Sport lies at the heart of the competitiveness and longevity of a company. This is the premise of Marjory Malbert (M12), founder of the consultancy firm We Sport You. But how can the notion of sport be integrated into a business model to improve the economic, human and environmental performance of a company?
With globalization, Human Resources management practices have evolved considerably – not just in terms of organization, training and recruitment methods, but with regard to sport too. Long used as a management tool in the workplace, today the role of sport is expanding. It’s now essential to differentiate “sport in the company” from “sport and the company”.
In both cases people practice sport within a professional context, but the biggest difference lies in the form it takes – and how it’s used. While the term “sport in the company” refers to any sport or physical activity that promotes wellbeing – deliberate or not – in a work context, the term “sport and the company” offers a broader definition of sport as leverage for an organization’s overall strategy.
“Sport in the company”: Awareness is necessary – but not enough
France happens to be a late starter in developing the connection between sport and business. Unlike in the United States, the French culture doesn’t associate the worlds of sport and work. While Confucian philosophy talks of alignment between “the body, the soul and the mind”, French civilization makes a hierarchical distinction between our bodies – simple tools – and our minds, which must be developed.
The first direct consequence of this can be found in education. France would rather have preparatory classes or lectures than adopt the policy of American campuses, where you can play as much sport as you like.
In France we’ve also taken time to integrate sport into our working lives. Except for a few large paternalist companies, we tended to practice sport in our free time. True, work councils were already financing sporting activities by employees outside workplaces and working hours. But it was above all a refound enthusiasm for business in the eighties that led organizations to integrate sport within the company.
At the time, sport was seen as a way of improving cohesion, motivation and communication within teams. Team building and courses to discover extreme sports had a clear goal: to bring closer together people who worked alongside one another every day. The incentive and infrastructures of sport within the company were carrots to encourage people to progress. Professional athletes came to company headquarters as messengers to put across managers’ wishes and objectives very convincingly, with the aim of quickly creating profits. The idea of supporting employees in their careers, and including them in company strategy, was not a priority.
The turning point came in the nineties with the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR)1. This led some organizations to consider their human and environmental performance as important as their economic performance. After that, sport was no longer merely a tool used from time to time to increase productivity, but a lever to improve employee health and wellbeing. As CSR requires constant monitoring, businesses undertook to integrate sport into strategies that benefitted people. This was probably the birth of “Sport and the Company”.
“Sport and the company”: Benefiting individuals - and the group
The new paradigm has resulted in innovative sporting practices in certain companies, which deserve credit for offering “health and wellness” services, training and coaching in disciplines such as yoga and sophrology. But where they have difficulty is in integrating them long-term to promote a work-life balance among their employees.
More recently, with the arrival of digital options and start-ups, new possibilities and forms of sport have been appearing in businesses. Health monitoring platforms offer workers personalized support for doing sport in the company; they help organizations prevent occupational risks while respecting their employees’ private lives. Team building is becoming 2.0 (and even 3.0), motivating employees through connected challenges (platforms, box...). The approach makes employees responsible, both individually and collectively: they can do the activities whenever and wherever they like – a way of using the digital world for the benefit of employees.
Today, these possibilities are finally opening up to SMEs. What used to be the domain of large groups is now becoming more democratic. Businesses are offering their people prepaid services which they buy, for example, via an Internet platform. Employees can then download them on to their mobile phones and redeem them with sports and health providers. Outsourced work councils2 give employees of SMEs access to sports and cultural services financed by their employers, as well as tax breaks for businesses that encourage their employees to cycle to work.
The compartmentalization and rigidity of organizations are key concerns of modern working life. Ensuring a dialogue between the different entities within a company is a challenge. The traditional, expensive and irregular involvement of professional athlete is not enough. Their intervention must be integrated into an overall strategy and given meaning. Some businesses have understood that sport can also be a fantastic tool for facilitating top-down and bottom-up communication. As well as breaking down hierarchical barriers, it allows employees to put forward their ideas, co-constructing projects and new forms of management. A collaborative workshop in a sporting environment, for example, is a great way to get employees behind a project to make a company a freedom-form one. Much more effective than a simple message (or e-mail) from management, sport is a powerful lever for getting workers involved in a strategy they’ve helped to create.
Sport is, after all, a collective experience – as we are reminded by Velux3, which wanted to mark its 50th anniversary by showcasing its expertise and technical know-how. The company decided to organize a climb to the Goûter refuge (the last refuge before Mont Blanc), which it had equipped itself. The project brought together sporty and non-sporty employees. Alongside the climbers from different departments, the company’s supporters suggested activities (photo exchanges, treadmills, counting the steps) to encourage them. The ascent of Mont Blanc helped create a company spirit, bringing managers and employees closer together.
The final destination: Sport as a career strategy
Innovative companies give us a glimpse of how sport will be used in the business world of tomorrow. GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) were the first to use digital means to promote company sports, and to clearly include it in their identity. Today they are setting up pioneering projects. Google4 is building workplaces that are real living spaces, with gyms, bikes and games rooms (with table football, ten-pin bowling and ping-pong tables) for the less sporty. It aims to integrate all its employees, whatever their profile, in its “Sport and the Company” policy.
In France, too, certain businesses stand out for their innovative ideas. Decathlon, GFI and the MAIF integrate sport across their employees’ activities. The Decathlon Foundation5, set up in 2005, helps employees invest in social and professional inclusion projects through sport. As well as encouraging diversity, Decathlon supports the personal development of its employees, and their credentials as a member of the community. And it’s through this type of action that employees can increase their competencies.
We would like to see all businesses follow these examples, building their sales and HR strategies on sporting and cultural activities. At the center of the virtuous circle of “business – image – reputation”, sport makes it possible to attract customers and win their loyalty while improving team performance. On an HR level, recruiting employees who play sport (amateur or professional) or who make art, nurtures beneficial synergies: the experience of sport on the field and in associations (and not within the company) helps people get to know each other better and facilitates group work. This is what Team Jolokia6 demonstrates, sending off totally different people – committed to proving they can achieve excellent results thanks to their diversity – on the same boat.
The ultimate goal of “Sport and the Company” projects is to bring on board all stakeholders – including current and future employees and customers – within an overall strategy. It can best be summed up by the We Sport You slogan: “Think Customers, Act Employees©”.
1. Open source: The genesis of corporate social responsibility by Yvon Pesqueux
2. The outsourced works council, Nouvel Économiste
3. Sport and the Company event on the employer brand at Velux, 10 March 2015
4. Life at Google
5. Sport and the Company event looking at sport as a future investment at Decathlon, 29 September 2016
6. Sport and the Company event: Sport and Corporate Social Responsibility with Team Jolokia, 18 November 2015
Read the second part of the article on We Sport You's blog (French only)
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