Corporate offsites are back, but remote work has given them a new purpose

March 10, 2023, 11:55 AM UTC
Four people dressed in business casual attire sit at a table outside, eating and drinking food while working on their phones and laptops.
With increased remote work, employers have become more intentional when hosting offsites.
Milo Zanecchia—Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images

Today’s corporate offsites are not the same as those of yesteryear. Pre-pandemic, these retreats were akin to glorified field trips or, for some companies, corporate frat parties where employees had unlimited access to booze and top-of-the-line entertainment.

But how we work and engage with coworkers has drastically changed in the three years since the pandemic’s onset. With eight in 10 workers fully remote or hybrid, employers now use offsites to more meaningfully build relationships, camaraderie, and team morale.

Gathering relevant stakeholders in today’s distributed workforce poses its own challenges, creating a logistical lift for companies. As such, employers have become fastidious about moving beyond social engagement and bonding as an intended result of company retreats and structuring them to reinforce corporate culture and craft new, innovative strategies.

“Organizations are starting to think about offsites more holistically, and they’re starting to think about them more as a program rather than a single [one-off],” says Hunter Block, CEO of Offsiter, an offsite planning platform.

The new offsite

Now more than ever, an offsite’s business objective entails mission and strategy alignment, relationship building, socializing, and training and development, especially for remote-first or fully remote companies. Remote-first organizations are also increasingly using offsites in lieu of regular operational meetings, like quarterly leadership planning, and investing in more frequent get-togethers because they aren’t spending money on office space.

“They’re saving money on real estate, and they’re able to take those savings and reinvest it into having the employees come together on a more regular basis,” says Tal Brodsky, senior director of business development at Thriver, a platform for booking different employee engagement-focused services.

Larger companies with an office footprint are likelier to bring employees to corporate headquarters and plan events around their real estate locations.

One of Thriver’s larger clients—a tech company with global offices where some employees work in-office and others remotely—hosts satellite offsites or retreats in its major hubs. Instead of flying hundreds of employees coast-to-coast, employees who are regionally connected attend these mini-offsites, Brodsky says. 

When the fintech startup Brex allowed its over 1,000 employees to go remote in late summer 2020, it quickly realized it would have to become more intentional about creating moments for connection. The San Francisco–based company has held over 150 offsites since.

“We realized right away [that] engagement, belonging, all these connections, are not going to be the same. And they’re not going to transfer over as we go into this new remote-first environment and scale as a global team,” Paige Evanich, Brex’s senior manager for employee engagement, tells Fortune. 

Brex allots one week per month for teams based in the same city to host their own offsite instead of hosting an offsite for all engineering, product, or design staff. But the company also makes room for different functions to “cross-pollinate,” Evanich says, and offers development opportunities such as one-day trainings for managers.

Understanding employee interests

Activity-based offsites have also grown in popularity. One Offsiter client, a shipping API company, toured the port of Oakland during its retreat. 

“Let folks organically self-select into what they want to do…versus telling everyone, ‘Here’s exactly what we’re going to be doing every minute,” says Block.

At Brex, employees can select from three choose-your-own-adventure activities, enabling them to meet employees across the organization who may share similar interests.

Word of advice: Employers should provide unstructured downtime for employees. “I’ve seen a material shift in the design of the in-person experiences, which used to be very content-heavy, with some time for connection and experience,” says Anthony Stephan, executive leader of Project 120, Deloitte’s learning and development initiative. Multiday programs that run from morning until early evening should incorporate frequent meals or breaks to enhance relationship-building and serendipitous connections.

Leaders should also factor in employee feedback at every step of planning and implementation. “Surveying and polling are critical to quantifying how successful these things are,” Brodsky says. Ask employees if they’re interested in attending a similar offsite in the next year, what leaders should do differently, and for thoughts on specific sessions. “Maybe they had a great overall experience, but there was that one session on time management that just didn’t resonate. Finding those things out is really important.”

Doing more with less

With growing concerns over an economic downturn, employers have started cutting back on culture-related spending. Block says clients are more interested in hosting local offsites that don’t require large budgets over glamorous far-flung locations. TravelBank, a company that provides digital tools for travel and expense reports for small- to midsize businesses, says its clients have become more flexible about accommodations, activities, and travel logistics to save costs.

Still, many companies view retreats as a key investment in talent strategy. Deloitte University launched during the 2008 financial crisis, Stephan notes. In December, the consulting firm announced a $1.4 billion injection into its Project 120 program. “Of all the things that may change or may vary in terms of where we allocate capital, investing in the growth and development of our people is not one of the areas that will suffer as a result of market fluctuation and market shifts,” he says.

Evanich points out that offsites also provide a unique opportunity to build employee loyalty and employer branding, especially for remote workers. “There’s only so many video submissions I could send in to describe life at Brex. How do we really optimize on these experiences we already have in person?”

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