Offices around the world are becoming emptier and quieter as a growing number of employees opt to work from home or log in from their local cafe. In the U.S., 69 percent of companies now have a flexible workspace policy, according to research from the International Workplace Group. In Germany, the number is even higher: 80 percent.
Companies with remote workforces tout lower costs, increased productivity and a wider pool of job applicants to choose from. Employees, meanwhile, can spend more time with their families, save money on or eliminate commuting costs, and enjoy more flexible schedules.
"Giving our employees the ability to work where they feel most comfortable and productive -- whether that's at home, the library or the coffee shop down the street -- has enabled us to attract and retain very talented people who have significantly moved our company forward," said Miranda Nicholson, vice president of human resources at Formstack, a form-building and data-collection company.
But switching to a remote-work model also comes with challenges, including feelings of isolation and burnout for the employees who don't come into the main office every day. In fact, roughly 82 percent of remote employees reported feeling burnt out, according to research from DigitalOcean.
"You find remote employees will work more," said Jennifer Moss, co-founder and member of the board at Plasticity Labs, a data-research consulting company focused on employee happiness. "They don't know how to turn it off. They'll go above and beyond -- and that sort of indebted servitude creates burnout."
In an effort to retain their remote employees and attract new talent, a growing number of companies are gathering their staff for regularly scheduled face-to-face meetings throughout the year. Below are a few tips on how to get the most out of corporate retreats and ensure your employees return to work feeling refreshed.
Put it on the Calendar
Research from Gallup shows that the happiest employees are those who come into the office once a week. While doing this might not be feasible for companies whose workforces are mostly remote or are widely distributed geographically, senior leadership can strive to round up all staff members a few times a year for in-person gatherings.
"Do it as frequently as you can -- maybe once a month or once a quarter," said Moss of Plasticity Labs. "Some companies do annual meetings once a year, which is still better than those who don't ever connect their remote employees. But I do think that if you can at least commit to it four times a year, those are the companies that have found their relationships with their staff and amongst coworkers to be the healthiest."
Nicole Miller, team engagement manager of Buffer, agrees. The company, which offers social-media management software, closed its San Francisco office in 2015 and now consists of a fully remote team with nearly 90 employees working across 15 countries.
Regular retreats are a priority at Buffer, which has been hosting employee gatherings in places such as Madrid, Singapore and Honolulu since its early days. The all-hands meetings have grown in size with the company and shifted from a five- or six-month schedule to more of an annual basis. Nevertheless, the retreats, which can cost anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000, are viewed as a necessary expense -- particularly now that the company does not incur office-space and supply costs.
"We saw that as the trade off," said Miller. "We don't have real estate to pay for. We don't rent a building. We don't have any of those traditional costs. So, the inverse of that is we can allocate the money to a retreat. For us, we really have found that the collaboration, conversations and bonding that you get from being together in person really outweigh the cost."
On the flip side, company get-togethers are an easy expense to cut in tough times. But doing so can take a real toll on employee morale and engagement, warns Buffer's Miller.
"We did have our cash-flow crisis in 2016, where we realized our runway wasn't exactly what we expected it to be and so we canceled one of our retreats and didn't have one for a whole year," said Miller. "It's one of those things where it was easy to cut and we did. But when we got back on track financially, it was a big priority to bring back the retreat and to get everyone back together. We really felt that debt when it came to bonding and having that cross-collaboration time, because we'd gone that extra year and a half without meeting in person."
Mix up the Size
Corporate meetings are not only expensive, but also require a great deal of planning and foresight. One way to ease the burden is to mix all-hands events with smaller, location-based or team-specific meetings.
Buffer, for example, plans to host its 2020 companywide retreat in Athens, Greece. In addition to the eight-day gathering, the company also organizes small-scale, area-specific meetups throughout the year.
"The product team will get together about six months after the big, companywide retreat," said Miller. "We're still finding that balance between the annual retreats and smaller area meetups, but we're hoping that everyone sees someone at least twice a year."
Formstack follows a similar model. The 200-person company bills itself as being "remote-first," meaning all employees have the option to work from their "office" of choice. According to Nicholson, about 60 percent of the staff currently work remotely full time.
"It’s easy as a remote employee to feel like you’re on an island from time to time, especially if other members of your team don’t work remotely," said Nicholson. "As silly as it may sound, missing out on things like birthday cake in the break room or grabbing drinks with coworkers when the day is done can weigh on a person. If this feeling pervades throughout the company, the culture will suffer."
To combat this, Formstack hosts a companywide meeting in January to kick off the year, along with separate gatherings for each department throughout the summer and fall.
"It's one of the many ways we reinforce our company's culture tenant of 'relationships matter,'" continued Nicholson. "The meetings give employees the opportunity to build and strengthen relationships beyond our everyday virtual environment of Slack chats and Zoom meetings. We always come back from them with a greater sense of shared purpose as we head into our next stage as a company."
Craft the Agenda with Care
With organizations shelling out thousands of dollars each year, it's critical that corporate retreats add value and employees walk away feeling energized and better connected to their colleagues. To do so, experts suggest putting together a curated agenda that includes a tasteful mix of professional sessions and team-building activities.
Formstack gatherings aim to balance company-focused content on goals and accomplishments with team-building outings, such as kayaking or visiting an escape room. Employees are encouraged to help craft the agenda and provide input on what they'd like to see.
At Buffer's annual retreats, lightning talks are typically featured, along with breakout discussions and bonding activities such as "Buffer Jeopardy," which tests employee knowledge of the company and their fellow colleagues.
In between the educational sessions and team-building activities, both companies stressed the importance of adding breaks into the agenda.
"We keep experimenting. We've switched up the order of things and we've brought in other speakers to do a training or facilitate a session," said Miller. "But the biggest thing we've discovered is that especially when you're a remote and perhaps mostly introverted team, getting together can be exhausting. We found that having 30-45 minute breaks a couple times throughout the day along with a longer lunch is really helpful to let people just talk or go back to their rooms to recharge."
Spread the Word
Corporate gatherings serve as a powerful tool for battling burnout and boosting happiness levels among remote employees. But in addition to retention, retreats can also help organizations attract new talent. Adding a line about them and where they have been held to a job posting or on the company website, as Buffer has done, might catch the eye of prospective employees.
"The retreat pays dividends more than just that one time. It can really kind of live on for months and there are so many ripple effects," said Miller. "People always get very excited about the idea of traveling, especially when we pay you to go somewhere in the world and it's usually a new location every time."