The Business of Going Away on Business: Company Retreat

By Maria Pianelli

iStock_000014186302SmallI was never one for school spirit. I cut high school pep rallies, avoided sporting events like the plague and respectfully opted out of color wars. Come college, I came, I saw, I conquered, nothing more. So when I joined a company that placed such a large emphasis on office culture, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Office culture is a term that’s thrown around a lot in college and even more at entry level orientation. In a nutshell, it refers to the social context in which workplace interactions take place. This includes shared values, personality traits, routines and practices that not only frame internal operations, but the interactions between employees. College goes a little crazy on this concept– I’ve actually had courses pertaining to office culture– but it’s something that can’t accurately be taught; you sort of stumble into it.

When I started at my PR firm, I got a sense of culture right away. Business-casual attire; open office space; a focus on organic, hands-on learning. While quarterly offsites were filled with educational elements, there was a greater emphasis on “team” and internal bonding. We celebrate birthdays and promotions. We call out exceptional work on a weekly basis. Every Monday, we cater savory lunch (Cuban in particular is an office favorite) and eat together,  recounting both weekend adventures and recent client work. As the weeks went by, these activities, juxtaposed with client work and goals, gave me a greater sense of what our company was about and how we connected. But truth be told, I didn’t fully understand “culture” until Holiday Week.

Although I’m situated in our New York office, my agency also has locations in Boston and Detroit and is headquartered in San Francisco. While we keep in close contact with our other locations, it’s not often that we get to assemble in person. To remedy this, each of the offices flies out to HQ in early December for a week-long retreat jam-packed with company updates, inspirational speeches, team building activities, the annual holiday party and ample amounts of karaoke.

On December 8, I flew out to our San Fran office for the start of the week’s festivities. Stepping into a foreign office was surreal. For the longest time, I heard the names and accomplishments of my remote co-workers, but being in a room with the entire squad brought everyone to life. The following day was devoid of any formal activities, allowing us to adjust to West Coast hours and plow away at client work. At night, however, our San Francisco colleagues showed us around their favorite local haunts and, for the first time, I had the opportunity to really mingle with the other employees. In one night alone, I got to speak to around 20 new people, blossoming new relationships. I was struck by how inspiring my co-workers’ stories were and how their unique talents and interests positively impacted our work. Though we lived on different coasts and worked on different teams, many of us faced the same roadblocks and, ultimately, wanted the same outcome for our clients. Talking to these individuals helped pinpoint that passion that defines our company.

Wednesday remains my favorite part of Holiday Week. We spent half our afternoon in the office and then hightailed it to a local brewery for a very-spirited Color War. Now, High School Maria would have had no part of this, but Workplace Maria could barely keep her excitement in check. Each of our teams went over and beyond. My team wore matching Big- Bird-yellow V-Necks, gold Mardi Gras beads and canary-colored war paint, on top of an assortment of accessories. We competed in an array of Jeopardy, Family Feud and physical challenges and at one point, I thought I’d lose my voice from screaming so loudly. Half of my team was comprised of people I had never spoken to before, but by the time we collected our (first) prize, I could barely keep track of how many ecstatic high-fives we exchanged.

At work, you see your co-workers at their most professional, whether dazzling clients or placing exemplary content. But when you spend time with them outside office hours, you see something more. You grow to care about each other not just as a manager or as a peer, but as a person. That concern and consideration runs deeper than a great time at an offsite– it allows you a greater mutual respect and appreciation for each others’ talents. It allows you to work more fluidly as a team and truly put your best efforts forward. That sentiment was further enhanced Thursday during the educational portion of the week. We heard about the state of the company from our founders. They recounted our vision, our values, our successes and our challenges, allowing us to grow invigorated for all things to come. Leaving the bleachers reminded me of leaving the office on my first day of work, refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to take a deeper dive into my work.

We rounded off the week with bowling, our annual holiday party and the screening of our most recent holiday video. By the time my flight left Saturday morning, I was in awe at how much I had experienced. When you hear the phrase “team building,” it’s all too-tempting to roll your eyes, but if you have the opportunity to grow closer to your team, by all means take it. Immersing yourself into company culture transforms the way you look at work and positively influences your work ethic. You get a comprehensive glance at “the bigger picture,” and more than ever before, you’re eager to be a part of it.

If you have the opportunity to mingle with your entire company, break out of your comfort zone. Pluck up the courage to talk to new people, particularly those in senior management. Their experiences will help inform the decisions you make from this point forward, boosting not only your performance, but that of the company. Don’t skip out on any activities, no matter how jet-lagged you are– you can always sleep on the plane home. Perhaps most importantly, don’t lose sight of what’s important– happy hours are fun and dinner, delicious, but pay attention to the broader lessons you can apply to your work. Be present, be involved and by all means, start getting excited for next year.

For more on business trips, please see “The Business of Going Away on Business: Part One.”

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