Are 'awaydays' sufficiently creative to justify the cost?
It may be the board, it may be the sales team, but 'awaydays' are catching on. Summer is here again, and it's time to be off to the country for the annual brainstorming session and re-examination of strategy and tactics. But the cost of a dozen people, say, spending a couple of days (and a night) in a half-decent hotel is going to come out at £3,000 minimum, and that's not counting the cost of working time lost. Is the exercise worth it?
Most awaydayers are in no doubt. Yes, definitely, as long as proper precautions are taken. 'Everyone knows how difficult it is to get people together in the office without interruptions. If there is something important to develop - a strategy or plan - then clearly it is beneficial to take off to a hotel, where you can more or less guarantee that people will be undisturbed,' says Angela Barron, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development. It's not just a matter of escaping the office environment, adds Christine Carroll, director of external marketing at Unisys. 'Provided the event is well structured, an awayday is a great way of building teams,' she maintains. And if participants enjoy themselves, so much the better. 'An awayday should have some element of fun. It's more motivational than a wholly work-oriented affair.'
But the key to a successful awayday is not the fun, it's the preparation, cautions Chris Hopson, director of public affairs at London Weekend Television.
'Without doubt, it's a case of the more effort you put into planning the event beforehand, the more you get out of it. If you just pitch in and hope, then it can be disappointing.' Hopson reckons that it may well be worth retaining an external facilitator, since 'facilitators can come at issues in a slightly different way and make it easier to get people to buy into the exercise'. Keith Hackett, a partner in The Training Network consultancy and a facilitator himself, sounds the same note. 'Just taking people away to a hotel does not make them more creative. It is the environment which you build and the methods which you use which does that,' he says. 'People need to be clear why they are there and what they are trying to achieve. Otherwise they may feel they would be better off back at the office and getting on with the job.'
It's certainly possible for awaydays to go disastrously wrong, as Christine Carroll remembers. 'I participated in one where we were trying to put a business plan together. The man who ran it was a real chauvinist and one of the women got so upset she stormed out of the room. Then the rest of the women got up and left in sympathy. Everyone ended up in tears. It was awful.' But Carroll is convinced that, as long as the event is thoroughly prepared and sensibly conducted, the nervous energy released on an awayday can be genuinely creative.
Professor John Burgoyne of Lancaster University Management School is not persuaded that all this creativity is necessarily of much use to the organisation. 'A clear transfer gap can arise between an idea which seems great in a flash hotel and what is possible given the constraints and practicalities back in the office. You could argue that it would be better not to create that gap in the first place,' he warns.
Nor is every business yet converted to the awayday. Take Rentokil Group, one of Britain's most respected companies. 'We have some quiet meeting rooms on our site,' explains public relations chief Tony Stephens. 'We are very much encouraged to use our internal resources. The question is really: Why go away when we have a perfectly good site here?' But, then, Rentokil's head office on the Surrey-Sussex border, might almost be a country hotel.