Trip to Portugal with colleagues? It’s a new world of offsites

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Grant Wernick faces a challenge that many other Silicon Valley startup founders will experience. Before the pandemic, he had 20 employees working for his cybersecurity startup Fletch.ai in San Francisco. Since then, all but one have moved to cities like Portland, Seattle, Denver and Sacramento. Her business is now fully isolated and it hasn’t been easy. Productivity slipped in the second year of Covid. “Keeping the spirit alive is hard,” he says. Slack and Zoom simply don’t beat face-to-face interactions.

His answer to the problem was quarterly “offsite” meetings. Everyone is required to attend unless they have a serious excuse like contracting Covid. But those have become a perk in the workplace — there’s whale watching, pub crawls in Oakland. Younger employees may not want to meet in an office, but they like the sound of going to Hawaii if the company meets its goals, Wernick says.

Offsites are nothing new, of course. Golf trips for executives and company picnics have been around for a long time. But these events are now a necessity as companies struggle with staff apathy and loneliness.

The pandemic has forced many businesses into a new normal, with 74% of U.S. companies planning a hybrid or remote model for their workforces. The numbers are even higher in the tech industry. Twitter Inc. said in 2020 that it would allow employees to work from home permanently. Airbnb Inc. founder Brian Cheskey said last April that his employees could “live and work anywhere.”

This had a noticeable impact on the Bay Area of ​​California, where thousands of tech companies are based but many workers have fled. On a recent visit to San Francisco, I found the streets quieter than before, while the offices of companies like Meta Platforms Inc. in Burlingame were more empty than full.

Zoom, with its largely transactional nature, will never replace chance collaborations at the water cooler, and that hasn’t helped morale. A Gallup poll this year found that only 21% of employees worldwide were engaged at work. Who can blame them? New hires are usually given a laptop on day one and then left to their own devices. The response pioneered by tech startups is to bring staff together for days at a time, at least once a quarter. Airbnb’s Chesky said its employees should expect to see each other for a week each quarter at a designated location.

Even large companies with office space are considering using offsite meetings to bolster their teams, according to offsite planning firms like The Offsite Experience Inc. and The Cowork Experience. GitLab Inc., an all-remote software company with 1,700 employees, is having its departments host their own offsite venues, whether it’s mountain biking in Colorado, an improv workshop in San Francisco or water sports in Zanzibar. “People are generally energized by their in-person experiences,” says Stella Treas, Chief of Staff to GitLab’s CEO.

I know what you’re thinking. The thought of being forced to participate in “team building exercises” and “icebreakers” with your colleagues makes you cringe, especially if it involves singing, building a raft or making vehicle noises while blindfolded (all of which actually happened). If you thought zoom fatigue was bad, imagine spending days in a hotel with people you’ve only ever seen on a screen.

In reality, however, meeting co-workers promotes greater collaboration, and these events can make employees happier. Companies that have started setting up regular external sites report seeing an increase in activity on Slack afterward and positive responses to employee surveys. As employers develop long-term strategies to manage the remote workforce, they should consider regular relocations to boost teamwork and attract and retain talent.

Kelsey Bishop, founder of social networking startup Candor, spoke to me last week from the offsite week of her business at a large Airbnb home in Portugal. Previously, she had participated in a two-hour tile painting session with her staff, but they spent the rest of the time mostly working together in the living room and kitchen.

Typically, Bishop spends between $5,000 and $7,000 per quarterly offsite event, where attendance is mandatory for his 10-person team (who can also bring a plus one and kids). But she would spend a lot more, around $15,000 a month, to rent an office in New York, she says. Moreover, the young candidates are impressed when they learn that they could be flown to Portugal. “It sounds sexier than it really is because from a business perspective it’s not that expensive.”

That’s not always the case, according to Jason Lemkin, who runs one of the largest networks of enterprise software vendors. “Most startups will spend more money on four large offsite locations per year than a single office would cost,” he tweeted this month. “But you have to.”

Elisa Rueda, founder of The Cowork Experience, said one of her latest clients spent $150,000 on an event for 110 people – three nights at a campsite in California’s redwood forest. Jared Kleinert, who runs The Offsite Experience, says his clients typically pay $2,500 per person, per offsite, and often end up in hotels.

Would it make sense for a company to spend more on offsite gatherings than on real estate? I would say “yes”. Remote work has become the new norm, not because it’s cheaper, but because people love having the option of working from home. Flexible working has improved our quality of life. It’s so attractive, in fact, that even Silicon Valley companies, with their lavish office perks, have struggled to bring people in regularly.

Offsite meetings offer a compromise between forced and occasional meetings with colleagues and flexibility for most of the rest of the year. And, as Bishop showed, they don’t have to go broke.

Of course, such events can also create new problems. Bad behavior on drunken outings could hurt a company’s culture. And people shouldn’t have to socialize when they don’t want to. The perfect offsite has one-third of the time spent on work, one-third on wellness activities and one-third on optional entertainment, advises Rueda.

But get it right, and you’ve got the lure of regular, “travel-first” experiences, says Kleinert. “For the millennial workforce, it’s like catnip.” It’s not a bad deal for older workers either.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Are supersonic passenger jets back? Not So Fast: Thomas Black

• A new normal divides the global chip industry: Tim Culpan

• AI pans my scenario. Can he crack Hollywood? : Trung Phan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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