it'll be just like a sleepover, except not!
October 16, 2016 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Tomorrow I leave for a "work retreat" my manager has arranged. Four days and three nights, with her and my two colleagues who make up our team. In a rental house. With every minute planned out. I'm starting to panic a bit and need survival tips.

My manager is a workaholic and very, uh, detail oriented. All of us work in different states so the purpose of this is to "get us all in a room together so we can get some things done." Which is probably a good thing! But she has meticulously planned out every moment of each day on our calendars (8 AM discuss x; 8:30 AM plan y; 10 AM prepare slides for z; noon: working lunch while we draft standards for blah...). It's an intense schedule with no breaks built in; all breakfasts and lunches are working ones; dinners will be as a group. Tomorrow we'll be working well into the evening. Even the "leisure day" she planned at a popular tourist destination is still filled with a work agenda.

We are staying in a rental house (we're all women), which actually looks quite nice and at least we all get separate bedrooms, but it's still a shared living space. I am an introvert and I get along with these people well enough, but they're not my friends. I normally need recharge time and that's going to be in very short supply here. My manager is also a stressful person and I tend to pick up on that (she's already texting us on a Sunday afternoon asking what we have prepared for some call this week, and I can feel my heart rate rising from it already). To top it off, I have a toddler and I'm going to miss him terribly. I've been on trips away from him before, I just miss him extra when I'm trapped doing work things.

I'll take any advice I can get, mental tricks, hacks, coping mechanisms, whatever. I have a half day off this upcoming Friday at least, and my family will be heading up for a weekend at my parents cabin, but that feels a long ways away from now.
posted by castlebravo to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If I weren't you ideas find some way to break away for the entirety of the 'leisure' day - a relative or old friend to visit, some research at a local facility, or some obscure local feature that you've 'always wanted' to visit but never had the chance before. Email your manager in a very matter of fact way saying that you appreciate her planning the itinerary for the 'break' day, but you've decided to take advantage of the time to do 'x' and re-charge. If she pushes back.... then you can decide what to do. If not, gold!
posted by bq at 1:28 PM on October 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: have some good pleasure reading with you so that the moment you close your bedroom door at night you have something else to concentrate on,
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:30 PM on October 16, 2016 [12 favorites]

Unless she's an awful human being who gets angry when given feedback, I'd try to be straightforward and say something like: "[Boss], I'm excited to discuss X and plan Y. I'm looking over the schedule and noticing there aren't many opportunities for brain breaks during the day. Could we add a half hour after lunch, and an hour after dinner so that I can recharge and bring my best ideas to the discussions? I know that I do my best work when I can regroup and have some down time between tasks."

I'd be really specific about what you want, and when you want it--whether that's 15 min breaks several times throughout the day, or fewer but longer breaks. Give specific times, too, so she can more easily act on your request.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:35 PM on October 16, 2016 [68 favorites]

Best answer: "Woo, my back is killing me. I'm gonna walk around the block, stretch out a little. Back in a few."

Note that you are not asking to go for a walk there.
posted by Etrigan at 1:37 PM on October 16, 2016 [45 favorites]

Best answer: I like Etrigan's advice on feigning a physical reason for needing to take a walk or retreat to your room. Most people are much more accepting of physical reasons than psychological.

Also definitely try to "go to bed" as early as possible. Even if you're just in your room surfing the internet or reading or whatever.
posted by radioamy at 1:44 PM on October 16, 2016 [17 favorites]

If you like to read, I suggest bringing a very large novel—ideally something A) made to be entertaining in short, serial bursts that B) you can't possibly finish all at once. Lots of cliffhangers for you to think about while you aren't able to get back to the book. The Victorian novelists are very good at this, since the books were more or less written to be read that way. (My suggestion is something like Vanity Fair or Jane Eyre. I like to have whatever I'm reading on my phone, so that I can wedge a page or two into free minutes.)
posted by Polycarp at 2:04 PM on October 16, 2016

Best answer: radioamy does what I do. In the past when I was doing social/work things with people I'd hang out all night until i was literally like "I need sleep" But now I'm a lot more like "Hey this was great, I'm going to retire" and then go to room with the door shut and do my thing. Read, internet, family, whatever. Keep in mind that for anxious/control-y people a schedule is their life preserver and they like it. But take it as a suggestion and an overarching narrative and not something YOU need to get completely bent about. You can duck out for minutes here and there. You're a grownup and no one can tell you that you can't. So in addition do the suggestions you've gotten above...

