Running a Corporate Fitness Challenge for Startups

At Zanbato, we are always looking for fun activities for our team to do amongst our regular work. However, for a team of our size, we do have one large constraint: our team is physically spread out from our main office in Mountain View across the country to New York and across the pond to London. Although it is easiest to have social events for our Bay Area locals, it’s even more important that we engage our remote team members in social events since they don’t have the daily bonding of rubbing elbows.

With these constraints in mind, we needed a broadly appealing activity doable from anywhere by anyone. We went back to basics and looked at what all humans do: eat, sleep, talk, and move around. As exciting as a Inception-style sleep and dreams event sounded, the technology isn’t quite there yet, so we decided to do a fitness challenge. Whether you’re an ultra-marathoner or a certified couch potato, everyone has some fitness goals, and we wanted to help achieve those goals.

The shooting form of a champ

Designing the Fitness Challenge

We looked online at how others have done corporate fitness challenges. We were excited to find many interesting ideas, including counting miles, hydration goals, and time spent meditating. However, the structure of these fitness challenges tended to be one-size-fits-all, which frankly doesn’t work for the reality of a group of people. Some people, like our CEO Nico, wake up early every morning and haven’t missed a workout in years. Others, like myself, don’t really even know what the inside of a gym looks like. Some are focused on distance running. Others apparently have no heart because they only do weight training. It’s hard to synthesize that down into a single set of rules and goals.

Taking a step back from the implementation, we thought about what we wanted to achieve with a fitness challenge, both for the team and for our team members individually. That boiled down to 3 principles:

  1. Each person should do what they want. This is adult fitness, and you should be able to set your own goals
  2. Fitness is an ongoing habit, not a month of intense activity motivated by a prize
  3. Alongside the personal competition for fitness, team competition makes it fun and social

Considering these ideas along with the reality of fitness, we came up with our own structure for our fitness challenge. Here is what we presented to our team at our all-hands meeting:

As a summary, we went for an 8-week challenge with 2 teams competing head-to-head. Points were scored in 3 categories:

  1. personal weekly fitness goals
  2. personal progress goals
  3. weekly sports

Prizes were awarded for both personal and team achievement

Outcome of the Fitness Challenge

We finished up with the fitness challenge about a month ago. Since then, we have received positive feedback from the team and seen lasting changes in behavior.

First, the team really enjoyed the weekly sports. Although attendance on a Friday afternoon fluctuates, those who could stick around participated in some capacity. Even after the fitness challenge, the team has been playing more sports together, including sand volleyball on Thursdays after dinner. Check out the pictures on our Facebook page.

Second, it actually created new habits. I myself have struggled for years to fit regular fitness into my schedule. My weekly goals for the company fitness challenge (with a team depending on me) forced me to figure it out very quickly. Over the first 6 weeks, I tried running at various times, but only in the last 2 weeks did I come to the shockingly obvious realization that I had to wake up earlier and run in the morning. It was the only time in my daily routine that I had control over. And at least 2 other team members have started going to the gym regularly before work since the fitness challenge started.

Lessons of the Fitness Challenge

Of course, we had a few lessons about what worked and how we would do things in the future.

First, individually set goals actually mattered. During the initial presentation, the team naturally asked if they could lowball their goals and just score easy points. Our response was that they could if they just wanted to win a gift card, but that doing so would just be cheating themselves of a real opportunity to move forward with their fitness goals. In practice, everyone who participated took it seriously, and varying points week-by-week showed that the goals were ambitious and meaningful.

Second, it requires constant communication and hype. For single offsite social events, it takes considerable effort to get people excited leading up to the event. We decided to do a long, 8 week challenge because we wanted to build habits, but that requires significantly more effort in both the buildup and sustain to keep everyone engaged. Big thanks to giphy for an endless source of email images to convey far more than I can with words.

Third, we should have formalized the goal-setting and score reporting process. We created a shared document for everyone to put their goals into, but we didn’t require it. We had a spreadsheet for tracking all of the points, but we didn’t clearly explain who and when that needed to be filled in. We certainly missed giving points for fitness that did happen, and we also lost engagement for team members who weren’t up-to-date on what needed to happen. If we had made the basic mechanics of participation easier, we believe that we could have reduced frustration and confusion to make the process extra-smooth.

Conclusion

Overall, we were very happy with how the fitness challenge went. It brought a lot of energy to the team, and we largely met the goals we had set above. I’m not sure how well the structure would scale to larger organizations. The components and scoring is somewhat complex, and because it was designed for flexibility, it does require more overhead and engagement to maintain. However, if you happen to have a small, somewhat distributed team like us, you should give it a shot!