In the era of the virtual office, when even workers who are physically present often wall off their senses with oversized headphones and rely on Slack to chat with colleagues sitting in desks next to them, forced fun at the corporate level may represent the last, best hope for human interaction among co-workers who would otherwise remain the closest of strangers.
“I can’t think of anything more depressing than an office where no one actually talks to each other,” said Lois Najarian O’Neill, a founder of the Door Idea House, a public relations and branding agency in New York who mandates a no-phone, no-screen policy at her company’s midweek overnight outings to Montauk or the Catskills. “Our retreat is our saving grace.”
Even so, company mixers and retreats come with plenty of baggage. Do a Google search on the term “office outings,” and even some boosterish articles come with defensive-sounding headlines. One article in the Muse, a career site, titled “22 Team-Building Activities Your Co-Workers Won’t Hate (We Promise),” offers suggestions such as a ropes-course outing (sorry, tied up that day), an improv comedy class (surely that was once an episode of “The Office”), or an “escape room” challenge (which to most employees involved probably sounds like a capital idea).
The problems, according to several professionals interviewed, are many.
For starters, these company get-togethers sometimes pressure employees to showcase skills that have little to do with job performance.
While working at a research firm in the management consulting industry, Jessie Hunter, 32, from Portland, Oregon, found that cocktail mixers organized by her firm “took the extrovert-introvert differences” among colleagues “and turned them up to eleven.” (And that’s assuming that people are even drinking.)
“People who thrived in that frat-y environment would really shine in the bar,” Hunter said, “and those of us who weren’t inclined seemed like even bigger sticks in the mud.”
In such settings, office gossip also tends to flourish.
This is not entirely a bad thing. A 2005 article in The New York Times about the psychological benefits of gossip noted that furtive smack-talking “not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together,” but can offer “a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.”
But as a morale-booster, gossip has its limits.
Liz Hall, an executive assistant in New York, recalls trading cheeky barbs with office mates at company outings during her stint at a career-search startup which, at first, felt good. “You felt united against the common enemy — annoying co-workers,” said Hall, 38.
The benefits did not last. Eventually, she said, “I realized that all that gossiping was causing me to get more disgruntled than I would have been if I had just kept my head down. It was basically creating steam instead of blowing it off.”
In a #MeToo era when sensitivity concerns are in overdrive, gossip is hardly the only potential hazard at work outings, especially ones involving alcohol.
Recalling her days at a big jewelry company, Barbara Palumbo, 46, in Decatur, Georgia, enjoyed going out with friends after work, “but the mandatory nonsense is just that,” she said, “especially with more and more stories of work-related harassment coming into the light. Who wants the obligation of going bowling with the creepy guy from the Wichita office who walks around with his fly unzipped?”
This is not to say that company outings yield nothing beyond expense reports for managers, however. Now the company outing or retreat is essentially just a different way to work.
When she was an intern with the legal department of the Texas Rangers baseball team during law school, Daley Epstein, now an attorney in Dallas, saw an employee softball game on the diamond of the team’s stadium as an opportunity for self-marketing for younger staff members. Although the game was just for fun, junior employees could also use it to “showcase their competitive side and leadership skills on the field,” Epstein, 27, said, so that the “the manager who witnessed it may later decide they had what it takes to run the next major project.”
Company outings can also collapse — or even invert — office hierarchies.
When Dina Kaplan was helping run a video-sharing platform called Blip earlier this decade, she and the other founders helped organize a paintball excursion for their employees. The outing gave the staff a chance to plug away at management with impunity. “I wanted to hide on the field but wasn’t sure if that looked cowardly to the team,” added Kaplan, who came away with black-and-blue welts. “The irony is that I was afraid to look afraid.”
Going one step further, Cameron Forni, who founded the Oregon cannabis company Cura Partners, stood alongside other managers and entry-level workers alike at an assembly-line party, where company employees from multiple states flew in to assemble the company’s Select-brand CBD vape pens and cartridges until 3 a.m.
With massage therapists, hip-hop artists and DJs provided on hand to create a party vibe, “it was like Burning Man,” Forni said.
Cutting-edge companies are starting to treat company mixers and retreats as an effort to challenge employees, not coddle them, in an effort to inspire them to new professional heights.
LinkedIn recently hired a San Francisco-based company called Adventure Architects to push its executives to the limit on a corporate retreat at a ski resort in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The employees were awakened one morning with a frantic knock on the cabin door, urging them to organize a high-stakes search-and-rescue mission for a fictional missing skier, providing them only with maps, compasses, avalanche beacons and other basic gear. Afterward, their performance was evaluated over wine by an executive coach during a fireside debrief.
“Teams connect when they are having fun and genuinely challenged,” said Noah Rainey, a company founder.
And connection, after all, is the point. This is particularly crucial in the virtual modern workplace, where even elevator chitchat is being replaced by workers staring glassy-eyed at their smartphones on the trip to the 12th floor.
At her company’s most recent retreat in the Catskills, Najarian O’Neill from the Door gathered her employees, many of them millennials, to watch a video by Simon Sinek, the author and motivational speaker, about millennials and tech-addiction, then break off into groups to discuss whether they were angered or enlightened.
“I knew some would be totally offended by his words,” she said. But one of the sessions resulted in an overdue “Ten Commandments of Slack” policy for the office. (Commandment 6: Don’t hide behind Slack for hard conversations.)
“It was a hallelujah moment for me,” said Najarian O’Neill. “It’s sinking in!”