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Does the sporting world give us clues to smarter working?


Earlier this week I attended the second Smartworking Summit, produced by workplace analytics provider Quora, at the RSA in London.  The events look at current (and future) trends in the way we work, and generally feature professionals who are tackling some of these change projects within their own organizations.  In the words of Quora chief John Blackwell, the Summit’s are a consultant free zone.

They broke their own rules slightly with the event this week by having multi-Olympian Greg Searle as the headline speaker.  As well as being a triple Olympic medalist in rowing, Searle is a leading member of the Lane 4 consultancy founded by fellow Olympian Adrian Moorehouse (the 4th lane is always awarded to the fastest qualifier in swimming).

As you can perhaps imagine, the talk revolved largely around Searle’s sporting career, and looked at the lessons that could be transferred into the work environment.  Suffice to say, this isn’t a new idea, and indeed the notion of the corporate athlete has been around for well over a decade now.

The general idea is that we look at how top athletes prepare for their events, and look to apply these techniques to our own work.  I’ve written extensively about the work environment and the crucial role it plays in promoting the right kind of behaviours.  This was central to Searle’s talk, and indeed the mission statement of Lane 4 is all about creating an environment that promotes excellence.  It was a theme that would crop up throughout the morning.

A central part of the corporate athlete ethos, and something that is often overlooked by many a professional, is the need for a healthy body as well as a healthy mind.  In a professional context, that includes getting enough sleep, eating well, engaging in some exercise, and of course giving yourself some space to reflect upon what is happening in your life.  All of these things support (nay underpin) our professional work, yet they are often things that are pushed to the sidelines when we think of strong performance.

A second strand of the ethos is all around the right balance between training and doing.  In an athletes world, they spend far more time preparing for a race than they do in the race itself.  In the corporate world it is often the other way around, with lack of professional development regularly cited as a primary cause for poor employee engagement.  Whilst it is unlikely that any of us will achieve the full-time training mix that athletes enjoy, training and development (or learning if you like) should be something we include in our daily activities.

The final strand of the ethos is around achieving sufficient recovery time.  I mentioned earlier about having time to reflect on your day, whilst of course sleep also plays a big part in our physical and mental recovery, but we can also see this in areas such as being plugged in despite being on holidays.  Heck, even being plugged in whilst not at work.  The modern workplace is nothing if not a connected one, and so having time set aside for recovery can often fall by the wayside.  Ask any athlete, professional or amateur, however, and they will tell you how vital recovery time is for their muscles to get stronger.  Without that rest, the only way is towards burnout.

Those three areas are fundamental to the success of an athlete, yet they are often missing in our professional lives.  Maybe it’s about time for a rethink as we strive to work smarter rather than simply harder.

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