What lessons can reward professionals learn from sport?

Need to know:

  • Transferrable lessons from sports professionals can help shape benefits strategies.
  • In some instances, motivational benefits can be as significant as pay when it comes to engaging and retaining employees.
  • Workplace healthcare programmes inspired by the sporting world can boost productivity and motivation.

The 2016 Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August with sports professionals at the top of their game gathering from all over the world to compete, and when it comes to corporate health and wellbeing, motivation, and people management policies, there are several skills and attributes that reward professionals can take from the world of sports to help shape their benefits strategy.

Motivation beyond pay

Former competitive swimmer and Olympic gold medal winner Adrian Moorhouse, now managing director of management consultancy Lane 4, believes that pay builds a bridge between managing sports professionals and employees. “Unless a sportsperson is one of the lucky handful who has really good sponsorship, most are not in it for the money, because the pay really isn’t great,” he says. “But there is meaning and a purpose behind what they do, which is something employers need to establish to retain and motivate their staff.”

Self-determination theory, which supports people’s natural tendency to behave in an effective way, focuses on the motivations behind the choices people make without external influence and interference. This theory illustrates that pay and benefits are intrinsic to motivating employees to an extent, but employers have to connect with their employees’ personal values and strengths to truly engage them, says Michael Brooke, head of innovation at BNP Paribas.

Employers need to communicate with their workforce, whether face to face, through email campaigns, engagement surveys or otherwise, to ascertain what it is that motivates and engages them beyond pay. This could range from extra days of holiday, team-building days, vouchers or a simple thank you for a job well done.

Motivation with meaning

“Many sports people are also really motivated by the possibility of competing at an international level at somewhere like the Olympics, so employers need to motivate employees with something that is meaningful for them as an individual and team,” says Moorhouse.

For example, if an organisation has a collective goal, employees who have helped to reach it could be given a personal reward or bonus. Moorhouse adds: “[Employers] can’t presume something is meaningful for employees just because it will help the organisation.”

Unusual and individual recognition initiatives can go a long way in creating long-term motivation that is memorable for recipients. Moorhouse says: “I trained in the US and was competing for the finals of a competition. Through the process I wore a yellow cap and when I made the finals I was given a blue cap in front of other competitors. I’ll never forget that feeling of recognition and pride.

“The ultimate way to motivate workers is to figure out what keeps them going on a day-to-day basis when there isn’t a huge bonus at the end or an Olympic medal.”

This illustrates that employers also need to understand their employees on a more individual basis to establish what drives and engages them.

Dream team

Working as a team is often considered a key element of a successful business and can help to push business goals and motivate employees in tandem. Having a team that works effectively together is of the utmost significance, says Moorhouse. “Retaining employees can be done by having a dynamic team of like-minded individuals who can learn together,” he adds.

Team dynamics can make or break the success of a project, especially in high-pressure situations or when tight deadlines are involved. Peter Reilly, director, HR research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “Purchasing expensive players for a sports team doesn’t necessarily mean they will play well within the team. Team dynamics are so important, and it’s important to consider this during recruitment.”

Food for fuel

Workplace health and wellbeing has crept up the corporate agenda over the years. Some 97% of HR decision makers believe there is a link between employee wellbeing and organisational performance, according to Edenred’s annual 2015 Wellbeing barometer, published in June 2015. Not only does this reflect the importance that employers place on health and wellbeing, it also demonstrates that the vast majority recognise the correlation between taking care of employees and taking care of a business performance, just as a sports team would.

Sports professionals have to take care of themselves in terms of what they eat, how much they exercise, and the amount of sleep they have, and employers should be looking to follow suit for their staff. Sally Gunnell OBE, a former British track and field athlete who won the Olympic gold medal in 1992 for the 400m hurdles, says: “Benefits professionals need to look after themselves and their employees just as a sports person would; watching what you eat and how much you sleep and exercise affects you on a day-to-day basis more than you might think.”

Nutrition is also something that sports professionals have to take seriously because without a balanced diet, their body cannot function at its best and they will not be able to perform to the best of their ability. Diet is also something that employers have started to focus on, with businesses such as Fruit Drop, Snack Nation and Graze offering options for employers to provide employees with healthier food and drinks. Dr Hannah Moir, senior lecturer in health and exercise at Kingston University, says: “Although workplaces can’t really have dedicated nutritionists, employers could offer their employees healthy food.”

This way, employers are not controlling what their staff consume, but they are providing convenient healthier choices.

Happy and healthy

Alongside nutrition, sports professionals need to take great care of their physical and mental wellbeing, which is a relatable lesson for benefits professionals. Over half (57%) of employers believe business performance and staff wellbeing are connected, according to Morgan Redwood’s Wellbeing and business performance report, published in August 2015. Gunnell says: “Organisations expect a lot from employees these days, and there’s a lot of pressure to constantly deliver, which can affect productivity and energy levels.

