They Deserve A Break Today

Getting out of the office together can lower barriers--and boost productivity

Sometimes Stephanie Day thinks her employees need a bigger break than coffee can provide. So, at the end of a hard day selling baby clothes and furniture at Day's Chicago shop, Cradles of Distinction, she hustles her 12 full-timers off to take in some blues bands playing at nearby clubs. Or they might go to the theater or to a movie. She says she springs for the events because having the whole crew relate to each other outside of work creates an additional bond between co-workers that "makes us a tighter, more cohesive team."

Such outings--either spontaneous or long planned--can show appreciation for employees and improve work relationships in any company. But only in a small business can the whole workforce take an informal jaunt with the owner. And focusing the group on an outside activity helps put everyone at ease.

UNIFIED VISION. "When you get people out of the office, they drop their professional face and you get a whole new perspective on their personality," says Ingrid Rohmund, a manager at Regional Economic Research Inc., energy consultants in San Diego. For the past four winters, the firm has treated its 25 employees to a day of skiing at southern California slopes. Following each excursion, "everyone seems to interact more freely" and employees feel more comfortable broaching new ideas with superiors, Rohmund says. "The response has been so positive, we're thinking about having some sort of outside event once a quarter."

Taking employees out of the office milieu is particularly helpful to developing companies whose day-to-day whirlwind leaves little time for reflection, says Wendell E. Dunn III, executive director of the Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. "Getting away lets people assess their situation from a different vantage," he says. Witness what happened when the six employees at Connecticut River Interactive, an Internet consultancy in Middletown, Conn., vacated their offices for a day last month so the floors could be refinished. At a co-worker's house, they playfully interviewed each other on videotape.

That downtime turned out to be "a real eye-opening experience," says Cornelius A.M. Geer, the company's founder and president. Focusing on one another without office distractions helped the group mend fences between feuding co-workers and establish a unified vision of the company's future. "You never know what will happen when you're forced out of your little world and confronted with different stimuli," Geer says. He intends to close the company's office again and this time take the group to New York around holiday time.

Of course, any planned company outing should mesh with the culture of the workplace. Formal affairs aren't likely to be popular with employees accustomed to wearing jeans to the office. Gary M. Cadenhead, senior lecturer on entrepreneurship at the University of Texas School of Business in Austin, recommends that company leaders choose activities that reflect their personalities. "Whether it's a biking trip, a barbecue, or beer bust, executives should be trying to say, `This is who I am and I want to know who you are,"' he says. Participation shouldn't be required: Cadenhead says insisting "thou must come play with me" will provoke resentment--no matter the activity.

It's also important to consider employees' family responsibilities when planning events. "You don't want to cut into their limited family time," says Dunn. To avoid this, Heather Westendarp, president of Travel Tech Inc., a travel agency in Houston, encourages her 60 employees to bring their families to twice-yearly bowling nights. The gatherings deepen co-workers' relations, she says, because "you really don't know them until you know their families."

Before making elaborate plans, however, it's worth trying to gauge whether employees are already overdosing on each other's company. "If these people are working 14, 16, 18 hours a day together, an outside event of some sort on top of that may not be such a good idea," Batten Center's Dunn says. Otherwise, though, office outings can boost morale long after everyone has returned to their desks.

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