Ditch that memo, it's time to race tricycles! Office Olympics catch on

Jul 17, 2012

The summer Olympics kick off in London on July 27th. But while the world’s best swimmers and sprinters get ready, office workers here are not to be outdone. They’re going for the gold in the name of that corporate buzzword – team-building.

For at least one local company, the idea for building morale through an Office Olympics came from the TV show “The Office.” In the episode below, the employees of Dunder Mifflin compete in everything from running with a full coffee cup to paper box snow shoe racing.

David Nilssen was watching and thought an office Olympics would be a fun way to unite his staff. He’d just started a company in Bellevue called Guidant Financial that advises people on how to start their own businesses.

So Nilssen started the Guidant Olympics, and his company has done it every year since. But don’t expect traditional pole vaulting and gymnastics.

'Come here, monkey'

The games get underway at 8 a.m. sharp on a recent morning. All of the folks at Guidant Financial are lined up around a big open space in their office – dressed as characters out of the post-apocalyptic book "The Hunger Games." Some have painted their faces silver, one guy has fake blood dripping down his head. It’s not your usual day at the office.

Today, they're playing a game called "Creature Catch."

Nilssen is dressed as a gorilla and his co-CEO, Jeremy Ames, is dressed as a guinea pig. They run back and forth trying to avoid getting pummeled by their employees, who are throwing balls covered in Velcro. The different teams cheer and heckle each other. One guy dangles a banana in front of Nilssen, calling, "Come here, monkey!"

An hour later, everyone gets back to work, minus the face paint and costumes. For five straight mornings every year, the company does this. They've held pie-eating contests, obstacle courses and a slingshot competition modeled on the Angry Birds video game.

Building up the energy

Nilssen says it’s all about improving the corporate culture – getting people from different departments to know each other. He says putting on his office Olympics costs between $75,000 and $100,000 – when you add in losing 5 hours’ of productivity for his entire staff. But he says it’s worth it because his company avoids the summer doldrums when lots of companies struggle with declining revenue.

"June, when we actually do the Guidant Olympics, is one of our best months of the year every single year and we believe it’s because of the energy the Guidant Olympics injects into our staff," Nilssen said.

This is the eighth year Guidant has held an Olympics, but other companies are timing theirs to this year’s London Games. Several hundred of Microsoft’s lawyers recently competed in their own Games. Picture a whole bunch of Microsoft attorneys racing on hoppy bouncy balls or on tricycles. This all followed days of intense meetings, says Microsoft executive Mike Egan.

"I think it lets everybody have a chance to kind of let their hair down and loosen up the sport coat a bit," Egan said.

But leave it to Microsoft lawyers to get competitive. Jason Barnwell was part of Team Ukraine, which took the gold. In true techie fashion, his team made a spreadsheet to calculate how to maximize points, drawing a complaint from Team Maldives.

Barnwell defends his team's strategy and foresight.

"I don’t have any regrets about taking some minor amount of preparation to impact the outcome at all," Barnwell said.

Remember, not for everyone

Companies spend a lot of money on team-building and it’s been around for decades. There’s ropes courses, trust circles, scavenger hunts, cooking classes.

Jane Reynolds, who teaches management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, says things like this can boost morale, but companies need to be sensitive. Some people may not want to do an office Olympics. Say someone has a colostomy bag and doesn’t want people at the company to know.

Reynolds gives an example of how that conversation might go.

" 'So why aren’t you part of the sock race or whatever?' 'Just don’t want to.' 'Well, why not?' 'Really, I don’t want to,'" Reynolds said. "There's a lot of pressure."

Microsoft says their Games are optional and so does Guidant Financial – though Guidant says everyone does it, even introverts like Tim Abramson, who works in IT at the company. When he first heard about the Office Olympics, he didn’t want to do it.

"I’m more of a shy person and anything that puts me out in front of everyone is really uncomfortable," Abramson said.

But even Abramson’s come around and says he appreciates the little nudge to get to know people.

"It’s entertaining enough, and it is enough of a stress relief that it’s actually a great distraction," Abramson said.

Everyone else  said it’s a blast – getting to pelt their CEOs with Velcro-covered balls and belt out the song YMCA – all in the name of building a better workplace.

In the video below, a little less formal version of Office Olympics: