Going uphill with coworkers in the Alps
Going uphill with coworkers in the Alps
Stéphane Herzog

GENEVA — Philippe Rey-Gorrez, founder of the software company Teamwork, has a passionate belief in what can be achieved in groups. And this self-taught IT engineer, officer in the French army at 18 and sports enthusiast has applied his passion to his work in a very real way: He offers the 280 employees of his Geneva-based company the possibility to live original experiences outside the office, “to be together and feel good,” he says.

From cooking classes to theater expeditions to European cities and sailing trips, the company — specialized in project and wealth management software — is not afraid of investing in its own employees.

But perhaps its most extreme team-building activity is mountain climbing, which took on a whole new scale after Rey-Gorrez set out a noteable challenge: for the company's employees to climb all 82 summits in the Alps with peaks above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).

The long adventure will come to an end this year. By then, a total of 50 employees will have taken part in the mountain trips and around 35 will have climbed at least once above 4,000 meters, some of them complete beginners.

But what exactly does this experience bring back to the workplace? “Everybody more or less fears the mountains,” explains Rey-Gorrez. “It’s a difficult environment, and mountain climbing requires risk control, without which you put the others’ lives in danger. It also implies that people really push themselves beyond the limits they thought they had.”

The environment also favors moments of intimacy and solidarity where people really get to know each other. "You see a colleague struggling and you help him: that’s real team- building rather than in the artificial settings, where employees are pushed into situations that are really more just uncomfortable," he explains.

Risk management

The Teamwork company takes care of the entire organization, from training the employees and finding guides to providing them with the equipment and accommodation. All they need to do is prepare themselves physically and bring their own clothes. They can follow all the information regarding the outings of the company’s Wiki page, a collaborative website.

The main focal point is security, although the director knows, as does as any real mountain dweller, that there is no such thing as zero risk and admits that any accident would have dramatic consequences for the company, with regards to both its workforce and its image.

Rey-Gorrez first came up with the idea for the Alps challenge after climbing the Matterhorn (4,478 meters high) with an employee and a guide. The desire to climb all of the highest peaks in the Alps emerged after watching a film on Patrick Berhault, a famous mountain guide with a passion for climbing who died in April 2004 during his attempt to climb all of the 82 Alps' 4,000-meter summits in 82 days.

Both beginners and seasoned climbers at Teamwork have been doing trip after trip since 2010. Some had no idea of how extreme the environment could be. About 15 employees decided against climbing the high altitudes. Others instead conquered the likes of Aiguille Verte, in the French Alps, sometimes even having to take two days off in the middle of the work week to make the most of good weather conditions.

In some cases, the boss wound up following the instructions of employees who were more experienced than him. It is just this kind of occasional assymetry that Rey-Gorrez is after with the following vision for his company: “A maximum of autonomy and a minimum of hierarchy.”

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