Customer Support | Leadership Paper

Culture and the hybrid world of work – What can we learn from sport?

24th July 2023
By Marie-Claire O’Kane


In elite sport, the culture of a team can be the difference between winning or losing. But in business, culture often comes second to financial targets, perceived as intangible and difficult to quantify. However, research suggests that an organisation’s culture is fundamental to gaining competitive advantage, by driving the right employee behaviours. Business can learn a lot from how sports teams create a winning culture. This article captures some of the themes from sport that nurtures positive cultures and can be applied to business. Also, in a Post-COVID world, where hybrid working has become the norm, and teams are dispersed across locations, we provide some helpful pointers on what to consider in ensuring culture can be cultivated and embedded even when teams aren’t seated around the table.

What can business learn from sport?

Culture is difficult to define, but a widely used description is “the set of shared values, beliefs and norms that influence the way employees think, feel and behave in the workplace”. It has been described as a company’s DNA, the glue that gives an organisation its identity and “the way we do things around here”. Culture defines a blueprint for workforce behaviour and impacts a positive or negative experience for employees. It might impact whether employees feel their work is valued, whether they know where their role fits into their company’s strategy, how they deal with customers or whether they feel they have the flexibility to manage their work around their personal lives. Ultimately, it impacts their performance and, through a sports lens, this starts with a clear vision.

Christian Hughes, MyPeople Group’s CEO, recently interviewed players from Saracens Rugby Club. Saracens had remained mid-table for some years but some significant changes turned their record around to winning five premier rugby championships and three European cups from 2010-2019. One of the main reasons was a coaching team refresh and a set of new values – and absolute clarity from the coach about how every player must live and breathe those values on and off the pitch. Similarly, when Clive Woodward took the helm as the British Olympic Association’s Director of Sport, he sought to change the culture of the 2012 GB Olympic Team from the Beijing Games where some teams set higher behavioural standards than others. For Great Britain to increase their medal haul, Clive implemented the philosophy of One Team GB. Accordingly, every member of the GB had to sign up to five core values: performance, responsibility, unity, pride and respect, and their underlying actions.

Setting these values both provided an identity for these teams and common expectations which explicitly demonstrated that no team member was more important than the next. For the Olympic team, each member had to take accountability for their own behaviour, whether this was professionalism in terms of how they interacted on social media, via sheer hard work and commitment, or supporting other team members. This ethos was communicated at Saracens when the players who made the cut were those who worked hard as well as having the technical skill, and there was no place for big egos. The new coaching team culled those who didn’t fit this mould. Indeed, in Premier Football Clubs, it is rare these days to see prima donnas. In recent years, Liverpool Football Club under Jurgen Klopp attribute their success to a focus on a healthy team culture. Sarina Weigman, Manager of the Women’s England Football team focussed on team strengths and instilling a collective self-belief amongst the team, where every player’s contribution mattered, leading them to their Euros 2022 win over Germany. In business, it is important for every employee to understand the team strategy and how it aligns to the organisational values. It is uncommon for employees to know how their role fits into this overall strategy but this is critical for energising a team and increasing motivation.

As well as all team members taking responsibility for their conduct, they are likely to perform if their contribution is valued and they are treated like human beings, with recognition that players have lives beyond their day job. This was certainly true at Saracens. In Organisational Psychology, Social Exchange Theory posits that the positive influence of a role model, for example, a coach or a supervisor, should reap reciprocal benefits for both the coach/supervisor and the employee, whereby an employee is more likely to perform beyond their contractual obligations for the benefit of the organisation. It is termed the psychological contract. At Saracens, the club looked after players through difficult times due to personal circumstances, and therefore the team felt an obligation to pay this back to the Club by demonstrating unwavering commitment. From a business perspective, research has shown the negative impact of this psychological contract being breached in terms of lower organisational commitment and higher turnover intention. Employees need to feel trust and respect from their leaders and peers to before at their best.

