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Beware the Dreaded Off-Site Technology Meeting

CHICAGO – Caesar's oracle told him to beware the Ides of March. While many of us worry more about the Ides of April, here in the Midwest technology scene, a far more common fear is the creepy-crawly feeling we get when we get that breathless invitation to the dreaded off-site technology meeting.

Over the last couple years, off-site activity has slowed to a crawl. The boisterous, lavish and over-the-top off sites of years past virtually disappeared. But they're coming back, and readers of this column are writing with their latest off-site horror story.

Who is planning these things? When will they learn that work is for working rather than getting together with 100 of your nearest and dearest co-workers and behaving like teenagers?

It's always well-intentioned people who plan these technology off-site events. Companies spend a bundle on accommodations, travel and logo sportswear (or at least engraved pens in useless wood-carved holders, coffee mugs and other souvenirs) for these off-site meetings.

Agendas are worked and reworked for months and participants are prepped, quizzed and pelted with pre-off-site surveys. It's all somehow supposed to make these two or three days the most pithy and productive time you've ever spent on the job. Terribly often here in the real world, though, off-site meetings fall short of expectations.
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Here are a couple of the most common scenarios.

One variation of the off site from hell is the sales off site. This is usually planned by a not-super senior sales guy whose idea of getting out of the office is inspired by Wayne and Garth. The theme for this off site could be "spring break in Daytona" and the activities planned are always right in line.

Super soakers are featured prominently (all the better to wet that T-shirt with, my dear) as do other sub-adolescent male props like Frisbees and automated Lego Mindstorm robots. Do I sound like I've been to a few of these? Let me tell you...

But let's be fair. There's an equally heinous variation that's all female (circa 1972). I call this the touchy-feely off-site meeting. These are brutal, too.

In these meetings, a great deal of time is taken up forcing people to be real, share their innermost feelings and put on blindfolds in order to help each other bump into trees in the woods. These are the events that make you want to tear off the blindfold and cold cock the guy who concocted this ridiculous event.

"Gee," you think, "when I came to the interview and said I wanted to work here in the accounting department, I sure don't remember agreeing to walk blindfolded around a damp forest. But here I am."

But take heart, because someone – an HR person, OD specialist or some other bleeding-heart type – is really happy to see all of you blindfolded workmates bumping around out there because it means you are bonding.

While I may like my job and I may enjoy my co-workers, that doesn't mean I want to swing on a rope above a sand pit with them or play insultingly, juvenile guessing games in a stuffy conference room 60 miles from my home. Can I just do my job, please?

After the technology bust, we lost the vast array of snacks and the foosball tables. Can we lose the funky tech off sites next?

There is an upside to attending these events. In the downtime between sessions, you learn a lot of juicy gossip that you didn't hear back at the office. If you're lucky, you might also snag a new polar fleece vest or one of those engraved pens in the useless wood-carved holders.

My off-site horror story took place in a start-up a few years ago. I was held up flying into town and called from the car to let them know I was running late.

Unaware that a surprise off-site meeting had been foisted on the troops, I was horrified to hear that my co-workers on the management team were smack in the middle of an oh-so-hilarious improvisation game that was inspired by Drew Carey's "Whose Line is it Anyway?" TV show.

Though I haven't seen the show, I do know that Drew Carey and other TV comedians have studied for years and practiced on hundreds of real audiences in order to learn how to be funny. While people like me and my co-workers might be smart or talented, we are not funny.

I won't say that I started driving more slowly, but you could say I didn't rush to get there. I just kept thinking: those poor employees, forced to wear plastic grins while watching the management team attempt to be funny in the style of Drew Carey. Those thoughts alternated with: I wonder if I could get a job managing an Olive Garden?

I missed the improv session by a nose. Oh, what a drag!

For all you HR people and line managers out there, do me this favor: before you plan your next departmental off site, take a poll. What do your employees want to do? Run around in the woods, Super Soak each other or perhaps hold a quiet day of meetings punctuated by lunch and coffee?

Save your money and the bills for the sprained ankles and book your own conference room. I hate to be a party pooper but your staff may thank you for it.

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Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at lizryan@worldwit.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of the The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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