The value of taking your staff out of the office and into unique environments

Words by Claire Denham-Dyson, head anthropologist

As an organisation, how do you manage the effects of a hyper-productive team? How do you mediate hard work with creative play?

The traditional model of brainstorming and networking within the confines of a room, and sparking creativity and enthusiasm among employees, is rapidly evolving. There is a growing trend where CEO’s and business owners are trading boardrooms for beaches and a day out for days on the (ski) slopes, in an innovative move to shift their business models to progress with the ever changing times and the world of opportunities available to them. The big question is: can this impact the bottom line?

Taking your staff out of the office can feel somewhat counter-intuitive to being productive, but the best work is often done in the most informal of settings. If you are the owner of a business, it can feel like a grudge purchase to pay extra accommodation and food costs for your team, when you are already shelling out massive amounts for the rent and upkeep of your business address. However, while it might be difficult for you to see the significance of leaving the office environment, the culture it creates is invaluable for any post-modern business.  

In 2015, a group of academics began debating whether ‘staff burnout’ syndrome could be classified as an actual illness. Whether you are a nurse or work in an ad agency, the prevalence and intensity of burnout is never higher than when you are at your most productive. The human brain, once in the flow of consistent work, is very good at tricking us into believing that we have things in control. When you’re at this point, it can feel as though the risk of relaxing is higher than the risk of pushing through. Have you ever had the experience of being so busy that you feel a bit elated – high, even? While all good and well in the moment, once the work is no longer flowing it’s almost impossible not to disintegrate into a puddle of tears, or a cloud of tissues.

Some of us thrive on this kind of energy, but no one can subsist on it forever. In fact, the busier your work is, the more time you should be taking to slow down or play. When we work in high stakes conditions, our bodies go into ‘operative’ mode, where our fight/flight systems are constantly engaged. This can be detrimental to our personal health (causing adrenal burnout) but can even affect our work. Sleep-deprived, hungry, and often stiff (from sitting at the computer all day), we make less considered decisions. As an organisation, how do you manage the effects of a hyper-productive team? How do you mediate hard work with creative play?

‘Culture’ in the organisational sciences sense is not just the set of values you have on the wall. Culture is a phenomenological or lived experience that your employees have when they engage with your business. And this includes incentives. In fact, incentives make up one of the largest tenants of culture itself, alongside punishment. If you really want to understand what your work culture is, ask yourself: what behaviors do I ‘reward’ and how do I reward them? If your values say you are a company dedicated to ‘innovation’ – how do you reward innovation (if at all), and does that reward reflect and encourage more innovative behavior? Innovation is distinctly tied to novelty – a sense of trying something ‘new’. So, when you ‘reward’ innovation, do you give your employees an experience they have never had before? Do you put them in settings that will let their creativity begin to make links between old and new sources of information?

In the same way that you might try an original nail polish shade, visit a different eatery or make a new friend, an incentive that gets your staff into a crisp space allows them to see things anew. It encourages their creativity to thrive, but it also shows that you reward ‘x’ behavior with ‘x’ experience. This experiential link is then a lot easier to make for your staff.

Olivier Perillat-Piratoine, Manager of Meetings & Events at Club Med Southern Africa, notes that Club Med has noticed a significant increase in the number of companies rewarding their top sales people or hosting incentive trips to unique and inspiring destinations. “People are well travelled and want to experience something other than the ‘usual’ destinations. They seek very exotic destinations, and as such we have seen an increase at our Asian resorts, Southern Europe Resorts, and even Brazilian resort, Rio das Pedras (next to Rio de Janeiro) which is a must-try. Sun destinations are always a winner and we see a great interest for Bali, and Bintan Island which is a little piece of heaven right next to Singapore (and happens to have one of the most spectacular golf courses in Asia – Ria Bintan golf course). Of course skiing (or snow trips) is a fast growing segment and Club Med positions itself as a leader in the field with 25 resorts across French, Italian and Swiss Alps. It is perfectly suitable for groups between 20 and 100 people. Voluntarily spending time in below-freezing temperatures doesn’t sound conducive to business brainstorming and idea sharing, but you’d be surprised at how inspiration can strike atop a chair lift heading from one ski slope to the next, or while sipping on a chocolat chaud during an informal aprés ski session. Such a casual context can be the key to unlocking some of the most valuable business conversations any business owner and top management executives are likely to have”.

Taking staff out of the office is not just a way to create stronger teams or a more motivated workforce. It is a way of enculturing your people, aligning not just their working selves but also their leisure selves to the DNA of your business. This link creation allows employees to feel comfortable ‘taking work home’. By this I don’t mean writing emails at 7pm. ‘Taking work home’ means applying their business brain, their ‘work’ mind, to the things they learn through experiences they have outside of the office, and bringing them into their work. The interconnectedness of our lives today is screaming for a ‘livable’ work culture that rewards individuals as we would reward ourselves personally – one that is authentic and immersive. The truth is, staff are never fully ‘out the office’ anyway. We always have one foot in the door, or one ear finely attuned to our company Whatsapp group.

So, when we take staff out the office – are we really ‘taking them out’? Or are we just changing the setting, allowing our brains to break old patterns with fresh environments?

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