NO Retreat
By Damian Cowell
Enforced weekends away for a spot of “corporate team bonding” are the bane of many of today’s young professionals. Keep your head down, follow these insider tips, and you may just escape with your life.

America has dumped plenty of cultural asbestos into this country’s consciousness over the years: our western suburbs are full of people who wish it was “South Central”, our sports marketers think “The House Of Pain” is an original idea, and you can’t get anywhere in the corporate sector without employing second-hand Americanisms like “KPIs”, “WIPs”, “leveraging” (what was wrong with good old “levering”?) and “incentivisation.” One of the biggest “incentivisations” over the years has been the practice of “motivating” and “energising” staff by taking them out of the office and away to some lovely holiday spot. It’s what we call the work “seminar” or “conference.” I’ve been on a few in my time, and here are a few things I’ve learned, none of them on the actual conference agenda.

 

Warning: Conditions Apply
Okay, call me your “Expectation Management Implementation Manager.” If you go on a work conference expecting to be “energised” or “motivated”, you may experience some disappointment. You see, work seminars aren’t actually about you. They’re for the benefit of two people specifically: (1) the person whose idea it was to go on the seminar; (2) the consultant or guest speaker who will be making money by purporting to “energise” or “motivate” you.

 

The other factor to keep in mind when managing your expectations is this: work seminars tend to involve work. They come under the oxymoronic category “working holiday.” And because work seminars usually involve nights or even weekends away, they aren’t like real work. Because real work you get paid for.

 

Murphy’s Reverse Law Of Travel Applies
This law may be familiar to you: the better your holiday destination, the worse time you will have. In normal circumstances it’s just people’s bad luck stories, but in the case of a work seminar, there’s no luck about it. When you’re stuck with people you have to be nice to for 35 hours a week outside of those 35 hours, the surroundings don’t make you feel better – they taunt you. “Think of what a great time you could be having here” they seem to say. And worse still, should you ever pass by this holiday destination again, you won’t think of the beaches, the views, the serenity . . . you’ll think of revenue and flow charts.

 

If Déjà Vu Persists, Do Not Consult Your Doctor
There are lots of conference facilities to choose from, set in every imaginable Australian climate and landscape. Unfortunately, when you’re indoors, they all tend to look the same. That is, unless you’re a football player or gung-ho upper management type, in which case you go on the Kokoda Trail, have near-death experiences (like, say, falling off your credit limit), imagine you’re Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now, and so on. But for the rest of us, it tends to be like going back to school – whiteboards, coloured textas and butcher’s paper. And little bowls of lollies . . . always little bowls of lollies. If it was little bowls of Prozac – then you’d be talking.

 

Location, Location, Location
In my experience, work seminar locations have fallen into three categories.
(a) Hollywood
Here, the company spares no expense and takes you somewhere really flash. Back in the days when there was some money around, our outfit actually went to Sea World on the Gold Coast. Never mind that it was winter and most of the rides were shut, it was still a pretty impressive effort. Unfortunately I drank rather a lot and my only abiding memory is of a seal being walked into a bar full of pissed twenty-somethings who were all spilling drinks and yelling over the doof doof, and feeling that surely this wasn’t the right environment for a sea creature. Or maybe I’d just eaten too many lollies.
(b) Polished wood
This is the safe option, the very corporate “convention centre” type of establishment that always has the same lulling decor, and whether you’re up at the snow, down at the beach, or away in the hills, it makes you feel like you’re still back at the office. I’ve been on too many to mention, and I can’t remember a single thing about any of them. Except they had lots of lollies.
(c) No-one would
This is either the result of a desire for staff to “bond” under spartan circumstances, or alternately, plain old cost-cutting. If you’re thinking of school camp then you’re right, because that’s literally what they are – school camps: dormitory-style bedding, scrambled eggs with a slightly unnatural pallor due to being sloughed out of huge vats and, somewhere in the vicinity, a flying fox. As far as lollies go, the only kind that’d keep you cheerful in such an environment are the ones you can buy from dodgy people at raves.

Do As Your Scout-Master Says: Be Prepared
Like that Christmas work party on a boat, there’s no escaping the Work Seminar once you’re “aboard.” And unless you’ve just won Lotto, you can’t beat ’em, so you’d better join ’em. This means at some point you’ll have to look “motivated” and “energised.” Such displays of fake enthusiasm come easily to healthy people. Others are like me. When I walk into a juice bar and am confronted by one of those interminably cheerful, impossibly spunky young workers who wants to know my name so they can call it out when my juice is ready – as if they’re making me some kind of gourmet meal – I have an irresistible urge to tell them my name is “Number 43” . . . . just so I can hear them call it out, like in the good old days of sullen service.

 

Of course, admitting to such un-American thinking would have me labelled a “roadblock”, so I have, over the years, developed some handy techniques. During the course of your seminar, to create the impression that you’re not only listening but are one step ahead of everybody, the following phrases can be applied no matter what the subject:
· “I think there should be more integration.”
· “We need to look for synergies.”
· “What’s the ‘hero’ of this proposition?”
And so on. Whatever the situation, remember: you must be “passionate” and every issue is “critical.” Whatever you do, don’t mix them up – being critical is right up there with child sex offences.

Hang With The Nerds
If you’re an attractive, popular twenty-something who works in any kind of public relations role, you’ll have stopped reading this bullshit already. So, for the rest of us, the question remains: who do you “party” with after the show? After the brainstorming sessions and team-bonding exercises and all that other Waco Texas-inspired stuff, this is when the real work begins – socialising. And unless you’re part of the aforementioned group, for whom there is no dividing line between work and play (read: get a life), you must know your limitations. Even if it means talking all night about stationery, it’s better to hang with the nerds because they go to bed early. If you don’t, and you have to face the next day’s conference session with a hangover, the unthinkable may occur – you might tell the truth. And at a work seminar, no-one really wants to hear that.

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