Extreme Offsites

By Rebecca Winters;Charlotte Faltermayer and Valerie Marchant/New York, Laird Harrison/Malibu, Anne Moffett/Gettysburg and David Nordan/Atlanta Monday, Aug. 09, 1999

Looking for ways to improve the bottom line? Try selling the boss on this idea: take all the people in the office on a three-day trip. Fly them to an exotic locale so they can learn kayaking--at his expense.

It's tough to imagine the CEO of a lean, mean operation falling for that one five years ago. It's tougher still to imagine that it would work, as a lot of CEOs apparently now do. Major businesses like Pfizer, American Express and Southwest Airlines, along with much smaller outfits, are laying out more than $55.3 billion annually--almost twice what they spent in the mid-1980s--on training. And the hottest new training device is the offsite, a company- or department-wide session away from the office. But today's offsite isn't a few meetings in a windowless hotel banquet room followed by a round of golf and cocktails. More likely it's built around a truly exotic challenge, like white-water rafting, tightrope walking, adventure racing, even cooking. The common denominator: it's a group task unrelated to work.

It's tempting to write off this trend as a fad born of an economy that doesn't know when to quit, abetted by companies with more money than they know how to spend. But unusual offsites may be tapping into an economic shift that is more lasting than the bull market--the need for "soft" (interpersonal) skills in a quick-moving, unstructured service economy in which advantages are momentary and a slight shift in the business model can mean either big bucks or doom. "Because of all the complexity and chaos that we face in this era, we have to look for nonlinear ways to learn," says Laurie Bassi, vice president of research at the American Society for Training and Development (A.S.T.D.), a not-for-profit professional society. "What we are seeing is a lot of experimenting with other ways of enhancing productivity."
U.S. executives are more concerned than ever with a skills gap they believe could be crimping their companies' sales as much as 33%, a recent poll showed. But the skills that executives say they want most don't involve hard knowledge, like the ability to program in C++ or fluency in Japanese. The top personnel premiums they seek are attributes that support mental and social flexibility. They want listening skills, interpersonal finesse and problem-solving ability, and they're spending more to get it.

In pursuit of those ambitious objectives, however, not every offsite is worth a company's time and money. It's useless "to put employees out in some wilderness area and say, 'Well, no one got eaten by a bear,'" says Tom Zimmerer, director of the Breech School of Business Administration at Drury College in Springfield, Mo. The formula for a good offsite is much more complicated and practical than that. Consider the following examples:
One steamy afternoon in June, beneath a ring of pine trees near Atlanta's Stone Mountain, 10 managers from Andersen Consulting are on a mission. The objective: to place a gallon-size tin can onto a foot-square wooden platform in the center of a roped-off circle about 30 ft. in diameter. The catch: the team has to do it from outside the circle, using only ropes attached to the can. The members of the group with physical control over the ropes are blindfolded, and have no idea where they are or what they're supposed to be doing. The team has 20 minutes.

Sweat pouring down their faces, teeth gritting, the team members urge their blindfolded comrades to "move a hair to the left, take in a little." As they struggle, workers who initially deferred to more senior or aggressive colleagues start to come forward with ideas on how to swing the can onto the little deck. Finally, success! Then, after the team completes the assignment, parallels to the real world begin to emerge. "I work for a woman in London I've never met," says a young female systems analyst. Now the notion of working "blind," not personally knowing colleagues who are based on a different floor or even a different continent or working without knowing a project's ultimate goal, takes on new meaning. At the end of the day, the postmortem is overwhelmingly positive. "I'm on the road four days a week," says Anthony Coker, an Andersen director of knowledge management. "We get so market focused, so goal focused, it creates a lack of community," says Coker. "This forces us out of that."

That's the way the offsite is supposed to work, says Bob Carr, president of Executive Adventure, which put on the Andersen event. "Communication is absolutely the biggest problem," Carr says. "People get isolated in today's workplace. We'd like to move to a situation where a worker with a problem or task might say, 'Hey, wait. Jim handled a similar situation. I'll call him.'"

The concept worked for a footwear sales team at Salomon North America, a sports-equipment manufacturer. Two years ago, the 36-member team took part in a marathon race involving kayaking, rappelling and navigating on foot and mountain bike at the Presidio Adventure Racing Academy in San Francisco. Before the offsite, there was little communication between the sales-rep groups, recalls their director, Bill Dodge. Afterward, "people felt like they had become old friends in a weekend." Sales in the year after the offsite shot up 125%, Dodge says. "That was the most expensive sales meeting we ever had," he notes. And it was "worth every penny."

Offsites don't always pay off, however--in either good feeling or financial gain. After a group of U.S. postal workers went through a ropes course together, they complained that the coaching staff was too touchy-feely and wrote comments like "We hate you" to the firm that ran it. That firm now refuses to work with the Postal Service, because it believes that top managers didn't support the spirit the course tried to foster. Earnest approval from the upper levels of a company is key to the success of an offsite, says A.S.T.D.'s Bassi. If the CEO appears at an event with "arms crossed, sending the signal that he thinks this is not a valuable thing, then you are not going to get a lot of organization value."

