The Hell of Corporate Retreats

On paper it sounds great, doesn’t it? An all-expenses-paid trip somewhere nice, with a swanky hotel thrown in, and probably free food and drink to boot. Maybe even a spa. Or a pool. Or a jacuzzi! Like a holiday really. A lovely, free holiday.

The only catch is that it’s not technically a holiday. Because while you may be in Barcelona or Las Vegas or even the French Alps, you’re actually at work. You’re on a corporate retreat.

I seem to have made a habit in my books of writing about the dark underbelly of supposedly fun experiences, like school reunions (The Lying Game), bachelorette parties (In a Dark, Dark Wood) or boutique cruises (The Woman in Cabin 10). And now, with One by One I’m exploring a different sort of gilded cage – the luxury corporate retreat.

I’m not sure what it is about these experiences that makes me shudder, because undoubtedly it’s a huge privilege to be wined and dined and put up for free at a company’s expense, no matter what the reason, and the characters in One by One are at the very top of the tree in terms of that privilege – swept off to a deluxe chalet in an exclusive Alpine retreat, with plenty of skiing and canapés in between board meetings. Maybe it’s something about the compulsory fun aspect of the experience. Like hen nights and school reunions, people invited to corporate retreats don’t generally have much choice in the matter, they’re expected to go whether they want to or not, and they’re expected damn well enjoy it when they’re there, or at least pretend to, no matter how they’re really feeling.

Or maybe it’s the queasy blurring of work and pleasure. It’s easy enough to act professional when you’re in work mode, sitting in front of a presentation or chairing a meeting. It’s a bit harder to keep things in the right boxes when it’s 11pm and you’re pouring brandy on top of wine on top of champagne, slurring your words, and playing Cards Against Humanity.  Boundaries get eroded, rules get fuzzy, and a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mentality can start to take over that can make life back in the office very uncomfortable for everyone.

Most of all though, I think the work retreat is symptomatic of a particular kind of 21st century affliction – the idea that it isn’t enough to do a job well and professionally, you have to throw your emotions into the role as well. Increasingly job adverts don’t talk in terms of experience and skills, but in terms of giving it your all, going above and beyond, having hunger, zeal, dedication, obsession, commitment, loyalty and passion. In other words, all the qualities that we used to apply to our personal life and relationships, we’re now expected to transfer into the role of an office supervisor or pizza chef.

Now I get it, I really do. As a self-employed writer, my boundaries are hopelessly eroded, and it’s impossible to write a novel without putting your emotions into your work.

And even outside the creative industries, if you’re the editor of a food magazine, you probably need to genuinely enjoy food, not just know the difference between cilantro and coriander. If you’re selling bikes, you likely need an interest in cycling – or be able to fake one convincingly. A personal interest in your work is undeniably a good thing.

But in an age when employees reply to work emails from their iPhones at 11pm and use their personal twitter feeds to amplify their employer’s agenda in their lunch hour, it seems to me more important than ever to keep some separation between work and pleasure, and corporate retreats erode the boundaries in the most literal way. Even writers switch their phones off at night (or should). But on a work retreat, you can’t clock off at 5pm, 6pm, or even midnight, because you’re stuck there, captive, in company you can’t get away from. You have to witness your boss in a dressing gown… or swimming shorts… or worse. You share tequila slammers with accounts payable, a sauna with IT and an illicit smoke with customer support. You may even, horror upon horror, have to share a room. You end the evening holding back corporate communications’ hair as she heaves into a toilet.

Retreat? Too right. As fast as I can.