- (family stuff) "Excuse me, I've got to check in with $PERSON about $TODDLER, I'll be back in 15 minutes."
- (personal errand) "I've got to nip out for a sec and grab something at the tore, anyone need anything?"
- (service as alone time) "Why don't you two go relax and I'll hang out here and do the dishes?"
- (separate cars) "Sorry I need to run an errand so I'll meet you at the restaurant"
- (addict) "Sorry I just have to go grab a cup of coffee, I'll be back in a few minutes"

The idea is just to present this stuff as a foregone conclusion and if someone tries to argue just pretend that you can't imagine they'd stop you from going to the drug store for tampons... like that's crazy ... and go anyhow. Work can't suddenly go from being an eight hour a day commitment to being a 16 hour a day commitment in most cases and just carve out the time you need while still getting your work done. Often people are happy that someone calls a timeout, so maybe that can be your job at this thing. Also talk to your other colleague about this because as a team if you're both like "YES COFFEE BREAK" it will be much more effective.
posted by jessamyn at 2:08 PM on October 16, 2016 [40 favorites]

I am sorry, this sounds TERRIBLE. That is so, so much focused together time. If I were you I'd send your boss this email -

"Hi boss,
Looking at the schedule next week - I'm going to need to add in some solo time each day. Can we make dinner a do-your-own-thing, or have couple hours of downtime each afternoon? Timing is flexible, I want to make the most of the retreat and I know that my brainpower will be compromised if I don't get some time to recharge."

If all else fails - feign a stomach ailment and hide in your room for a couple hours on the second or third day.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:19 PM on October 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've been in this situation and it degraded to yelling in the second day. It was absolutely terrible for all of us and I believe it really degraded the working relationship on the team. So, if nothing else, I wanted to tell you that you're right to be worried and it might be worth talking to others and maybe lobbying as a group for more break time. Definitely mentally prepare yourself for a tough few days, I wish someone had warned me of how stressful it would be in advance.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:37 PM on October 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: You have just described Extreme Suffering. I think a lot of the above suggestions to email your boss with (totally reasonable and healthy and logical!!) requirements for downtime and alone time are good, but considering that it's starting tomorrow I doubt will actually stick or do anything more than throw your boss into a tizzy. Conferring with your coworkers to ensure breaks and time apart is smart and you should let them know of your intentions and desire for backup asap. Doing the long distance coworker thing is a very weird dynamic - in my case it led to some great moments of empathy, but also some cases of absolute bafflement about the inner workings of my colleagues. You've got to be clear and lay out your needs.

But honestly in situations similar to yours I have just gone into a sort of detached mode where... it's hard to describe. I'm there doing the things and thinking about the work and getting it done, but my normal need for private time and space and whatever are just set to the side. My typical acerbic manner might get even sharper or I might go Full Southern and be blessing everyone's hearts internally and refilling everyone's iced teas externally. I can normally keep this up for three days, as long as I get enough sleep and eat real food. But then my compartmentalization completely falls apart and I'm nonfunctional for about a week, sometimes two. I've never had a toddler to be responsible for after this, so it's probably really unwise for you. But if you're capable of this kind of mode switch, and your work won't suffer, and you have a fabulous support system for afterwords, you might think about it. Honestly by your description it sounds like no matter what you're going to be pretty out of whack afterwards so you'll need to arrange extra help for day to day stuff anyway.

