By Alina Dizik
When employees at Zebra Technologies in Chicago are due for a brainstorming meeting, they look for a meeting place in their offices that feels off the beaten path. But even in a “tucked away” conference room, passersby tend to interrupt, noting the firm’s modern office has soundproof but glass walls, says Sally-Anne Kaminski, Zebra’s manager of global social strategy. “It’s easy [for coworkers] to stop, wave and pull someone out,” she says.
In the last year, Kaminksi has altered her approach. Rather than meeting in the company’s downtown headquarters, Kaminski is making an effort to conduct the 2017 planning meetings away from the office. Everything from co-working spaces to coffee shops to casual restaurants aimed at the lunch crowd are on her radar. So far, the result has meant fewer disruptions and a greater freedom to brainstorm new ideas. “We’re moving offsite and getting away from the interruptions,” she says.
Kaminksi is not the only one making the case for taking meetings offsite. Better office morale, fewer disruptions and a greater ability to think outside of the box are reasons executives and leadership consultants are itching to get away. Moving to an “offsite location can provide the mindset shift needed to develop and articulate strategy, innovate [and to] be more open to development,” says David Grossman, a Chicago-based leadership consultant. A 2013 survey of more than 600 meeting bookers by Hilton hotels showed that 63% of respondents find off-site meetings more productive, compared to just 37% for on-site meetings.
Why leave the office?
These days, the need for offsites is even more pressing as firms continue to embrace open office environments, where distractions are the most common complaint, according to studies. At business card maker Moo, chief people officer Alan Cairns often steps out of the office in order to speak more openly as a human resources executive making key hiring decisions. Most recently, the team visited a nearby co-working space to move away from the open office environment, he says. “Working as part of the people team means some things we discuss are sensitive, and a room within the co-working space gave us the opportunity to go through these freely,” he says. About 45% of US employees say they work in an open environment, which can make it difficult to conduct private meetings, according to Steelcase, a furniture company.
Unlike in more traditional offices, taking meetings anywhere from hotels to coffee shops to co-working spaces can actually boost creativity. Physical spaces have the ability to influence creativity through what researchers call inspirational support, which means that well designed meeting rooms and interior design can result in more unexpected problem solving, according to a study from Sweden’s Lund University conducted in 2014.
Holding meetings away from the office helps employees avoid a sort of auto-pilot syndrome, says Andrew Wittman, founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, a consultancy specializing in executive leadership in high-stress workplaces. Wittman compares attending a meeting in the office to driving down the same road each day and not remembering stopping at the traffic light because it’s routine. The idea of running through the motions can make it more difficult to come up with new ideas in the same old environment, he explains. Rather, he encourages executives to better process concepts and come up with new ideas in a new setting. “When we are in an environment that is not routine, our conscious minds are overloaded with new data to sift and the human machine now must be intentional about filtering that data,” he says.
How to make the offsite impactful
The idea of leaving the office for a so-called third space can be especially useful for initial relationship-building, says Rony More, founder of Art Please, an online platform for buying and selling art in New York. The art startup founder often arranges meetings outside his office and gallery space to help new business contacts feel more comfortable. “The art world is a ‘handshake business’ — it’s easier to do that at a neutral location,” says More.
To be sure, offsite meetings have long gotten a bad rap for being unproductive. Employees complain of agenda-less powwows that can get especially tiresome when one has to get back to the office for real work. For those hosting their next offsite, Grossman recommends thinking through the outcome of the meeting and being prepared ahead of time with concrete goals. “Pre-work is a must,” he says. Weaving in “elements of fun” can make leaving the office a more memorable experience, he adds.
Grossman, who recently facilitated a discussion among 80 executives for a global company, says these types of gatherings are often the only opportunities for invitees to talk face-to-face about business problems. At the offsite, the leaders decided on a contract for moving their business forward and were asked to sign a billboard-sized version of the document to add an element of surprise. The so-called shared experience helped bring the senior leaders together in a way that’s more difficult at the office, he adds. “Leaders are better able to problem solve with other leaders they know, and offsite meetings in many cases are some of the only chances for leaders across the globe to meet and get to know one another,” he says.
At Moo, departments are encouraged to take meetings outside of the office as “specific to their needs” rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, says Moo’s Cairns. The firm’s creative team has an annual Thursday outing to do an art-focused teambuilding activity, which recently included graffiti art and terrarium making to create a more collaborative experience. The firm’s London-based marketing team visited the Somerset House, a nearby cultural center on the banks of the River Thames that allowed for more strategic conversations. “Finding the right location to match the purpose of the offsite is really important,” he says.
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