The business of working and playing together

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Productivity is often a blinding slave-driver. But it needn't be at odds with a wholesome life of leisure, fitness and overall well-being. Corporates need to realise this, and they are.

To run a business well, encourage employees to run for their well-being. | courtesy AFSOAC

The batsman is taking guard. I have the ball tightly held in my hand. Index and middle finger on top and a twisted thumb buttressing it from the bottom. From the end of my run-up, I start marching. I deliver the ball. The ball is pitched on perfect Yorker length. Leg stump uprooted, the batsman gives me a dismayed look. I sprint across the ground in celebration, watching people in the stands clapping, screaming and waving their hands at me. I am a hero. I am a Champion.

*

With a sunbeam piercing my eyes and shuddering alarm tone in my ears, I woke up with a memory, of the distant past, transformed into a dream. A 'me' of my past clashed with a 'me' of the present. As I readied myself for the day with the morning rituals, breakfast, journey to the office and finally at my desk, I kept on thinking about that sportsman 'me'. Where has the champion gone? The distracting thought kept me partially ‘unproductive’ the entire day. Throughout the day, during the WebEx calls with my team members, while fixing the bullet points of the PowerPoint presentation and in course of formatting the word document, that sportsman in me was distracting the ‘corporate athlete’ in me.

 

‘Corporate Athlete’ is a term coined by famous author and trainer Jack Groppel. In his pursuit to describe how restive, intense and frantic are the lives of employees in most organisations and how best can employees can cope up and stay ahead of the curve, his accounts in the length and breadth of his book, The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life is instrumental.

Every morning when we clothe ourselves in business formals, many of us wish the stifling suit was a bit more flexible like a sweatshirt, the slim-fit trouser like a comforting pair of track pants. We wish the laptop were the cricket bat; the headset the helmet; and the pointed shiny shoes a pair of muddy zigzagged skates. That’s the employee in us in embryonic pain trying to be free playful cricketers. Like that, there are footballers, shuttlers and basketballers in plenty. Most in identity crisis.

Unlike Groppel’s book, we won’t discuss how to become corporate athletes here. We discuss whether the players in us can cohabit with the employees in us. What it feels to play and work together in our lives with no demarcation between the personal and professional.

What is it to work and play?

To work and to play is to have a workplace where one can remain billable to customers while clocking hours in the gym cardio sessions. A workplace where one acquires that important certificate in ‘Business Analytics’ simultaneously with that half-marathon finisher’s medal. A workplace where all-hands calls are considered as serious as outdoor-activity sessions.

Are these the certainties everywhere? Are all organisations equally supportive? Do companies turn thrifty when investing in fitness and wellness?

Well-managed businesses follow a management concept called the Balanced Score Card (BSC). This maintains that to sustain business growth, companies need well-rounded and comprehensive strategies. Focus towards customers and stakeholders, finance, internal processes and organisational capacity (originally called learning and growth). A four-pronged strategy where employees play a pivotal role.

 

The benefits of the workplace and overall employee fitness bring value beyond statistical measures or ROI.

 

Strategy is a heavy word. Mixing it with health and fitness may sound strange. The fact, however, remains that if the organisations we work for provide us with the bread and butter, they should be also the facilitator or support system for our muscles and high-on-endorphin minds too. None of these are possible without the adequate infrastructure, leadership support and walk the talk attitude. The day Health and Fitness features in the list of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), an organisation truly becomes employee-centric. KPI not to evaluate employees but to encourage them. For this, organisations need to invest as much in the office recreation room as they do in the server rooms. Companies need to facilitate travel and accommodation for the best athletes as gracefully as they might business travel for their great marketing minds. They need to appreciate an employee for finishing a Marathon with the same enthusiasm as they would an employee who strikes a $10-million business deal. To encourage employees to clock hours spent in physical activities with as much momentousness as requesting regular timesheet entry, with similar technological investments.

To play at the workplace is not just to have fun. It requires a resolution. Resolution at the top of the organisation and all the way down. It’s way more than the fliers, banners, and posters on office walls carrying health benefits or nutritional values of food items. As a manufacturing organisation invests in ‘Quality Control and Quality Assurance (QA/QC)’, an engineering company in ‘Research and Development (R&D)’, an online product company in ‘Social Media Strategy’, health and fitness too require strategy and investments.

These are strategies of a different kettle.

The many winners at play

How do companies justify such investments amid all the shareholders and bottom line pressure?