Okay some smaller hacks that aren't make healthy demands or go into a dissociative robot state:

Bring a yoga mat and do half an hour of low impact slow stretching and obnoxious sun salutations every morning. I have found that the physical presence of a yoga mat makes people uncomfortable speaking to the person on the mat, and the other people craving calm might start copying you.

As soon as you've been delegated a specific task, leave the room and set up somewhere else. Budget yourself some generous time for the task and take the whole amount of time to do it as well as some self care stuff. Come back and be like "I did the thing!" and tell everyone that you're getting on the next one now and you'll be done in 45 minutes and oh, is that lunch? You'll grab it and eat while you're doing the thing, in the other room, alone, thanks, you'll be done in an hour. The first couple times you do this will be weird. By the third time it'll just be how you get stuff done.

Skype your toddler in the middle of the day, within earshot of your coworkers. Why? Because the reminder that some people have different priorities is important, and I don't know your boss in specific but I doubt she's heartless enough to keep you from your kid like that. Also your coworkers can use it as impetus to get in touch with their own loved ones.

I hope your "retreat" is at least a little productive. If at the end of it nobody has murder in their hearts, it'll have gone better than most people would expect. Keep your expectations low, and let your family know you'll need lots of extra snuggle time and quiet when you get back.
posted by Mizu at 4:19 PM on October 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Extra-relaxing bedtime routines have helped me a lot in past situations like this. Do you have some soft, comfy jammies you can bring? Are there aromatherapy items you can bring in a scent that makes you feel happy and relaxed? Can you do some self-massage (feet are pretty easy) or even bring a massage tool to iron knots out of your back? Do you have a sleep mask? Are you bringing extra earplugs (these are very important even if you have your own room -- being able to block out all noise from your co-workers will feel like the most amazing luxury)? How about some calming music and noise-cancelling headphones? Bring anything that will help you relax during the few moments of the evening that you have to yourself.
posted by ourobouros at 4:57 PM on October 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would also bring a few framed photos, maybe a favorite throw pillow or lap blanket, a sachet of a scent you love and a way to play music. Make a real effort to create a cozy space in your bedroom. And I would insist on having some of the planning meetings outside or in different locations, like a cafe or area park. I'm wondering if you can make a break time around your child's nap and bed times too. You can say, "I need to face time my little one now because it's the only chance I'll get to see him all day!" Or, "I have to take 15 to call my child before bedtime or I know we both won't sleep tonight!" Toddlers have set schedules, maybe you can use that to your advantage.
Edited to add: This is bonkers and you're right to be worried. Work retreats are annoying enough without an overbooked schedule. I really hope your boss is giving comp time after the retreat to make up for the over time.
posted by areaperson at 5:18 PM on October 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would absolutely hate this. In addition to the other great suggestions here, I'd suggest taking frequent bathroom breaks and spending a minute or two in the bathroom just breathing deeply and clearing your mind of all the work stuff and work people. Breathe in and out and enjoy being completely alone. (Pro tip: no one is going to confront you about taking too many bathroom breaks.)
posted by mcduff at 5:44 PM on October 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ugh, I'm an extrovert and one of those people who actually enjoys things like this when they are done well, and just reading this stressed me out.

I definitely agree with reaching out to your manager and asking to build in off-time for reflection during the retreat.

Also, do not feel bad about going "to bed" the instant it's acceptable at night (ie, when the mandatory activity ends). If the mandatory activity at night goes past, say, 9:00, then just get up at that time and say you're tired and need to go to bed.

Anyway, unless your boss is a nightmare, I think politely but firmly asserting some boundaries here will be your best move.
posted by lunasol at 10:29 PM on October 16, 2016

I am the kind of person your boss is in terms of scheduling, but the kind of person you are when it comes to alone time, so I can kind of see where both of you are coming from. I've organised events and crammed the schedule full from sunrise to midnight just because there was so much to do and so little time, and because it was MY schedule I didn't mind that there was no "me time". It was all "me time" because I was the one who made the schedule.

