won’t feel cavernous. It’s a good idea to pick a spot that offers access to the outdoors during breaks. Make sure you’ll be allowed to get in a bit early to prepare the space, and ask in advance about restrictions on food or music.

PURPOSE: teambuilding

Most companies struggle at some point with low morale, interpersonal conflicts, or other issues that undermine the firm’s cohesiveness. It’s important to address those issues before they become corrosive. For that matter, most any organization can stand to improve bonding and communication between various individuals.

Certain types of off-site meetings can help you address those issues. Organizations like Pacific Playback Theater (www.pacificplayback.com) offer workshops designed to help your group work together better—typically by involving participants in creative, unifying activities such as improvisational theater. Those outfits generally offer a range of activities, with a corresponding range of price levels. Most will work with your firm to craft a program that suits your budget. For relatively cheap and fun collaborative activities, consider outings such as ropes courses or white-water rafting. Dealing with conflicts is more difficult, and often calls for professional assistance from a psychologist or group therapist. Those counselors can help you determine the best venue and plan for your meeting.

You probably spend most of your waking hours at your workplace. But certain crucial tasks require a change of surroundings—one that takes you away from your office routine. Projects such as evaluating your
long-term plan or developing the next generation of leaders are too important to leave to the moments
between phone calls. With that in mind, consider holding off-site meetings at regular intervals. “It’s a good idea to step out of your daily flow once every six or 12 months,” says Frisch. Doing so can keep the day-to-day grind from blinding you to the big picture. You might end up with a stronger, more profitable business—and one that’s more fun for you and your employees or colleagues to manage.

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