“Employees and organisations can’t afford long-term absences, so preventative healthcare is so important. It doesn’t even have to take too much time or cost too much.”

From team dynamics to healthcare and employee motivation, there are relevant lessons that can be transferred between the sports and reward worlds. These can be implemented into workplaces to boost employee engagement and to inform benefits strategies.

Viewpoint: Rewards derive from good performance

The worlds of high-performance sport and business are both obsessed with results, and there is often great reward that comes with producing great results.

For the Olympic athlete, the potential reward of an Olympic medal is a huge motivator and gives some interesting insights into human motivation and rewards.

Potential Olympians choose to put themselves forward for the ‘reward scheme’ that the International Olympic Committee created, and they choose to see if they have got what it takes to receive the reward. That is interesting when you think of other reward schemes designed to motivate people that result in people feeling entitled to get the reward.

Once the athletes have signed up for the scheme, they have to keep hitting qualification standards along the way to stay in it, so many athletes achieve enormous growth as a result of the possible reward, without ever actually getting to compete for it.

The ultimate reward is given to the person or team that has grown beyond all others and delivered their best when it matters most. So, the Olympics is ultimately a competition of preparation, growth and execution. The Olympics does not reward potential, it rewards the product of long-term development and repeated delivery of best practice.

A reward scheme in a business that promotes control, confidence and connectedness, is one that is hitting all the right notes of motivation and it is inevitably adding huge value to the growth and engagement of employees.

So many reward schemes reduce motivation because the focus becomes about the reward and not about how to achieve the reward. With some fine-tuning of rewards you can think about the quality of the motivation you are creating at work, not the quantity of people who you are working to motivate.

Dr Katherine Bond is performance expert at K2, chief executive officer of The Performance Room, and consultant performance psychologist for Paralympics GB

Emma Hart Viewpoint: Sport teaches motivation and teamwork

As children, we are encouraged to take part in physical activities, through which we learn motivation, determination and teamwork among a wide range of other positive skills. Parents are not always trying to create the next Chris Hoy or Steve Redgrave, but rather trying to encourage us to learn from activities that can be used throughout life.

As we get older, school and education takes over this responsibility and we are again encouraged to take part in a range of sports activities. Again, it is the same underlying reason that we all know how vital all of this is to our health, wellbeing and making us a well-rounded person.

When we take the step into the professional working world, our employer then continues to encourage personal development through lessons learnt from the sports world. It is usually less directly recognised, but many employers are now seeing and measuring the difference this important correlation makes.

For Visualsoft, transferring techniques used in sports, and putting them into practice to complement our benefits and reward package has been a successful move.

Direct benefits, including increased motivation and creativity, have been seen from encouraging staff to join a local gym and subsidising it, as well as offering free protein shakes, fruit, breakfast and weekly sporting activities. Visualsoft is also in the process of introducing a running club, fitness classes and even employing a chef to man our soon-to-be healthy working kitchen.

Emma Hart is HR manager at Visualsoft

Chiswick Park helps staff get active

Chiswick Park hosts wellbeing programmes throughout the year to encourage activity among 8,000 employees that work across various organisations in the park, which include Paramount Pictures, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Tullow Oil and Walt Disney Company.

Between June and September 2015, the business park hosted wellbeing events as part of its Enjoy Work programme, including crazy golf, tennis, a zip wire, and volleyball. The activities were designed to boost employees’ wellbeing, motivation and productivity.

Throughout the year, Chiswick Park also offers employees sporting events and clubs, including a running club, basketball club, and football and netball leagues.

Gareth Bain, head of brand at Chiswick Park Enjoy-Work, says: “These sports activities are not only motivating for those who compete, but also boost the morale and camaraderie of their colleagues.

“In today’s fast-paced work environment, it is difficult to attract and retain good employees. Employees’ physical wellbeing is just as important as their mental wellbeing, and fun sporting activities play a big part in this.”

Off the back of this year’s Olympics, the organisation has created an international events theme to run alongside its regular events, including a big screen for employees to take time out of their day to support Team GB.

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In previous years, Chiswick Park has hosted guest-speaker events with cyclist Victoria Pendleton and the paralympian cyclist Jody Cundy, to show how the sporting and business worlds are aligned. Joe Wicks, who is a fitness and nutrition author and blogger, is Chiswick Park’s first guest speaker for 2016.

Bain says: “There is a direct correlation between sports and the enjoyment of work, which leads to increased levels of productivity. We believe that if employees enjoy work, they are more productive and if they are more productive it is better for their employer.”