In a remote world, firms are turning to team-building trips to boost morale

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David Nothacker recently returned from a two-week trip to Sicily with hundreds of his colleagues for a retreat of workshops, team building and play.

The chief executive of the German logistics tech firm Sennder, which was valued at over $1 billion this year, has seen his company undergo a great deal of change during the coronavirus pandemic.

It hired 600 people, opened several offices and acquired competitors including Uber’s European freight business. However many of its employees had not even met face to face.

“That led to a lot of new learnings and challenges that we had to solve … how to create a company identity behind a screen when everyone wants to leave the computer the moment he or she is done with work and doesn’t take the time to personally connect,” Nothacker said.

The company split its staff into two groups to spend a week each at a resort on the Italian island to work together during the day, take part in workshops and socialize after hours.

Nothacker said the retreat was necessary “to connect and build a sense of belonging and a sense of community that was very difficult to establish through virtual calls.”

Running a retreat for hundreds of staff and flying them to one location from around Europe is a significant investment for any company to make.

Nothacker told CNBC that making employees feel welcomed and engaged is not only important for dispersed teams but also to stave off employee attrition.

“Retention is becoming a major problem for a lot of start-ups that are growing. One thing I realized once we got to a unicorn branding or stamp, people started poaching our employees,” he said.

“One way of looking at this from a return-on-investment perspective is the retention. If we are able to extend the average tenure by a couple of months per employee, whatever investment of a few hundred euros pays itself off because finding a replacement, training, onboarding and so on is a huge cost.”

Problem solving

Workvivo, a start-up building workplace collaboration software that is backed by Zoom’s Eric Yuan, has a team of 70 people scattered around Europe.

It too recently ran a retreat at its base in Cork, Ireland, for its senior employees from several countries. Compared to Sennder’s big splash in Italy, it was a much smaller affair at just two days.

Gillian French, who heads up employee experience at the company, told CNBC that such a duration is the “sweet spot” for these events. She said that that gathering was necessary to reiterate the company’s mission and workplace culture as well as an opportunity for problem solving.

“It’s something that a lot of progressive businesses coming out of Covid should be investing in with their teams to get them back together,” French said.

“There’s huge energy and everyone comes together and the problem solving is brilliant and you go back to your remote environment or to the office and everyone is full of energy. You need something that is fueling that and energizing the team on an ongoing basis in a digital environment.”

Sennder’s Nothacker added that the get-togethers can also help defuse tensions between employees that may have bubbled up in a remote setting.

Health concerns

Bringing together remote teams for a powwow may have its benefits but retreats also bring a host of challenges and risks when the pandemic is still a present danger, regardless of vaccination rates.

Sennder’s resort in Sicily was sectioned off as a “corona-free bubble” where employees stayed put on the grounds. Unvaccinated employees were required to undergo regular Covid testing during the retreat. According to Nothacker, there were no Covid cases stemming from the trip.

Lynette Moore is the director of Quorum, an events space for companies in Philadelphia at the University City Science Center.

As vaccination rates have gathered pace, she said the space has seen an uptick in bookings from corporate clients for employee events and training days.

“We have a group in doing a two-day training with about 40 people. It’s been different but we’re seeing more events being scheduled with [a greater] number of people,” she said.

“A few months ago it was probably groups of 10 or 12 people that would meet in person but now we’re seeing 40 to 50 to 70 and then bigger one-day conferences that are scheduled for November.”

But hybrid events with a virtual component are still a necessity, she said, with many people still reluctant to travel.

Jeff Seibert, co-founder of fintech company Digits, has been running quarterly retreats at his company long before Covid as it is a remote-only operation with staff in several states.

He told CNBC that some companies with limited budgets might feel daunted by organizing a company retreat, from the logistics to the costs.

“On the cost side, these can be done relatively cost effectively because you’re not paying for office space. Being fully remote, we don’t have rent and we basically take our entire rent budget and put it towards these quarterly events for the team,” Seibert said.

“You don’t need to go crazy with the first event. Do a local dinner for teams across the company and then extend it to a day-long event with activities and then think about planning something larger. In this fully remote world, I think the in-person time is invaluable.”

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