What You Learn At A Company Off-site: A Leadership Perspective

16th Nov 2022

What is a company off-site?

A company off-site is an informal company meet-up with the aim of bringing teams closer together, boosting morale and showcasing company culture.

Off-sites have become a crucial part of the culture for a lot of companies—especially if your employees don’t have an on-site to begin with.

What do companies do on a company off-site?

Companies can do anything from activities like escape rooms, cooking or art classes to golf or even a trip abroad - something that creates a memorable experience, enabling teams to work together and bond. 

For Oliva’s mostly remote team, company retreats are a chance to meet, bond, and reaffirm their collective mission: to transform people’s mental health via employer-funded therapy and support.

The benefits for the wider team are obvious—beautiful surroundings, free meals, and spontaneous frisbee sessions. But what about the impact on leaders? From their perspective, is it worth all the organisation and investment? 

Here’s the Oliva Alignment Team’s take—along with some advice for getting the most out of an off-site.

The right off-site location builds community

For our latest off-site, Oliva met in a rustic, poolside villa outside Barcelona. Surrounded by the outlines of mountains and the soft clang of cowbells, it was a far cry from the usual city life experienced by most of the team.

But it’s important to find a balance between fancy and humble.

“A few treats and a bit of fanciness is good, but keep it down to earth,” says Sançar, Co-founder and CMO. “We didn’t have people cleaning up after us, or making our beds. We all had to chip in at some point, which increased the sense of community.”

“I think it's easy to create quite entitled cultures,” says Bridie, Head of Talent Acquisition. “And that’s something we want to avoid. We want to provide great off-sites, but we do have budgets to work to. When you see everyone chipping in and the CEO is scraping out a burnt dish or putting veggies on the barbecue, it really shows that there's no hierarchy—that the culture is more than just values on a wall.”

When they weren’t washing up, many Olivans found that the tranquil surroundings helped them disconnect from a work mindset and bond with the rest of the team.

“The right location isolates us from the noise of the city or the day-to-day,” says Ben, VP of Product. “We could focus on just being here in the moment, all of us together. The setting really empowers that.”

Extroverts and introverts can both enjoy off-sites—in their own way

An introvert himself, Sançar is keen to make sure everyone feels comfortable enjoying the off-site.

“Some people need to feel like it’s okay to disappear for a bit—to recharge by themselves, go for a walk, read a book. Others need to have the space to be with people, tell stories, and have lots of belly laughs. Make space for all these types of people.”

“​​Keep in mind that for some people it’s completely exhausting and intimidating to go to these things,” adds Javi. That applies to leaders, too. “Social anxiety, it's got nothing to do with leading or not leading. It's just that social events take energy away, and three days of losing energy is a long time. You'd be surprised how big the impact can be.”

It’s also important for leaders to consider the atmosphere they’re setting, as employees are bound to take cues from their behaviour. This isn’t about forcing smiles when you’d rather be in bed—if you want your team to feel comfortable opening up, take the lead.

“I was really conscious of the energy I was putting out there,” says Erin. “How do I make sure that people know that I'm just a person figuring things out and we're all just people trying to figure this out. No hierarchy and no division.”

Javi thinks they could go even further when it comes to easing social anxiety on the next off-site, making it clear that you don’t have to be socialising at all hours.

“Give people options. Actually say ‘you can chill in your room, go play Uno, go for a walk, whatever’. Let people know that those activities are valid.”

“If we were to change anything next time,” adds Sançar. “I would make it less centred around alcohol. Not everyone drinks and it can be quite exclusionary. We could go alcohol free next time and go fully into wellness mode.”

Socialising is more important than presentations

While off-sites are a chance to work together, they’re an even bigger chance to cement a vibrant company culture. 

Off-sites are a sizable investment, so it’s easy to cram them with presentations to feel like you’re getting the most out of them. But making space to connect and bond is more important than this quarter’s goals. In fact, socialising should take priority.

“Work to social time should be split 25/75,” says Javi, Co-founder and CEO. “I truly believe we should have just a pinch of alignment—to not forget why we're there—but use 75% of the time to celebrate the fruits of our labour.”

This isn’t just about making workplace friendships. For leaders, it’s a valuable opportunity to learn more about their teammates beyond their shared everyday tasks. Especially if they work fully remotely in France, like VP of Product Ben.

“Some of the team I hadn't met before. It's challenging to be a leader and not have the chance to have face-to-face discussions,” says Ben. “At off-sites, you get to connect—I feel I know my colleagues better. It’s very motivating.”

To make enough time for the social part, get as much prep as possible done for the work part before the off-site—that applies to leaders and the wider team. 

“It's much better to give people content to read as preparation beforehand, so you can focus on having more active and collaborative sessions once you’re at the off-site,” says Bridie. “It keeps people engaged and gets them talking.”

Off-sites mean sacrifices—and they should be recognised

As a parent, Ben knows it takes more than just the Oliva team to make an off-site possible. They take a lot of planning—for companies and families alike—and that should be fully acknowledged.

“My wife's taking care of everything while I’m away, and she’s also working full-time in a very intense job. It’s important to acknowledge that families are making this possible. My daughter and my wife received a little gift from Oliva to help them feel included, and to thank them for giving me the time to feel present at the off-site.”

Off-sites are a massive logistical undertaking for HR too, so recognising their hard work is crucial—as is making time for them to relax and bond during the retreat, rather than feeling stuck in work mode.

This year, our very own Bridie and Abi organised personalised gifts, a detailed travel itinerary, and led the all-important tablescaping—in between baking multiple birthday cakes. For that, we thank you.

And the question you’ve all been waiting for—what’s the best way to take the team photo?

“It's always going to be a struggle,” laughs Bridie. “Having a photographer helps a lot because of the quality of the photos, and you can get it done in one go—we’re lucky to have one on the team. And don't make everyone wear the company t-shirts, because people can never find them on time”.

“I would say any group photo that has Javi in it is probably never going to be done in a timely manner!”