Successful Corporate Retreats

Spring brings sunny warm days, flowers, and, in the corporate world, the beginning of the team wilderness retreat season.

After a long winter grind, many companies seek natural, outdoor settings to reward, develop and challenge their teams. By getting away from the office, they hope to re- connect, relax and rejuvenate, all in the interests of enhancing performance back at the office.

Recently, IKEA’s Coquitlam store team, headed by manager Carl Janzen, ventured into the Nahatlatch River Valley near Boston Bar, in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon. Janzen believed his managers needed to recharge their batteries after working flat out since the giant store was launched over a year ago. “We wanted to be in nature, we wanted to get away from the city and the commercial aspect of everything,” said Janzen.

Janzen found what he was looking for in REO Rafting Resort. The resort sits on 25 acres, nestled on a private canyon ledge. REO Rafting Resort has been in business for 20 years and has guided over 50,000 guests down one of the best whitewater rafting rivers in North America. Approximately four percent of REO’s business is devoted to corporate retreats.

Along with enjoying an idyllic backdrop, companies want to get the most out of a team wilderness retreat. At costs of between $200.00 to $900.00 per person per day, they want to be sure that the gains made in a natural setting are retained once everyone is back in the office. Successful team retreats can increase team efficiency, boost morale and enhance productivity. To maximize the benefits of a team wilderness retreat to an organization, it is important to ensure that the participants are aware of six elements before they pack their bags: – Clear Purpose

Be sure to identify the main reason your team is “retreating” from the office and that it is aware of the objectives. In IKEA’s case, Janzen and his team were very clear about what they wanted to achieve during the retreat: improving relationships between the store managers. Janzen wanted to convey that it was good to have fun together and focus on the team’s interpersonal development at the same time.

The team resisted one of the main pitfalls of retreats – straying from the stated purpose of the trip. The IKEA team’s trip was a success partly because it resisted the temptation to reduce conversations to a business “to do” list. Instead, it stuck to the reason for being together: focussing on developing and deepening their relationships with one another.

– Team Consensus

Make sure that everyone wants to do the activity suggested for the retreat. That doesn’t mean staff won’t have some trepidation when considering something new; that’s natural. What’s important is that everyone be comfortable with the setting, physically prepared for it and excited-not terrified by the prospect of a wilderness retreat. It is best to reach an agreement on the type of wilderness adventure desired.

The IKEA team agreed quickly. “When I asked the team if they wanted to go river rafting, everybody was really excited to do something they’d never done,” said Janzen. “The team wanted a trip that combined some excitement in a serene environment.”

– The Retreat Fits Company Values and Mission

If the culture of the organization does not support the retreat choice, the trip will not be as effective in meeting the team’s goals.

For example, IKEA values respect, rewards, appreciates staff effort and identifies itself as a relationship building company. IKEA’s mission is “To create a better everyday life for the many people” including customers and employees. The IKEA Coquitlam management team stresses honesty, trust, and openness as assets necessary to manifesting the company mission.

The store team decided the best way to encourage trust and mutual support, as well learn to speak up and appreciate other points of view, was to push physical and psychological limits on a raging river.

– Goals of the Retreat Match the Setting

Once the goals of the retreat are articulated, review whether the setting chosen will provide the proper environment for meeting the team’s objectives.

One of the IKEA team’s goals for the retreat was to foster a lack of fear of making mistakes, and less fear of challenging each other. “When we challenge each other, that’s when we operate at our best, there’s no fear of hierarchy, there’s no fear of speaking up and the ideas flow and the whole group contributes” said Janzen.

Contending with glacially cold water, having to paddle strenuously together and having to haul team members who flipped overboard back into the raft all facilitated the team’s desire to support each other and take a strong, individual leadership role when the chips were down. – Safety First

Wilderness adventure retreats are by their nature risky. That is part of the allure and also what helps participants grow. Pushing limits, but also being willing to respect personal limits and boundaries, adds to the effectiveness of the retreat. Be sure to choose a reputable company that has proper equipment, well-trained guides and high safety standards.

The IKEA team was given the option of missing a particularly technical part of the river. Bryan Fogelman, who was guiding the expedition, pulled the raft out of the water to give the team time to assess all members’ willingness to shoot the “Meat Grinder”, a 900 metre stretch of swift, continuous, white water. The raft would pull back into shore to pick up paddlers who opted out of the section so they could complete the rest of the ride.

The “Meat Grinder” has a nasty reputation, having crunched up kayakers as well as wiping out rafts, plunging the paddlers into the churning water. To complicate matters, the river had been steadily rising, increasing its turbulence since the arrival of the IKEA team.

Fogelman had been careful to train the team in proper paddling technique, following commands and doing rescues before taking them down the river. But in the end, the decision to proceed was left to the individual. Fogelman insisted that any one who had any misgivings or hesitation should volunteer to join the raft in less active waters.

Several team members opted out while others decided to try. Respect for individual decision-making and safety on the team was paramount.

– Effective Programming

Merely going away on a wilderness adventure is not always enough to make a team retreat effective. The programming must be relevant to the team’s retreat goals and objectives. Planning relevant activities ahead of time and ensuring that well trained facilitators conduct the program will aid in making your retreat a success. It is important that the natural setting be woven into the activities and that the lessons learned be connected back to the workplace to increase portability of the experience.

Too often, companies go on retreats, expecting something magical, and wind up leaving disappointed. This didn’t happen with the IKEA team, whose leader led it in carefully crafted activities that tapped the relationship-building needs.

Janzen said, “The exercises and the discussions we’re having are really about getting to know each other more and challenging each other, so that when we get back into the store we can continue to do the same thing.”

While companies that plan their retreats well and choose the location, guides and facilitators carefully will benefit from team adventure retreats, they’re still an adventure — and anything can happen. And that parallels today’s wild, unpredictable business environment.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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