Workplaces Resemble, Tap Into Olympic Games

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 18, 2008
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Whether sprinting to finish projects or bending themselves into human pretzels as they aim for perfection, U.S. workers sometimes take on the demeanor of Olympians at the summer games, especially as an uncertain economy prompts some to reach for the workplace gold medal.

“In an uncertain economy, people grow more concerned about job security and proving their worth to employers,” said Dave Willmer, executive director of Office Team, a California-based global staffing service.

“This pressure to perform may result in rivalries between employees,” he said in a press release.

Employees today are somewhat, or significantly, more competitive with co-workers today than a decade ago, according to nearly half of 150 senior executives from the nation’s 1,000 largest companies. Findings, released Aug. 13, 2008, are based on telephone interviews Office Team conducted in 2008.

“A bit of healthy competition among staff can increase motivation and productivity, but just as in sports, the overall results of the team are what count,” he added. “Too much intramural competition creates tension and stands in the way of collaboration.”

Some employers stage their own Olympics as a way to channel employees’ competitive spirit and foster good morale and a sense of fun.

Taking their cue from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that began Aug. 8 and conclude Aug. 24, workers at an office furniture store in Wales, for example, competed in events such as the mail sack race, mouse pad discus and office chair sprint at a YMCA while raising funds for a charity.

And since 2006, online service SurePayroll has hosted its own winter Olympics, complete with an Olympic village—a section of the company cafeteria designated as a place where employees can grab free healthy snacks such as fruit and granola bars during the five-day event.

Maybe its Olympic fervor has something to do with SurePayroll’s location. It’s in Glenview, Ill., just north of Chicago, which is one of the finalists in a bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

For SurePayroll, the games are a stress reliever for an organization that employs about 135 people and does more than one-third of its annual business in January, says Tracy Johnson, its marketing director.

“In the payroll industry, our busiest time really starts in December and ends in the March timeframe. People are working a ton of hours, and in some cases they can be very stressed out,” Johnson told SHRM Online.

In 2008, employees competed in afternoon events such as Wii boxing, Texas Hold ‘em Poker, bean bag toss and Scrabble during five days of competitive intradepartmental games stretching from the end of January to early February. The winning department is awarded a pizza party.

“Everybody enjoys it. Everybody seems to have fun. I suppose for some businesses they may worry about the time spent away from the computer, but for us the morale building is much more important than a few minutes of lost work” on company time, she said.

While some may see an office Olympics as disruptive, for SurePayroll “it’s absolutely productive for the company,” Johnson said, noting that “if other people are busy… they can focus on work, but it really gives a nice break” during the quarter of the year when the organization is under pressure.

Their winter Olympics, she said, are designed to “support one another during this busy time.”

Office Olympics events aren’t necessarily limited to indoor sports such as the paper airplane toss; some have put together their own version of indoor rowing teams. The one on this YouTube video from benson626 even has a coxswain facing the “rowers” as they glide past co-workers at their desks while a coach with a megaphone follows behind on a bike.

Others take the action outside, such as a Staples office in Ohio whose 2007 Summer Olympics included a briefcase toss, the office chair sprint and a coffee pot run.

But whether it’s the reliance on teamwork, as in volleyball, or overcoming hurdle-like obstacles that obstruct the work, some Summer Olympic sports bear a resemblance to their jobs, according to a survey of 7,960 full-time U.S. workers, who said their job was most like:

  • Volleyball; 20 percent said their work relies on teamwork.
  • Hurdles; 14 percent said a lot of obstacles are in their way at work.
  • A marathon; 13 percent said their job has a slow, steady pace.
  • Wrestling; 11 percent saw themselves as in a holding pattern.
  • Weightlifting; 8 percent saw themselves as bearing all the weight.
  • Synchronized swimming; 7 percent said they and co-workers are “on the same page.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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