Your boss is trying to get a lot done in this weekend, and she thinks that a strict schedule will be the best way because that works for her. She doesn't know or realise that you need breaks and personal time, and she might not be aware of how much she is imposing HER perfect schedule on everyone, so you just have to tell her. Find a spot in the schedule that maybe could be turned into some quiet alone time and ask her to change it. Or ask for the breakfasts to not be working breakfasts - that sounds terrible. But make it clear to her that you are aware of everything that needs to be done in the weekend, so that she knows you're motivated, just not into the schedule.
posted by easternblot at 3:59 AM on October 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with a lot of the boundary-setting ideas here, but I'd also suggest to say "we" instead of "I" whenever possible. Like, if you're going to ask her if she can build in some breaks, say it's because "we" or "people" need time off because it's not possible to concentrate for 12 straight hours and still put out good work. Couch everything in terms of what is best for the team as a whole and the work product(s) that result. You're not asking for something special for yourself, you're acknowledging the truth about how human brains work and that includes needing down time to be at their best!

Also, this sounds more like a bootcamp than a retreat. Maybe another thing you can suggest is some down time in the schedule so that the team can get to know each other and bond a bit, talking about non-work stuff - make it more retreat-y. I know that doesn't help the introvert factor but at least gives your work brain a little rest.

I'm about to leave for a 4-day work trip - a conference that my organization runs, so we're all working from about 7am to 10pm each day. But even in this situation where we are literally hosting almost 800 people with dozens of events and sessions and meetings and needing to be available to the attendees, it is *well* acknowledged that everyone needs breaks. Even the people sitting at the registration desk doing relatively mindless work will get multiple breaks throughout the day and get to eat lunch in the staff office or somewhere else in the hotel to get away for a bit. I say this because I am pretty extroverted and even to me, what your boss is outlining sounds downright cruel. Good luck.
posted by misskaz at 6:22 AM on October 17, 2016

Fart a lot.

I mean, if you're really that miserable, there is no more unmistakable indicator of physical proximity that a little toot that everyone smells at once. It's a reminder that you are several human bodies in one room, still, AGAIN, and that you need to be separate some of the time.

Good luck.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:07 AM on October 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your advice and ideas (and for reaffirming I'm not crazy for not wanting to do this). I'm currently camped out in the rental house living room as we plan out a presentation for tomorrow. It's been OK so far although it's still Day 1 of the trip and I am hoping they call it a night soon.

Current strategies are:

-I already took advantage of everyone being polite to claim the king bedroom for myself (more isolated with a private bathroom).

-My suitcase is packed with favorite lotions, fun pajamas, "Stress Fix" aromatherapy oil

-Wine, to take the edge off (my manager enjoys wine) and to make me "sleepy," giving me a reason to retire earlier.

-Doing a morning journal to vent privately; also timing my wake up and morning prep so I stroll into the common area at 8 AM and not a minute earlier.

-Avoiding news so I don't have election stress to add to work stress this week

-Drink tons of water so I have to take frequent bathroom breaks, for a quick moment of silence.

-Stepping away to 'check in with husband about Toddler' periodically

-I have downloaded lots of pleasant novels to read before bed, including Vanity Fair

-I have conveniently "strained something" from carrying Toddler around all weekend and this will require occasional breaks to stretch and locate painkillers

-Husband has been instructed to send me frequent cute photos of Toddler and emphasize positive news (he went to bed easily and fell right to sleep tonight!)

-Tonight I am of course 'exhausted from the long flight' and will need to go to bed right at 10 or once we're done, whichever happens first; I am yawning frequently and obviously.

-Visualizing a protective bubble around me and repeating "home on Thursday, cabin on Friday"

I am staying hopeful this will not devolve into chaos and yelling and in-fighting as some of you have experienced. My manager is more of a stressful high maintenance type but I think she also tends to hire people who she thinks are calming, so at least three of us are more easygoing.

Fingers crossed!
posted by castlebravo at 6:37 PM on October 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

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