Company retreats bring to mind dull meetings, stuffy conference rooms, and carbohydrate-laden buffets. Employees can usually count on flip charts, easels, or PowerPoint presentations being rolled out at some point, too. And to shake things up a bit, there are the icebreakers meant to foster teamwork, like swinging on a rope above a sandpit or getting splattered with paint. It's enough to terrorize busy employees, who would rather be working productively at their desks than playing fake games with their boss. Thankfully, many architecture firms find subtler, more creative ways to inject energy into their off-site meetings.

Take SALA Architects, for example. At a recent retreat on an island in northern Minnesota, the firm's 45 employees watched “Rivers and Tides,” a documentary film that follows British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy as he makes site-specific works with found ephemera such as icicle shards, sheep's wool, red stone dust, and random sticks and stones. The movie is about the trial and error of creating beauty, and to the architects, the process seemed familiar. Afterwards, they spent the afternoon outdoors making Goldsworthy-type projects. “It was really fun,” recalls principal Michaela Mahady, AIA. “It was related to what we do, but not what we do, which made it interesting.”

Part inspiration, part strategic planning, and part problem solving, company retreats are often criticized as a waste of time; in the worst scenarios, they are awkward as well. And yet some form of regular checking in seems necessary for a healthy organization. Should retreats be held every year? That depends on the firm. For larger organizations, an annual get-together might just involve the senior staff. But whether the getaway is low-budget or lavishly planned, a work session or a summer picnic, management consultants agree that there should be a specific goal in mind, even if it's just having fun together. What do you want to accomplish by taking up staff time in this way? How should you go about it? And how will you know when you've been successful?

“In my experience, retreats are useful for both assessment and planning, and I think annually is a good place to start,” says Seattle architect and business consultant Rena Klein, FAIA. She's often called in to help principals plot the future, and what comes of that is a need to involve everyone in the planning. Because retreats are often the forum for delving into an organization's weaknesses and strengths, she recommends that the participants get away from the office, even if it's just for an afternoon and a nice dinner afterwards. “It's hard enough to tell the truth without blame or judgment,” she says. “Being in a different circumstance allows that to come out a little bit easier.”

group dynamics

New York City architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, holds company getaways twice a year—one around the holidays for his six associates and a summer event for all 21 staff members. The companywide events—dubbed dream sessions—may be a picnic or a structured working meeting, sometimes with an outside consultant. Whatever the venue, it's primarily a time for people to share their ambitions. When employees join the firm, Wedlick encourages them to think of it as a resource to help them develop their careers.

“We are who we are because of everyone's personal aspirations, and we like to check in on how [each employee has] used the firm in that way,” says Wedlick, who opened the office 14 years ago. “It has to be personal—that's the only requirement.” At the less-structured sessions, staff members take turns talking casually about how they felt they fared the previous year and what they'd like to try next year. “We do encourage people to be honest in their assessment because we definitely want everything about this to be constructive,” he says. “It's all self-driven.”

Every now and then, Wedlick turns the day over to an outside moderator who can organize and package the firm-improvement process. People write down their ideas and the moderator sorts them into general categories and creates specific actions for the whole firm. (Past action items have included pursuing more LEED-certified projects and becoming recognized as sustainable-design experts.) Wedlick says that almost everything the firm has accomplished is driven by individual aspirations and is a result of these dream sessions, whether it's developing a protocol for client services, entering design competitions, or building green. And rather than simply being a figurehead for the day, Wedlick answers the same questions out loud. “I try to make my participation as equal as everyone else's, so whatever they're doing, I'm doing,” he says. “There's no hierarchy in these dream sessions.”

It's not San Francisco architect Dan Phipps' style to hire a professional facilitator, though. “It would be too impersonal,” he says. With six staff members, his office is informal enough that knowledge is shared through osmosis. However, five years ago he did book the nearby Green Gulch Farm Zen Center for a day of family-style focusing. “We were going off like popcorn in different directions and needed a big picture,” says Phipps, AIA.

As is the case at many small firms with rather flat organizational structures, there was some confusion about what each person was responsible for day to day. So to create some logic, Phipps asked his colleagues to articulate their strengths and interests. “When I went to school at [UC] Berkeley, they talked about architecture being a versatile profession,” he says. “We were trying to allow everyone to put out [his or her] dream of what it meant to be an architect.”

The rest of the group could chime in with observations, too, and as the day progressed things began to fall into place. Some people said their forte was dealing with clients; others loved resolving construction-site issues. “There were some who essentially said, ‘Give me my visor and a cup of coffee and leave me alone to design,'” Phipps says. “These are all good people who have been here from six to 22 years, so it's like an extended family. You have a family meeting—Johnny's a fast runner, and Susie can't run so fast but she can throw the ball and loves to do it.”