What can we learn from team culture in sport and how can we apply it in a hybrid world?

14th June 2023
By Marie-Claire O’Kane

A common definition of culture 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 and, therefore, has an impact on organisational performance. Organisations don’t always get it right in formally defining the right cultural behaviours that will give them a competitive edge. Unlike financial targets, culture is perceived as difficult to quantify and hard to deploy. This is where businesses can look to sport to understand the importance of a positive team culture and how to create the right behaviours that produce a winning team. In parallel, in a post-pandemic world, businesses must also be mindful of how to instil culture across virtual teams where employees will often be split between offices and home.

We can look to sport first to understand the importance of creating a single vision and set of values that the whole team can follow in order to display consistent positive behaviours. Ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, Clive Woodward devised a set of five values around the ethos of One Team GB: performance, responsibility, unity, pride and respect. Every team member was obligated to sign up to these values and adhere to the actions aligned to each. The values set a benchmark for areas such as professionalism, team spirit, hygiene and respect for others.

Of critical importance in a sports team is the sense that every member has a role to play in a win. No player is more important than another and there is no place for egos. After a period of being mid-table, Saracens Rugby Club had huge success between 2010-2019. This was attributed to the new coaching team who dramatically culled half the team and kept and recruited only those players who could be relied on to work hard as well as having the technical skill. In this way, he ensured all players were on an equal footing and felt equally valued. Similarly, 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 organisations, employees are not always aware how their role fits into the business strategy, but this is key for motivation and to ensure employee commitment. In Psychology, Social Learning Theory suggests that fair treatment of employees will lead them to perform beyond their contractual obligations, as they feel a duty to contribute to their team’s success.

It is important not to lose sight of the fact that Post-COVID, the most common working model is hybrid where employees will spend their week working across locations. After experiencing working from home full-time during the COVID lockdown, employees have more expectations for flexibility at work. Working from home allows more time for family and keeping healthy, but back-to-back video calls are tiring and people miss the relational aspects of work. This hybrid model poses a challenge for businesses when it comes to embedding company culture, where previously culture would have been expected to be transferred between employees by regular interactions in the office. Corridor conversations and informal catch-ups over coffee are less frequent and the group that’s most impacted are new joiners who need to feel a sense of belonging to thrive in their new role.

To navigate these challenges, leaders might find these recommendations helpful in thinking about how to support employees to feel an emotional attachment to the organisation which research shows is important in energising the workforce and retaining employees:

  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.

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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