Entrenched in a successful sports team culture is the ability to communicate after experiencing a loss. Modern sports teams have the technology to both analyse which strategies during a game were successful, and to identify weaknesses in the game plan. A winning Culture should be such that the team accepts a loss and openly identifies what lessons can be learnt and applied to future games. This approach is rarely taken in business. If a deal is lost, the team disperses and focuses on the next one. Mistakes might be concealed or leaders are defensive about owning what went wrong. However, an understanding of errors would only strengthen the approach to subsequent deals, whilst also bringing the team together to take joint ownership whilst not laying blame on individuals. Organisations may benefit from looking to the aviation industry, where this approach is encouraged and serves to empower employees to make improvements in the future. Safety is of chief concern in aviation and it is more likely to have an accident on the road than in the air. This is because learning is focused on supporting pilots and other staff in correct decision-making and avoiding errors of judgement. If mistakes happen, the technology, processes and governance are in place to objectively understand what went wrong and publish lessons learned so that the same mistakes do not happen again. Businesses would do well to make lessons learned a cultural norm.

Applying culture to hybrid working

So these themes are all well and good but, Post-COVID teams are likely to be dispersed across locations. Enforced working from home during the pandemic highlighted advantages such as more time for family and for keeping healthy, and employees had more autonomy around how they managed their work. But being on screens for prolonged periods raised the risk of burnout, and loneliness was more prevalent due to a lack of connectedness with colleagues. Experiences during COVID have resulted in expectations from employees to have more flexibility around how they work. Organisations are navigating how to best manage this shift and will be for some years, but the days of the 9-5 five-day week at the office are over. The most common working model is a hybrid, where employees spend part of their week at the office and part of it at home.

From a culture perspective, this has provided challenges for businesses. A study by Gartner references the office pre-COVID as being the “vessel” for organisational culture. Traditionally, those organisations formally driving their culture focussed on educating employees on the components of their Culture and aligning them to it. Embedding that culture was reliant on osmosis within the office. Arena and colleagues’ (2023) study references one of its three Cs of Culture as “Contagious”. Organisational Culture is transferred from person to person on the assumption that employees will pick up behavioural norms when they are modelled by others with whom they interact at work.

But how do you maintain this culture when people are physically apart, with people less likely to have serendipitous encounters – corridor conversations and catch-ups at the coffee machine – but only scheduled meetings with those with whom they work most closely? Research from Gartner shows that hybrid working has had an impact on employee connectedness; their sense of caring about and belonging to the culture of the organisation. Research shows that if employees don’t feel a sense of belonging they are more likely to become disaffected and less productive, posing an attrition risk. Instead, building a sense of connectedness needs to be as part of an explicit drive to support employees in feeling an emotional attachment to the organisation. This is a particular challenge for new starters. Current employees will have established relationships, but for new joiners, getting a sense of the values of their new employer is critical for their success but more difficult to achieve virtually.

Final thoughts – how to apply learning from sport in a hybrid world

There is no perfect working model for organisations post-COVID and businesses will be grappling with this challenge for some years. But a recurring theme across academic and industry research is the need for organisations to be intentional in driving culture and supporting a sense of connectedness in employees. Embedding a healthy culture can’t just happen by luck but needs to be explicitly defined, supported and regularly monitored. Here are a few things for leaders to consider:

  1. Have absolute clarity about your organisational values and train managers on these. Managers need to model these in virtual and face-to-face interactions. Help employees to understand how their role contributes to these values.
  2. Use data to understand opportunities for improving team performance and motivation. Tracking employee engagement using data can provide a baseline from which to improve your team culture.
  3. Know your employees. What are the teams’ particular circumstances and strengths? Do they have a family to take care of? Do they share a small flat and struggle to work there? Does their role require prolonged periods of thinking time or is collaboration integral to getting their job done?
  4. Regular meet-ups are key to innovation. Research shows that innovation can be stifled by virtual working. When your team comes together face to face, make an event of it. Exchange ideas, and constantly question what is and isn’t working in terms of how you interact. Invite members of other teams to knowledge share and for cross-pollination of ideas. Have some fun and let your hair down!
  5. Trust employees to get the job done and empower them to have autonomy over their schedule and workload. Encourage clarity around deadlines and don’t reward employees by their availability online or office “face-time”.
  6. Be fair to all employees whatever their circumstances. For instance, those spending more time in the office should not be more likely to be promoted.

Are you interested in finding out more?

With a background in elite sport and business, MyPeople Group is passionate and committed to helping our client teams reach their full potential. For more insights into creating a great team culture, get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.


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