3 Key Ingredients for an Effective Work Retreat


How to thrive and stay productive in an unplugged, off-the-grid work environment

For most people, traveling for work is far from relaxing. While beneficial (conferences, for example, usually include a lot of skill-sharpening, speech-attending, and networking), travel can often call for early mornings and late nights. Any additional, unstructured time to relax and connect with others must be painstakingly carved out.

The do’s and don’ts of adventurous team building.

A survey by TSheets found 62 percent of American workers traveled to another state for work last year. Of those, 66 percent of people who travel for work say their must-have item is their laptop. Since so much of our work depends on internet connectivity or at least cell service, work trips aren’t usually where employees go to unwind or unplug. And to some, leaving technology behind might even seem counterproductive in today’s business environment.

But is there value in getting teams together and away from phones and Wi-Fi to discuss and brainstorm, workshop and learn — all without a web browser between them?


Five writers, one cockapoo, and a lake

Our content team at TSheets works closely together every day, but it’s not often we get the chance to slow down and take an up-close look at one another’s work. And since another beautiful Idaho summer was coming to an end, our team thought we’d take advantage of the crisp autumn air to see if going off the grid for a night in the wilderness would prove our hypothesis that nothing beats the outdoors when you’re looking for inspiration.

For creative teams, it can be especially beneficial to conduct workshops where a piece of content or a design concept, for example, is closely considered and individuals can provide constructive feedback. Such an activity motivated us to leave the city behind, but we also wanted to share lessons learned from recent copywriting and professional development reads and engage in thoughtful discussions about new internal processes and how to improve what we were already doing well. It was a time for us to hear an important analysis from our copyeditor outside the margins of a Google Doc and bond over preparing meals, building fires, and spotting wildlife like our mascot, Bowie.

For any business owner or team lead considering an off-site work retreat, here are a few tips you can take away from our two-day trip.


Leave the digital world behind

One of our teammates offered her family cabin beside a lake in the Boise National Forest, just two hours outside of Boise, as an ideal backdrop and low-key lodging for our writing retreat, so aside from the itinerary and grocery list, planning wasn’t intensive. We set off early on a Tuesday morning when traffic would be light and the lake would be still.

Our night in the wilderness could be considered “glamping,” for lack of a better word, as we had a proper log-cabin shelter and just enough electricity and hot water to go around. At the cabin, there was no Wi-Fi, cellphones were only good for snapping photos, and the only noise pollution was from the large paddling of ducks on the lake or the creaking of old trees.

When we say unplug, we don’t recommend leaving your iPhone on the top of your vehicle when you drive away. Running down a busy highway at 9 a.m. to retrieve that iPhone — as one TSheeter did — isn’t the best way to start a trip. But if you decide to unplug, it could serve as an effective bonding opportunity for your team.

We’ve learned from experience that going somewhere where Wi-Fi isn’t available and discouraging screen time as much as possible can keep a team as present in every moment as possible. For our small group, getting away from it all meant 48 hours of face time with colleagues and a truly distraction-free environment where we could grow ideas. As a result, the conversations were rich and our ideas were much less jumbled simply because we were 100 percent focused on the task at hand.


Reflect and reframe

There weren’t many people at the lake after Labor Day, so it was the perfect setting to sit down and reflect on the fiscal year behind us and the opportunities we could capitalize on in the coming months.

We sat on the edge of the quiet water, using it as a sounding board for our ideas: a calm and safe space to voice concerns and ask tough questions.

As in all reflection, communication reigns supreme. If you’re planning a retreat, set aside time to talk about wins, opportunities, and everything that went well over the past quarter or year. Have each group or individual read a book and share what they learned with the rest of the team.

Great conversation starters and idea generators, books are a way to frame a project, job, or mission in a new light. There doesn’t have to be a quiz at the end, but if everyone can dedicate themselves to a little reading before or during the retreat, the group can go back to work with lessons and ideas that resonate.


Get your hands dirty

If you’ve never been to Idaho, you may be surprised to learn that it is home to one of the largest wildlands in the lower 48 states, the Frank Church Wilderness. People who call Idaho home are proud to have true natural beauty so near. Even though our group might have preferred a more glamorous style of camping (quilts, a shower, a stove), there were certainly those among us who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, both in hauling firewood and taking the time to look closely at opportunities to improve our writing skills.

It’s no wonder great writers throughout history tended to take themselves off the grid. In this environment, with pen to paper, it was easy to think clearly and thoughtfully about our work. We happily completed our workshop, each of us walking away with new ideas, constructive feedback, and flames newly fanned.

In full transparency, we had our doubts about productivity during the retreat. But as we sat together, we realized just how valuable the time spent away really was. When we returned to Boise, we made sure to put together a debrief: thoughts from our reading, workshop, and SWOT analysis. Bringing our thoughts back to the larger marketing team, we started to put new ideas into motion and set a solid foundation for the seasons ahead.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the screen when you consider a work retreat. Unplugging, reflecting, and getting your hands dirty are sometimes the best ways to kickstart a new quarter or fiscal year and build each other up while you’re at it.