HR Strategy

The company off-site has changed

Once used as a fun getaway, company off-sites have become more about building culture, and even getting work done.
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· 5 min read

You can still enjoy a few cold beverages at your next company off-site, but you may have to do a bit of work first. Leadership retreats and other corporate off-site events are now structured differently than they were before the pandemic.

Now, leaders are using company off-sites for the relationship-building that previously happened in the office five days a week. Some companies are prioritizing interpersonal development and icebreaker activities that may have occurred during an in-person onboarding or organically in the office of the past.

Restoring the human connection. At Prezi, the presentation software company founded in Hungary, company off-sites were primarily meant to bring together offices in different countries and have them engage in some fun activities, VP of HR Mariele Weber told HR Brew. That was before Covid-19 hit.

“We felt that something during the pandemic got lost, and it was the human connection,” she said. Through internal surveys, they also discovered that employees were seeking clarity on the overall strategy of the company, as well as the best ways to execute it.

Weber and her colleagues brought back their popular PreziCon off-site event in the spring of 2022, making it optional for those who had health or safety concerns. The first one addressed company strategy, with programming meant to plug in employees to the company’s updated strategy and goals amid the pandemic. The second event focused on execution of that strategy.

“We could feel it was so needed that people get out of their shells and connect again,” Weber said. “Afterwards, the communication was smoother, people were more personal. It’s like you have oil in the machine again.”

Building culture. For Nylas, a 10-year-old software company that was based in San Francisco, the decision to start having company off-sites coincided with the decision to close all offices and become a fully remote company.

The savings from removing all real estate costs funded one company-wide off-site and a couple of department-wide off-sites annually, Nylas leadership previously told HR Brew.

Nylas hosted its company off-site in Las Vegas in February. At the time, the company had recently conducted layoffs along with a reorganization. CEO Gleb Polyakov said he felt that the company was not monitoring culture closely enough and the off-site offered an opportunity for a reset.

“It’s been a real hard year,” he told HR Brew while at the event. “We needed to get people together and fix collaboration and process the challenges that we have…We didn’t scale well, especially since the beginning of Covid.” He added that they did not collect enough feedback on how to adapt the company’s culture-building efforts for a more remote, distributed workforce.

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The first day of the off-site had a familiar agenda: morning sessions led by the board and executives discussing the overall history and direction of the company, followed by some afternoon brainstorming and, of course, happy hour. The second day was more personal and introspective. Employees got to know each other through exercises such as sharing a childhood photo, discussing the people in their life who they respect, and sharing creative and personal goals outside of work.

Toward the end of the event, Polyakov said he reached his goals of “getting people to talk to each other, to see each other as people, and hopefully get the respect of and learn more about each other. And I do think people have a bigger sense of ownership over the team they’re part of.”

A strategy accelerator. At Taco Bell, CEO Mark King implemented what became known as the “internal incubator.” This optional gathering was open to people from all departments and was aimed at solving critical company challenges.

In 2022, King and CHRO Kelly McCulloch hosted an event focused on the retail employee experience. Over two days in Huntington Beach, California, attendees took in panels with frontline employees, participated in brainstorming sessions, and came up with over 70 ideas that they presented to company leadership.

In 2023, Taco Bell is hosting another internal incubator focused on DE&I, Rob Poetsch, senior director of communications, told HR Brew via email. Specifically, the off-site will focus on recruiting, retention, and engagement strategies for developing a more inclusive environment.

Taco Bell’s food innovation team is also doing specialized off-sites “for menu inspiration.”

“The goal of these trips is to find culinary inspiration in different regions and cultures, while exploring unique foods and perspectives,” Poestch said. “The team doesn’t just eat at Mexican restaurants on those trips; they curate experiences to sample cuisines from all types of eateries—from quick service to fine dining.”

While the expenses of an off-site can be high, the value can be lasting, said Weber, who adds that she would “highly recommend” off-sites as a salve for company culture, particularly for remote-first or remote-friendly organizations.

“Just see how it changes the work environment, and how much more productivity you actually get, [fewer] misunderstandings,” she explained. “[And] how much more engagement you’re gonna get.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.