Retreats are a period of time away from normal activities and duties. An “off-site” is a work meeting away from the usual place of work. For years, I have attended and organized many off-sites and retreats, and I want to share three ingredients that shift an off-site, which we are more familiar with, into something that has much more value for organizations: a retreat.
But first, let’s remember where the concept of retreat comes from. It’s about stepping away from the daily hustle and bustle into a different kind of space. A space where we slow down, become more reflective, and present. Most often, we associate the term retreat with spiritual practice, “a private and safe space where we pray, study quietly or think carefully”. So what does a retreat have to do with the work world?
A retreat is about stepping away from the daily hustle and bustle into a different kind of space.
In today’s work world, we desperately need to breathe and be in relationships with each other. In fact, the frenetic pace of our modern work world can make us question what we are doing to ourselves. In 1966, the anthropologist Marshall Salhins posited that hunter-gatherer communities are “the original affluent society” because they only work 20-odd hours per week affording much time for leisure.* It is fair to say that today most people consider themselves overworked and overstressed from modern work and the work environment.
The workplace demands so much productivity that we have convinced ourselves there is no time for proper slowing down. So we continue, with frustrating environments, employee disengagement and mental illness on the rise. But what if a retreat was productive? What if a retreat was in fact more productive than a busy off-site while at the same time feeding our souls and our relationships?
In my decades of experience, I have come to learn that work retreats function with a boundary to create a different quality: no emails, phone calls, or other day-to-day distractions. There is an explicit purpose or question of inquiry that serves as a container to show up fully present and stay with what is, even if it is uncomfortable. This is how we address the deeper issues that float about and do the real work. Here are three elements that can help you to shift your off-site to a retreat amongst colleagues. A work retreat can be profound, productive and nourishing, all at once.
1. A double check-in
To begin a work-related retreat, it is essential that we check in with what is alive and bubbling inside of us in relation to this organization that we hold together. When we have completed it once, then we do it again. The second checkin helps us sink down a little, let go a little — and let the deeper level arise. This might mean a first check-in in the first evening. “How are you arriving? What is bubbling in you? What is going well and what needs to be tended to?” It will always be different, depending on the moment and the people, and that’s the point.
The second checkin helps us sink down a little, let go a little — and let the deeper level arise.
The second check-in might happen a few hours later or the next day. The point of the second check-in is simply to ask: “Now that you have arrived and have seen all the busy things that have been spoken, is there a deeper clarity about something that should be part of our time together?” This double layered check-in allows you to listen to what is truly afoot and to access the deeper level of what needs to be tended to. If you take care to document these things on the wall (for example: with Post-it notes), it can be surprising how they might actually be addressed. (For those who are new to this notion of check-in, it simply means speaking from your own experience and silently witnessing each person who speaks. No debate, no discussion.)
2. An emergent agenda
A retreat is about letting go of a predefined agenda and stepping into emergence. In fact, learning how to work with emergence is a key competency for our times — it is what allows us to work with complexity. Also, emergence is really the only way to have a retreat that addresses what wants to be addressed. There is a lot going on between the lines in any organization. How else can we get to it if we don’t offer emergent spaces for it to surface? There is no predetermined agenda that will allow that. Typically, what might emerge on day one will still have some feeling of busy work and then day two people will be ready to go into more uncharted territory.
But how do we steer clear of over planning and time slots? Well, we learn to trust each other so that someone who experiences a strong feeling might act upon it, make a proposal and invite the group into something. Sensing into a moment and inviting others are critical skills for leading in complexity. That is how we let the world of wonder, trust and calling guide us through our time together. If you need some help to start working like this, then I suggest using Open Space Technology. If your team is used to Open Space Technology, I would suggest going fully emergent without any time slots.
3. Work with nature
We are usually attentive to the location of a retreat — somewhere in nature or a place of beauty. Our job then is to tap into this gift. Our busy work lives reinforce our disconnection with nature. Healthy work and healthy organizations remember that we are all interconnected. Nature is a teacher and is quick to bring us back to that foundation. Also, nature helps anchor us and bring us back to being fully present together. But this is a work retreat. How do we work with nature? What does that look like? You might put chairs and cushions outside, inviting people to begin taking the conversations and work outdoors. If you have an emergent or open agenda, people can choose workspaces there.
You can invite everyone into a “clarity walk,” which is simply a stroll outdoors in duos or trios that might be structured around a question you are exploring. I have also seen this done on canoes!
Or you can go even further with a less structured invitation for each person to act upon individually: “Go walk or be on the land in any way you want with this question: ‘What is the land teaching me?’ Come back in an hour and check in with what arose.”
Retreats anchor us
It is brave to run a work retreat with these three dimensions — a double check-in, an emergent agenda and connecting with nature. It can provide a felt experience of what work might be if we were more connected and in flow. It can anchor us together for our next challenges. An emergent retreat, situated in nature, where we are working on the stuff that really matters can serve as an inner beacon for each of us, and for the team as a whole, in all we do. Next time you are planning an off-site think about shifting it into a work retreat!
*Sahlins, Marshal, “The Original Affluent Society” presented at the symposium “Man the Hunter” in 1966.
Retreats are part of a wider set of practices published in my book Going Horizontal: Creating a Non-hierarchical Organization, One Practice at a Time (Berrett Koehler Publishers). Retreats are part of the practice domain: Relationships and Conflict.
This article is also published on the website of my organization PERCOLAB Coop an experiment-ation and development lab for systems change and culture shift. We are committed to the socio-ecological transition and we model new ways of working, learning and governing.