Every investment needs a business case. Approval through management hierarchy. Opportunities for manifold return. Some investments, however, can give more returns than what is quantifiable in terms of dollar value and morale/productivity. Investment in fitness and wellness programs is one such. An HBR blogpost suggested that for every dollar spent by SAS, a leading analytics–business intelligence–and–data-management company, to operate its on-site health care centre in 2009, it generated $1.41 in health plan savings, for a total of $6.6 million, in 2009 alone. Furthermore, it also says illness-related absenteeism is an obvious factor in productivity. Less obvious but probably more significant is presenteeism — when people come to work but underperform because of illness or stress. A variety of health conditions that contribute most to lost productivity is depression, anxiety, migraines, respiratory illnesses, arthritis, diabetes, and back and neck pain. Ensuring employees stay active can help organisations keep all these hazards at bay and boost productivity.

 

The benefits of the workplace and overall employee fitness bring value beyond statistical measures or ROI. For a start-up or small-scale organisation, which might be in the initial phases of team-building (forming, storming and norming), employee fitness programs/activities may well bring about the most sought-after cohesiveness or team culture. For a large-scale organisation, it can be a unifier, a bridge connecting the junior resources with the senior leadership and fusing cultures across geographical boundaries.

When a junior resource, who has not climbed up the ladder to know his leader well, runs a marathon together with his leader, he ‘runs’ through his leader’s minds. In a unique experience. He knows that he and his leader wake up at the same time, put in equal efforts, show matching skills and exhibit similar characteristics to achieve what they set out to. In such circumstances, when running the business becomes the business of running, the corporate hierarchies get blurred. Not one, but two leaders emerge from the finishing lines in such situations. In fact, with every finisher, a leader is born.

Is Corporate India on the cusp of becoming fitness sponsors?

Fitness, which has for the most part been perceived as western priority, is now an Indian yearning too. It is time for the leading Indian companies to execute the global best practices. Implementing them with a degree of professionalism.

A U.S.-based (with India presence) leading medical equipment manufacturer subsidises its employees’ insurance premium if employees connect their activity tracker to a custom app and log in their activities. A leading Australian airline gives reward points to its employees with airline miles for all logged fitness miles.

Some Indian organisations have shown very good progress in that direction.

I have myself experienced a leading IT organisation requesting its associates to log in hours on a portal designed for technological interventions in fitness and health. Besides such technology investments, it donates a sum equivalent to efforts put in by associates, hires instructors and coaches to train employees and leads the league by promoting a culture of fitness and an active life.

 

The fact that a Google supplements their office infrastructure with a gym and enables fitness activities for employees is fair. However, that an Indian conglomerate replaces a British bank as title sponsor of one of the nation’s most marquee events is historic. That a Deloitte facilitates a long-distance run for its employees in its India campus is exemplary, however, the phenomenon that an SBI sponsors a Pinkathon for Indian (and non-Indian) women is momentous, a milestone. There are the TCS’, the Wipros and the L&Ts all contributing to these causes. In a nation-building cause, one of a kind.

Notwithstanding signs of encouragement, corporate India is at varied levels of maturity. The ones ahead in the maturity curve have their offices equipped with the gym, Table Tennis table, Cricket nets, and Tennis or Basketball court. The ones behind are still calculating the mundane ROI with limiting statistical measures. For each set of such employers, there are different Indians at various levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

*

For my cricket dreams of the weekdays, I have a complementary reality in the weekends. One where I wake up to the humming WhatsApp messages of my friends (some of them are my past and present colleagues) instead of the dreadful tenor of the phone. One where I welcome the sun rather than find it distressing. One where I don’t sprint while the gallery cheers, but jog past roadside milestones. One where I, being a runner, find an opportunity to shrug that disappointment of not getting to be a cricketer. Somewhere, I see a champion in me. A 'runner me' made by one of my employers before all my dreams could turn into wild fantasies or even nightmares.

I wish there would be many more 'runner me's. As we move on with our lives, we hope that for every cricket match missed there is an office Table Tennis encounter with that neighbouring colleague. For every pass missed in the field as a midfielder, there are opportunities to checkmate our project managers. For every smash missed with the badminton racket, there is a 5K run on an outing with the team buddies.

But all these can be realities only when our workplace also becomes our playground, our colleagues also our playmates, our seniors our fitness instructors as well. As the nation of phenomenal demographic dividend puts itself to work almost 24x7, through stress, longer workdays and constant multitasking, its citizens-turned-associates take refuge in their employers.

May workplaces not turn the youth aged, the playful desk-bound, or the ‘Corporate Athlete’ hamstrung. May they, instead, bring the Kohli out of the engineer, the Sindhu out of the developer and the Sharath out of the consultant; the champions in us.

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