For workers who are never on site, the “off-site” still beckons – The Denver Post

By Lora Kelley, The New York Times Company

“Fun to be had! Fun. To. Be. Had!” Todd Zanzinger crowed to an audience of remote tech workers on Zoom. It was the opening ceremony of an information technology company’s virtual Olympics, and music blared as Zanzinger, whose Zoom display name read “Hype Guy Todd,” walked 69 teams of co-workers through the rules of lip sync karaoke.

In the world of tech companies, off-site retreats were once the stuff of legend: a Beyoncé concert for Uber employees in Las Vegas. A lavish summer camp for WeWork employees in the English countryside. Parties that lasted all night. Friendships that lasted forever.

During the pandemic, they have taken a turn for the tamer: remote trivia. Virtual escape room. Three more hours on Zoom. “You’re on mute.”

Many organizations, especially high-growth tech companies, have long relied on off-site retreats — broadly defined as team-building or strategizing events that occur beyond the scope of regular office work — to build and maintain their corporate culture, as well as to present workers with an attractive perk in a competitive labor market.

When the pandemic hit, flights, hotel blocks and banquet dinners were canceled. But instead of shelving the idea of off-sites, which often involve both meetings and social activities, companies strove to re-create the magic remotely. Companies planned events online, and in recent months, some have crept back into in-person and hybrid events. Although it is much less expensive to gather on Zoom than it is to fly workers to a beach, many companies have plans to rebook those hotel blocks and try to meet up in person again this year.

Why, in a time when many workers are not on site to begin with, are bosses pushing so hard to retain the off-site, a concept that by definition depended on going somewhere else?

Managers are betting that off-sites will help their workers feel invested even when a remote job can feel like little more than an abstracted paycheck. During the pandemic, the tech industry, famed for its luxurious offices and no-expense-spared parties, lost key elements of the signature in-person culture that set Silicon Valley apart. Big tech companies like Facebook have announced that many employees can work from home indefinitely. In January, nearly half of workers employed in the computer or math fields said they had worked from home at some point because of the pandemic, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Bosses with growing teams and a lot on their plates have landed on off-sites as way to build culture and retain workers. Hanmei Wu, co-founder and CEO of Empowerly, a tech company with about 40 full-time remote workers around the world, said she would advise founders with struggling teams that an off-site “could be a fantastic opportunity to reinvigorate them and motivate them — and realign them with your mission or values.”

Off-sites help companies convey messages efficiently to many employees, build trust among workers and make the staff feel treated well without paying them extra. So managers are hanging on for dear life. Off-sites are not just about leaving the office. They are about breaking up daily routines that, after nearly two pandemic years, can feel monotonous.

But Google Hangouts is no team trip to Hawaii. Faced with the prospect of planning an engaging suite of activities for a remote or hybrid workforce, managers have rushed to consultants for help executing off-sites.

“The trajectory of our businesses has been crazy since March 2020,” said Mat MacDonell, CEO of the Offsite Co., which primarily plans events for startups. (Zanginger works for him.) He added, “We’ve been in hyper growth mode.”

Bob Frisch, founding partner of the Strategic Offsites Group in Boston, whose company focuses on executive retreats for corporations, said, “We’ve had our busiest two years we’ve ever had,” partly because many leaders are stumped about how to plan a viable virtual event without outside help.

Facilitators like Zanzinger show up equipped with activities, costumes and playlists. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Zanzinger, this time in the role of Ranger Todd, coached a group of tech recruiters through a virtual escape room. The co-workers, in teams of four, solved word and math puzzles in breakout rooms on Zoom.

One woman arrived in her breakout room — just a smaller Zoom — to announce that this activity was, to be honest, not her favorite. She conceded, however, that it is nice to socialize with colleagues that she cannot see in person. A co-worker chimed in that Zooms could never replace in-person events, while a third said it was her second day at the job. They gamely tackled a puzzle together and laughed about a viral clip of a child saying, “I smell like beef.” Their team did not ultimately win.

Some workers enjoy these retreats and even organize them. Genesis Bonds, 27, a software engineer in New York, planned a virtual escape room to boost morale on her team. She said she and another engineer sat down to try to plan something new — after months of virtual happy hours — that would get people excited to work together even if they were not going to be in the same place anytime soon. It was not on the same level as the in-person summit for Black employees that she had attended in 2019, which she said was “fantastic,” but the escape room went well. She said that she enjoyed getting to know co-workers beyond formal interactions in meetings.

Many find remote work to be more transactional than in-person work. You Slack someone when you need something and otherwise stare at your own screen in your own home. Managers see off-sites as a way to make remote work feel more personal.

Laura Burkhauser, a product manager at Twitter in San Francisco, planned a hybrid off-site in January to help her team build what she called “that elusive rapport.” In May 2020, Twitter told its employees that they could continue to work from home permanently. Burkhauser, whose team included workers in London and New York, said “off-sites are more important than ever in a time of virtual work” because it is easier to trust and communicate with remote co-workers when you actually know them.

If many tech workers and executives agree that there is some value in off-site retreats, even when they are held remotely, how to execute them is much more tricky.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and co-founder of Strivr, a virtual reality startup, called the idea of doing a multiday retreat with back-to-back meetings “insanity — and I’m going to use that word not lightly.” He added, “You can’t just talk at someone for 36 hours and expect the brain to absorb it.” He recently published a paper on Zoom fatigue, and he said that “Zoom is like a fire hose. You’re getting flooded with nonverbal cues.”

Then there is the question of how to actually spend your time together on an off-site. Wu said her startup’s recent off-site in Napa, California, which the Offsite Co. planned, was mainly social. She knows that in-demand software engineers, in particular, can easily quit and take different jobs. “So,” she said, “you want to really create an environment where people are stoked to be there, believe in the company, like the people they work with and aren’t just going to jump ship.”

Meghana Reddy, a human resources executive in Oakland, California, said that while off-sites used to be “nice to have,” during the pandemic they became “a must-have.” She said that for tech companies that want to attract talent, investing in off-sites “will be a better use of money than trying to get people back in the office.” Some companies are already giving up their offices and diverting facilities budgets into off-sites. Hunter Block, the founder of Offsiter, said he knew of a large company that is planning more than 600 off-sites a year for smaller teams of employees.

Bailenson, who wrote on Zoom fatigue, would advise that, whatever companies do to amp up their off-site plans, they should not lean too heavily on video chats.

“If I were running a retreat,” he said, “we would be doing some Zoom. We’d be doing some audio-only stuff, some screen-sharing stuff. And then we would go into VR. We’d go into VR, and we’d do something really special.” He recommends gathering in virtual reality for bursts of five or 10 minutes at a time.

Reddy said the VR tech she used for a virtual off-site last year “was definitely not ready for prime time.” Although, she added approvingly, a virtual gathering around a campfire was “just as awkward as in real life.”

The Offsite Co., for one, has not yet done an in-person retreat for its staff. But like many of its clients, it has one in the pipeline for 2023.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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