Phipps has spent a long time creating a relaxed, nonconfrontational office environment, and the retreat reinforced that value. “There's always a fear that when people say what they want, they can be judged—‘My dream is trivial and not big enough' or ‘It's too grand and others won't like it,'” he says. “Going away created a safety net then and afterward so people could freely explore the things they wanted to and not feel that they were being judged.”

Pete C. Reynolds, a business consultant in Myrtle Beach, S.C., stresses the importance of the group huddle in good times and bad. If business is booming, principals and their staff need to figure out how to handle the growth. If profits have fallen off a cliff, they'll need to retool their operations. Either way, a retreat can make all the difference. “Businesses operate in a changing world, and people have a tendency to resist change,” he says. “An organization that's not growing and changing is probably not going to make it.” For Reynolds, retreat sessions usually fall into one of three categories: determining the mission of an organization; strategic planning; or equipping people, whether that means helping them work well together or inviting a speaker to address a topic of interest.

Klein, who also facilitates architecture retreats, warns firm owners against dominating the conversation during strategic-planning sessions. She's seen at least one event knocked off course by principals who talked for way too long, sapping the room's energy before work even began. Instead, she asks them to briefly explain the meeting's goals, empower staff to tell the truth about what's really important to them, and then get out of the way and listen.

To get everyone participating and ward off boredom, Klein uses a method called “open space technology” that invites people who are interested in the same aspects of a firm's operation to explore ideas in a small group. “Firm leaders are often really amazed at how much of a resource their staff can be to them when that's allowed,” she says, adding that the idea of giving up control of the outcome can be a hard sell to principals.

away games

SALA's principals gave up their retreat-planning role years ago, delegating the task to a committee made up of employees from all three of the firm's Minnesota-based offices. And whereas the early sessions focused on the firm's direction, soul-searching is too hard to do with 45 people. Now the goal is to strengthen SALA's common values with a day of continuing education away from the office. In late November they'll be meeting at the local arboretum to discuss green design.

“Sometimes we think there's so much knowledge within the office that we can easily formulate all the discussions on our own and we just need a jumping-off point, like the Andy Goldsworthy film,” Mahady says. “On the green front, we don't have all the information yet, so we'll have a speaker who can fit green ideas into a global marketing, factual, how-to-do context.” At the last all-day retreat, Mahady adds, firm employees donated their labor to build a garage for a nonprofit housing group. “We came away with newfound respect for people in the field,” she says, “and we ended up having built a garage for a low-income family.”

If personal getaways are a quick way to replenish the creative juices, so, too, are company retreats. The best ones offer a means to step away from the daily grind, boosting energy and brainpower. “When we feel like it's time to do something, we organize and do it,” says Greg Papay, AIA, a partner at Lake/Flato Architects, San Antonio. “We've operated less on a calendar and more on a gut feeling.” A staff outing typically involves a long weekend of travel to see company projects and other noteworthy buildings. Last May 50 people—including some spouses—were flown to Dallas/Fort Worth to tour four Lake/Flato projects and Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum. Several years ago the destination was Colorado. Papay says the trips aren't mandatory, noting that employees chip in roughly one-third of the cost.

When it comes to bonding, both SALA and Lake/ Flato forgo the canned games. They regularly invite employees and their families away—far away—for some real fun. In a now-legendary tradition, summer's end finds Lake/Flato's 60-some employees and their families heading out to Ted Flato's ranch 125 miles west of town for the weekend. There, they bunk in the property's several houses, on screened porches, and in the tent city that pops up. “Nothing official goes on there other than we go out and enjoy each other's company,” Papay says. “As we've gotten larger and more and more young people have come, it's taken on a life of its own.”

SALA has its own version of the recreational weekend. Every other year—off years for the eight-hour retreat—the firm rents out a lake resort where employees bring their families, sometimes for a two-night stay. While the activities include two four-hour-long continuing education sessions, it's the camaraderie that makes a lasting impression. “I remember fondly the process of gathering over the years with our families and watching our children grow and evolve,” Mahady says. “It's sort of an intangible thing. You can see employees sit around by the water watching their kids and get a sense for the overall good spirit that we have in the firm.”

As all of these firms have shown year after year, company retreats don't have to be cookie-cutter events. With some thoughtful planning, they can be something employees look forward to as a time to refocus and connect.

for senior staff only

Employee retreats can serve all kinds of purposes, but when a firm's guiding lights get together each year, their tasks are fairly clear-cut. For Cunningham + Quill Architects, Washington, D.C., that annual scrutiny takes place over the course of three days at a hotel in nearby Baltimore. Armed with a self-published book made up of financial, personnel, and marketing reports, plus reading materials culled from design intelligence agencies, magazines, and architectural consultants, the firm's four principals and one associate spend the first day reviewing the past year's successes and failures. The second day ends with an action plan for things that need work in the following year, and on day three they're joined by their lawyer and accountant to review business strategies.

Founder Ralph Cunningham, AIA, says the firm has grown a lot in the last couple of years to its current size of 26 staff members, making personnel issues a primary area of concern. “Last year during the retreat we realized we simply didn't have enough interns and weren't having much luck hiring out of school,” Cunningham explains. “So this year we participated in a lot of college employment fairs and have had much better success.”

When firms reach a turning point, they often look to outside experts for advice. Several times during the past eight years, Lake/Flato Architects has consulted with Hugh Hochberg, a partner with The Coxe Group, Seattle, to sort out ownership transition and marketing issues. The most recent meeting occurred two years ago, after the firm won AIA's prestigious National Firm Award. “For us it was a moment of introspection,” says partner Greg Papay, AIA. “We said, ‘This will do different things for us in the next decade if we pursue it right. How should our office be structured to do that?'”

The participants got creative, sketching an architectural diagram of beams and columns that represented people and projects, respectively. “As the office has gotten larger and more experienced, people have spread out in different directions, and we realized the office needed a few beams—people who would touch every project,” Papay explains. They came up with eight or nine beams, including a design beam, which consists of a person or group tagged for tasks such as organizing monthly design reviews and tours of the office's built projects. “We grew up as a little firm,” Papay says. “We were trying to find a way to not become corporate-driven but rather, to let some of the younger people take on a leadership role in things other than whole projects.”