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Even without team sports, this recreational league company finds a way to boost spirits

How does a company focused on camaraderie and team sports maintain its high-energy culture? The same employee-centered practices—but with a different execution.

Even without team sports, this recreational league company finds a way to boost spirits
[Photo: Retha Ferguson/Pexels]

Before the coronavirus, you might have kept employees smiling by providing catered lunches or organizing an after-work office softball team. Now that everyone is working remotely and juggling the demands of home, it probably feels impossible to foster a healthy organizational culture. Despite changing work conditions, the truth is that it is still possible and less expensive than before.

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As the founder and CEO of the Sport & Social Group, a business dedicated to helping people get off the couch and play team sports in adult recreational leagues, I have extensive experience creating a healthy team culture both on and off the playing field.

When the pandemic hit, everyone at SSG along with people worldwide were benched from playing sports—a tremendous challenge for our company. Suddenly, we had to pivot from showing people how to make valuable connections on a field to showing them how to do it online. With a little brainstorming and a lot of passion for staying true to our core purpose—connecting people through play—we came up with some fun new best practices for keeping your team engaged and having fun while working remotely.

Despite the current unpredictable circumstances, we knew the power of not only boosting morale, but helping employees feel valued and fostering a sense of belonging. Here’s what our company learned from the experience.

Create space for free play and relaxed chats

To maintain those ever-important levels of social interaction so integral to playing sports, our company began hosting trivia and bingo during and after work hours, over Zoom. Staying true to our company culture, bingo cards followed a “my favorite sports team” theme.

The events were so fun and popular with our own team, we have started hosting customized virtual events for other companies across Canada and the U.S. who are seeking to find playful ways to stay engaged with their staff while we are all working remotely. We just hosted a sitcom-themed afternoon trivia session for a TV production company, and it was hilarious to see the healthy competition and laughs created among coworkers all working from home.

I’m not a fan of the term “social distancing” because truly, we are simply “physically distancing” ourselves from others. People still need and crave social human interaction.

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Online games did the trick for us. If these engaged events are not for you, consider outsourcing with another company or hosting a virtual happy hour. Even more unstructured gatherings are an opportunity to see each other’s faces and share laughs, outside of serious meetings.

Staying connected to and having fun with coworkers is the important aspect.

Keep celebrating milestones and good news

These are stressful and hard times for many—all the more reason to celebrate good news when we have it! When our “teammates” hit their one-year mark with us, we have an official “draft” ceremony acknowledging them as a team “veteran.” In true Canadian style, the newly drafted vet receives a hockey jersey (an upgrade from the red hooded sweatshirt they received on their first day). The jersey has their name on the back and their number (or the year they started working).

While hosting in-person celebrations is less achievable, consider mailing a celebratory gift to someone who has hit a special milestone.

Receiving something other than a bill in the mail these days is a lovely surprise! And if budgets are tight, consider hosting a daily morning-huddle videoconference call encouraging your team to share good news, both related to the business and their personal lives.

As an example, it was lovely news to hear of our teammate celebrating a wedding during the outbreak, even with only a handful of people in attendance.

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These examples demonstrate a sense of pride and loyalty when celebrating milestones and good news.

Eat lunch as a team

What originally started with my first employee and I making lunch for each other in my home-office kitchen eventually morphed into 10 teammates taking turns making lunch for the entire team out of our office kitchen. We would make lunch for the entire team for a week and then have 9 weeks off when lunch was made by someone else.

As the team grew, making lunch for such a large crew became a challenge, yet this part of our culture carried on by designating a midday lunch break when team members would “break bread” and step away from their desks.

While we are stuck at home, we have maintained our lunches together one day a week by choosing a theme, such as Cinco de Mayo for tacos on Tuesdays, and encouraging everyone to log onto Zoom for a short lunch chat.  Continuing our tradition, even if just once a week, fosters a sense of being on a team, building friendships, and bonding over shared experiences. Needless to say, the value of spending time together is immeasurable.

Furthermore, studies have proven that taking a break from your desk helps to increase productivity for the rest of the day.

Start an office club

A monthly book club can foster discussion across departments and ranks where everyone’s voice has equal weight and value. It may also create new initiatives and better ways of doing things within your organization.

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At SSG, we start the process with a survey asking the team to rank three books for consideration.Then we choose whichever book is ranked highest by the majority, set a date, send a calendar invite, and distribute the preferred book format.

In the past we would gather at the office in person by 7:45 a.m. on book club day, grab breakfast, and then sit down to discuss the book together for an hour each morning, up until 9 a.m.

While we are all working remotely, a book club, where employees continue to share perspectives and learn together, can still continue by videoconferencing. Previously, teammates who worked remotely would call in by video. Over the years, the book’s author would sometimes join us by video as well.

The result is teammates feel better educated and empowered.

Give back

At our company, we have always believed in the power of giving back to our community

In the past, SSG has raised a half-million dollars for a variety of charity partners. We recently launched our own foundation, which will provide free sports programming for vulnerable and underserved youth in our community, funded by a portion of our revenues. With COVID-19 benching both our adult and youth sports initiatives for now, we have switched our donation efforts with a portion of all our online e-sports events going to food banks. But giving back doesn’t need to cost a penny.

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As part of our program, entitled “guru for gratitude,” each team member writes one thank-you note a week to a customer, supplier, or partner. In this digital age, the only snail mail people tend to receive anymore is junk mail, so a handwritten thank-you is noticed and appreciated. Research has shown that sharing gratitude improves levels of happiness.

To preserve and improve your company culture, concentrate on turning successful past habits into fresh, remote-friendly routines.


Kristi Herold is the founder and CEO of the Sport & Social Group, a 25-year-old, Toronto-based company dedicated to getting people to keep playing in adult recreational sports leagues.

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