The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated rapid behavioral and technological change on a previously unimaginable scale. From schools and retailers, to manufacturers and our very own sports organizations, the crisis has caused entire industries to reimagine themselves in a matter of weeks simply to survive in a predominantly digital environment. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the world has seen two years of digital transformation in just two months, a truly unprecedented rate of change.
Of course, such huge upheaval can lead to significant organizational issues. During our conversations with sports industry leaders during the pandemic, we’ve heard that building – or even just maintaining – team culture has been one of the major challenges faced by teams who are adapting to a new pattern of remote work. Without regular in-person contact and the familiar cadence of competition, coaches and front office staff are concerned that the essential bonds of trust, friendship and camaraderie between the players and staff have become harder to nurture.
To help teams address these concerns and start to put policies in place to continue building a strong culture despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, we’ve set out some of the lessons we’ve learned in this crucial area over the last few months.
It goes without saying that the creation and maintenance of a strong organizational culture is impossible without clear and effective communication. However, the enforced physical separation that we have all endured as a result of the pandemic has made that communication more complicated than ever before.
In response to the obstacles introduced by Covid-19, we’ve seen teams adopt a number of strategies to ensure that players and staff remain united and informed in spite of these unusual circumstances. For example, many organizations have strongly encouraged open communication and feedback, with transparency promoted at all levels. By removing any red tape associated with communication, teams are finding that their people have become more willing to share and challenge ideas in a way that is helping to drive fresh thinking around key issues.
In addition, players and staff are building relationships on a more ‘human’ level as they navigate the crisis together. In the middle of a season it can be difficult to talk about anything other than the next game, but the pandemic has afforded people the time to discuss family and other topics far beyond the boundaries of sports. The long-term effect of this may be difficult to quantify, but there’s every chance that this deepening of interpersonal relationships will have a positive impact on team chemistry further down the road.
Another of the major challenges faced by sports organizations during this period of remote working has been keeping athletes engaged during an indefinite break from competition. Amidst the waiting and the uncertainty, many teams have been searching for ways to keep their players focused and ready to return at a moment’s notice.
For a lot of organizations the pandemic has presented an opportunity to keep their people engaged by offering personal development opportunities. Some teams have asked players to lead sessions in areas outside of their comfort zone (video analysis, for example), while others have divided their rosters into small groups and given those groups specific projects to deliver and present back to the team. Initiatives of this kind can serve to remove players and staff from the emotionally exhausting state of uncertainty and give them a sense of achievement that maintains engagement.
In the absence of competition, we’ve also heard from coaches who are giving their players the opportunity to develop skill sets in new areas. One international soccer team has put its players on a fast-track remote coaching course that will result in them achieving professional-level qualifications in a matter of months. Not only are the players remaining engaged with staff and teammates, they are also on course to exit the crisis with skills and knowledge they didn’t have going into it.
The third and final challenge around team culture that we’ve heard a lot about from teams during this period is accountability. With players physically removed from practice facilities and isolated from staff and teammates, it can be difficult to keep them accountable for the work they are tasked with doing at home.
For many teams, establishing accountability as a central tenet of culture during this time has involved giving players extra responsibilities. One general manager we spoke to mentioned the importance of giving people leadership roles around specific tasks, no matter how great or small those tasks may be. By doing that, players are made accountable to the group and retain the common bond they would have with their teammates in more normal circumstances.
It can also be useful to ask players and staff to come up with their own solutions to the challenges the team is facing during the pandemic. Once suggestions have been made, those who put them forward can be made accountable for implementing them and potentially upholding them after the crisis if they are being shown to have a positive influence on the organization.
There’s no denying that recent months have been an incredibly challenging time for us all, with people and organizations rushing to adapt to the ‘new normal’. However, it has also been a time of incredible organizational transformation and, as some of the examples we’ve highlighted show, great innovation as teams look to adapt systemically and culturally to the unique challenges of the crisis.
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