The value of retreats: How physical space and distance creates mental space

I am returning from a leadership development offsite for senior partners from a major professional services firm, where I ran a session on the future of business and how to talk about it with your clients.

Yesterday, from the airport I was driven out of the city for almost 2 hours, to a small upmarket resort deep in the country. As the car drove further out from ‘civilization’ I reflected on the journey. 

The additional time taken to get the participants to the location was significant, with the additional cost of limos negligible considering the value of the time of the people going on the retreat. Was it really worth taking everyone far out of the city?

One of the upsides is that executives are less inclined to try to nip out for meetings, or go out drinking late in the evening (since there are no bars out there).

But the real advantage is that physical space and distance lead to mental space. Even though I was just a brief visitor to the offsite, I could feel a sense of opening out as we drove deeper into the country. One of the participants commented how he felt unusually relaxed there, so distant from his worries in the office. Apparently another, who is based in Shanghai, experienced the fresh air as a revelation, in being able to breathe deeply and open up her lungs.

On the face of it, there seems little reason why spending time in a few rooms out in the country should lead to a dramatically different mental state than being in rooms in a city center. 

One reason is that I think our brains are hard-wired for metaphors. When we are in a busy and intense environment, our brains tend to be busy and intense. When we are physically distant from our everyday issues, we gain a sense of mental distance. When we have open vistas to the horizon around us, it is far easier to create open mental spaces. 

I’m now in the car on the way back to the airport, buildings, traffic, and while it’s a beautiful drive in the ethereal pre-dawn light, it seems a pity to be coming back towards physical – and perhaps mental – clutter rather than away from it. 

The practice of executive ‘retreats’ that allow teams to literally distance themselves from everyday issues is fortunately well established. We all desperately need mental space, and one of the best ways is to give ourselves physical space and distance.