Out of site, out of your mind?

Corporate offsites are notoriously difficult to get right. Managing Director Matt Guarente explains how to leave delegates happily-ever-after.

There’s a terrific advert for United Airlines from a decade ago, which you should immediately look up on YouTube before you go any further. If that’s not convenient, let me run you through what happens.

It involves a handsome exec teeing up his golf shot, speaking to a rather world-weary colleague who is standing behind him, awaiting his turn.

“So…” starts off the exec. “Looks like we won the US thing.”

“Great,” agrees his colleague.

“We’ll need someone to go out there… Dot the ‘I’s, cross the ‘T’s… I want you to go.”

(Colleague says ‘Uhhh,’ looks disgusted.)

“Chicago tomorrow… Des Moines the day after… (close up) And then Cleveland and Detroit… Then Baltimore… Possibly Pittsburgh the day after…”

The colleague looks increasingly distressed. A voiceover chimes in with ‘We can’t make going away on business any more glamorous than it is,’ just as the colleague steps into the exec’s follow-through and takes a golf club to the head. He collapses in a heap. ‘But to make it more bearable,’ the VO continues, ‘we can connect you to 150 US cities.’

The payoff shot is the guy at arrivals in a US city, on a courtesy cart, wearing a hefty bandage.

The ad won a Cannes Prix d’Or and serves, in my mind, as a lasting testament to the lengths we will go to in order to avoid picking up a chalice that is often both poisoned and red-hot. Like organising a corporate offsite.

It can be a hiding to nothing. Limited expectations meet cynicism around often nebulous vision statements. Low buy-in makes high-concept workshops or imagineering sessions feel like something out of a sitcom. On the other hand, lavish hotels and pure escapism make a lot of us nervous as well.

Start at the end

The whole idea behind an offsite is laudable. Get away from the office. Get people from disparate businesses or geographies together. Get them talking. Get them aligned. Get them thinking big, and coordinated, thoughts. And, er, what else?

Our suggestion is to think of offsites as a weekend. It’s a break (or, for most of us, a partial break) from everyday work. There are good weekends, and there are bad ones. There are boring ones where you spend Sunday looking forward to Monday. There are ones where random, unplanned things happen and it’s great. There are ones where random, unplanned things happen and it’s a nightmare.

If you want a really good weekend – or offsite – then you have to plan. You start with the conceptual. What do you want to happen at the end of it? What do you want to think, or feel, in a few weeks’ time when the weekend (offsite) is done? Do you want to achieve a practical aim (getting the spare bedroom decorated) or do you want to deliver an emotional shift (Paris by private jet)?

Starting with the outcome sets parameters for success. If you are clear about what you all want to achieve, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to measure whether you’ve achieved it. I’m sure most readers can remember some offsites where the desired outcome seemed to be not much more than ‘confuse everyone’.

Plumbers with leaking taps

It’s a business truism that most enterprises don’t walk the talk when it comes to actually doing what they tell others to do. It’s the plumber-with-the-leaking-tap-at-home syndrome. So, what does a communications consultancy do when we get together out of the office, get a breath of fresh creative air, and see what’s what with our business?

It’s a two-parter, actually. A week after writing this, I will be standing up in front of our twenty-eight employees, with my fellow directors, giving a no-holds-barred view of business performance for the year to date. We’ll be talking about the restructuring we went through as we change our operational model from an agency to a consultancy.

Our outcome for that is: “Everyone understands the direction of travel, how we are doing as a business, and their part in it”. So far so good. But we are definitely in decorating the spare room territory.

So for the emotional fulfilment part – the excitement, fun, inspiration – we decamp to a pub in east London, from where groups of us will take on an escape game craze, Time Run. As they say: “an immersive adventure game for teams in which players Time Travel through a series of hyper-real worlds to complete their mission and save the world”.

We think saving the world – in a supportive, fun, engaging environment, of course – is a pretty good afternoon’s diversion. What is our outcome from this? Better understanding of each other, teams made up of people who are not normally in teams, and bragging rights afterwards, probably.

When we have a management strategy meeting, we try and get away from the office either by physical remove or at least an environment shift. Our first meeting was in a private meeting room in a London hotel called the Cabinet. Now, naturally, we call them Cabinet meetings. In this new environment, we are separate from our daily tasks, able to ask bigger questions, challenge and think a little more expansively.

But enough of our own offsites. What do we do for clients? It has to be said that major multinational companies have more nuanced requirements than a narrative consultancy. We recently were given just an hour to come up with some suggestions for a large financial customer – let’s call them Acme. They wanted to reward about forty people while improving their skills as well. The classic fun/educational dichotomy. Then they mentioned they’d like something to do with broadcast…

Putting forty people through any kind of broadcast coaching would mean around twenty media coaches and a lot of very segregated work. So how do you get that number of people engaged, and deliver to brief? You get them to be the programme. So we created the Acme Show. Split into groups, each participant would take on a role (chat show host, producer, director, guests) and deliver a five-minute clip to our cameras. Then at the Acme Awards Ceremony, delegates are coached to handle the ‘press’ on the red carpet, before delivering a short acceptance speech looking back on a successful year at work.

Excellent execution

But most offsite organisers find the ideas to be the simple part. The hard graft is in making it all work. Just as experienced Grand Prix drivers walk the track before the race to ensure they understand every camber and blemish that they will later navigate in the blink of an eye, to deliver a great offsite you have to think through, then work through, then dry-run, every detail with an unflinching eye for potential mishap. What’s the plan for the BBQ if it rains? Will your USB work on the hotel laptop? How far is the breakout room from the coffee area?

A long while ago, while working for an oil multinational, I was happy not to be involved in the tour of some construction facilities by the CEO and assorted senior people. They hired two luxury coaches in case one broke down. They had a Michelin chef prepare a picnic to be eaten en route. And they’d bought a modest vintage of a good wine to accompany that lunch. But no-one thought to check the wine glasses which, when removed from the box, were caked with the dregs of whatever had been in them the last time they were used. The rest of the tour didn’t go so well.

This article was originally published in PM Forum‘s February issue.


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