Even with management support, employees can be squeamish about offsites. The corporate retreat from hell was memorialized on an episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer and the other workers at Springfield's nuclear-power plant head up snow-covered Mount Useful in pairs, competing to be first to reach a cabin at the top. The boss cheats, the employees just want free sandwiches, and an avalanche sabotages the whole thing. In the real world, climbing a mountain or learning to handle a kayak with someone you've barely met or, even worse, someone you see at the office every day can be just as lame. Toss in the fear of tackling physically challenging tasks and the potentially corny kum-bay-ya-ness of it all, and you've got the makings of a disaster.

That's why Bassi suggests launching a company's first offsite with employee volunteers. They will be open-minded, and are more likely to rave about the program when they return to work. If an offsite is mandatory, organizers should let workers know what to expect. It has to be made clear that "this is not a game," says Drury's Zimmerer. "What we are trying to do is increase productivity and performance. We are trying to help you all become better at doing your jobs."
Try picturing a tougher management bind than this one: half your valuable people have quit over concerns about the future direction of the company. They've taken some of your most important material assets with them, and it looks as if their departure will bring the whole place down soon. How do you handle it? The short answer might be: Make a great speech. Inspire your still-loyal workers. At least that's what Abe Lincoln would have done.

In fact, the Tigrett Corp. of Arlington, Va., in a program called Leadership Lessons from History, gives participants a chance to commune hypothetically with Honest Abe and other great leaders. The sessions are billed as metaphors for dealing with contemporary management problems. Tigrett's most popular program, at about $1,000 a person, is a workshop at the Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa. On the fields that saw 51,000 men killed or wounded, groups of executives listen to a Lincoln impersonator, clad in black and wearing a stovepipe hat, field questions about his critical decisions.

Attending this program, James Fugitte, president of an electronic-payments-processing company in Elizabethtown, Ky., was fascinated by "how, with such clarity, Lincoln articulated the role the government should take to win the war." Fugitte could see how the actions of a captain of industry at the dawn of the 21st century, while not as dramatic as Lincoln's, are remarkably relevant. For any offsite to be effective, relevance is key. Participants, says Zimmerer, must go back to work and say, "I see what I learned, and I can transfer it to what I do every day."
"T-minus two minutes and counting!" bellows a counselor.

"Oh geez!" groans Linda Oberdorfer, a delicate chocolate-and- almond cookie crumbling in her hands. Oberdorfer, manager of direct sales for magazine publisher Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pa., is running out of time. She's part of an eight-member sales group that is seconds away from diving into a gourmet meal of its own creation. The group is in the kitchen of the Team Cooking Group, brainchild of New York's Cooking by the Book cooking school and Take Charge Consultants of Downingtown, Pa. They are learning how to deal with limited resources and how to become more cross-functional, goals set by their manager. But for the past two hours the team has focused on whether or not to gratinee and how to chop garlic.

Team members from the rest of the kitchen converge around Oberdorfer to help finish the cookies. Before they started cooking, the group split into two- or three-person teams that would, to their surprise, switch places at the appetizer, entree and dessert stations. The job shuffle was designed to address their boss's desire for them to share tasks better. It wasn't always easy. The first shift had a communications crisis: "The recipe says broil, but the oven's on bake!" (The incoming veggie team hadn't been debriefed on a menu change.)

Counselors provided guidance at each station, helping teams determine how to save time. But guidance was as limited a resource as time and ingredients; the group had help for only one hour to make their two-hour deadline. They had to husband their consulting time to meet the boss's goal of spending money more carefully.
The cookies were done just under the wire. Then the team was ushered out of the kitchen to a dining table, where the meal drew raves from the neophyte chefs. But when it came to meeting larger goals outside the kitchen, there was still work to be done. "We need to be available to one another when our tasks get reassigned on the job," Oberdorfer says. "We have to say, 'This is what you need to know, and this is how you reach me if you have any questions.'" The team agrees to work on that.

Trembling, Lorrie Johnson begins to climb an extension ladder at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, Calif. On the fifth rung, the 27-year-old traffic coordinator is asked if she has any neck injuries. "I was extremely frightened," she recalls later. An employee of the TV-ad-sales company Adlink, based in Los Angeles, Johnson has already walked a tightrope and shouted strings of nonsense words in a rhythm exercise to a group of colleagues today. Now she's being asked to make a "trust fall" backward off a ladder into the arms of a dozen virtual strangers. Taking a deep breath, she says, "I, Lorrie, choose to fall." And fall she does. "When they caught me, it was such tremendous relief and exhilaration," she says afterward. "I went from fear to excitement. I was proud of myself."

When Johnson and her fellow employees return to the office after a day of climbing, falling and even drumming--in an exercise lead by Village Music Circles of Santa Cruz, Calif.--the excitement still resonates. Even 10 days later, "People are walking through the halls high-fiving each other," says Johnson. "The atmosphere here is just joyous." To keep it that way, Adlink managers are planning another offsite next year. And they've invited the Orion Learning trainers to follow up with quarterly visits to Adlink headquarters, where they will use slogans and short exercises to refresh the staff.
The hope is that this team of workers will retain its cooperative spirit as it continues to face challenges. The biggest hurdle for the company is a transition from analog to digital technology. "So much of the quality of work depends on how people get along together," says Adlink CEO Charles Thurston. "We realized the more we can find good people, train them and get them to stay, the better our company will do." Thurston's view reflects a modern economic reality: teamwork is an infinitely renewable resource that will never go out of date--so long as you work creatively at it.