Employee engagement - a notion which, sometimes, goes beyond bland PR stunts and is actually rooted in the life and dynamics of a company.
I'm talking about an internal initiative we named Athletic25 (also known as Weight Loss Challenge). And since people kept asking about the whole thing, I took it as an opportunity to look back and revisit the highs, the lows, the thrill and the challenge.
You're about to read about how it all started, who and how they won the challenge, what we learned from the process, and about a surprising outcome (click on the chapter you want to learn more about):
- Project Manager Says
- A Winner’s Story: Adi’s Journey
- Concept Meets Reality: Bits and Pieces
- What Next? The Weight Loss Challenge Aftermath
Project Manager Says
Once upon a time on a January day of 2018, I was sitting around in the office kitchen chatting with my workmates about the winter holidays and the inevitable weight gain that comes with it. Nobody cooks better than our moms do - that’s a universally-acknowledged truth. But we can’t just let holiday goodies ruin our beach bodies, we gotta act fast. We gotta diet. We gotta get a healthy lifestyle.
So two things were clear to me by then:
- The determination was there and it had to be capitalized. Somehow.
- We spend loads of time at the office and not even 2 daily sessions of table tennis are enough to make up for the sedentary office life.
1. added to 2. and it dawned on me: what if Around25 provided the means for everyone to achieve this personal goal?
You should’ve seen me running straight to Paul, our CEO, to advance this idea. Otherwise a big fan of KFC Buckets, he was even faster in accepting a meeting where the management board would discuss this proposal.
Long story short, I got my approval on condition that I am the project manager and I closely track the outcomes of the whole thing. Cherry on top, I also got a prize for the winner (*note: it’s disclosed a few paragraphs down below).
Need I say I straight up went into research mode to dig for materials and ideas?
I think you get the point - I was hyped.”
This is Silvia - the mastermind behind Weight Loss Challenge - talking. Needless to say she delivered on her promise and crafted a detailed project involving a challenge and a scoring system for each week.
Tracking daily activity and steps was to be done with the help of Google Fit. Participants would pay an entrance fee, set an objective (how many kilos they want to lose) and just ride the wave of fun-weight-loss-at-the-office.
As a rule, accurate daily updates were expected, no cheating was accepted and no shortcuts were encouraged. A penalty fee was charged on anyone who failed to meet the goals they had set.
Side note: you should've seen the jar of shame (penalties), full of bills after piglets ate all the pizza left from a meetup the night before. Not cool, guys, not cool. But totally human, after all.
If it seems like a lot, you should know it wasn’t that daunting. Silvia and Emi made sure we got healthy snacks, Cosmin organized a sushi-making tutorial, we got the team at Core Fitness come to our office for a fitness and nutrition workshop, and the participants generally made for good entertainment.
Especially after Paul came up with the perfect visual metaphor: yup, we were piglets. The one analogy we deserved but didn’t know we needed.
Of course the design team picked up and delivered the perfect piglet visuals; and now we had an excessively cute and motivating outline for the next 10 weeks of our Around25 life:
I mean, how could you resist them?
We certainly didn’t - and neither did people who followed Around25 on social media. Our social channels engagement skyrocketed organically with participants sharing fun weekly posts, followers addressing comments or Silvia being asked about the Athletic25 at various events she was attending.
What she noticed as the challenge moved forward is that Around25-ers who signed up for the challenge were of 3 types:
- The catalyzers: those who were already going to the gym or eating healthily but signed up because...competition + fun at the office.
- The why-nots: joined despite not having given weight loss a thought before but enjoyed spending more time with workmates this way.
- The all-ins: the fierce and the driven ones.
As Paul pointed out, Weight Loss Challenge turned from the fun thing at the office to the competitive thing at the office.
But in this case, competition was a double-edged sword that reavealed a few gaps in the approach Silvia opted for:
- It was too focused on accumulating points over a short period of time.
- We should have thought about a better timeline (fitness workshop at the beginning, more incentives throughout).
- We didn't take into consideration people have different timings and inner triggers. As such, some of them abandoned on the road since the points gap between them and the others kept widening.
On an organisational level, though, Paul appreciates the whole project has evolved into something more than it seemed at first.
Oh, the things we did for weight loss...
We got to find out what different triggers motivate different kinds of people. We got to learn about our colleagues' daily habits and what wellbeing means to them. We got to see how this topic became a regular one in their homes, with partners supporting Athletic25 as well (some even joined the challenge, icognito).
All being said and done, the challenge concluded in style: with a total of 2224 points, we crowned Adrian as our mighty winner, while runners-up were Alin Pausan (1337 points) and Darius (1352 points).
I was curious to learn what made Adi get such a comfortable lead. The result? Read on.
The Winner: A (More or Less) Romanticized Journey
January 1st 2018 - the time for all resolutions to be made and all optimistic prospects to be envisioned.
This day had Adrian Chirila, developer, realize he was having a rather hard time fitting into his casual attire. And so, he said No more!, Enough is enough! and there he was, a decided man on his road towards a fit & healthy lifestyle. And fewer pounds.
Little did he know he would soon be able to achieve exactly that but in a more unlikely way - at the workplace.
Because at Around25 the weight loss challenge was about to kick off and the prize was no small feat: a Fitbit (which Adi wanted for quite some time).
Having already been motivated, it wasn’t hard for our colleague to happily embrace the weekly challenge system Silvia designed. Thus, his competitive side was soon to be revealed and here are just a few of the things people started to see Adi do:
- Drinking the daily 2l of water just for the sake of some 5 extra points.
- Walking to and from work a few kilometers in order to achieve the points awarded for extra steps.
- Setting a goal of 20,000 steps/day during the ‘10,000 steps/day’ week.
And similar other over-the-top (some would say shady) actions.
Bottom line is, Adi started to actually change his lifestyle so his new routine included fixed meals, proper water intake, better sleep patterns, scrupulous checking of calorie intake, a 60-minute workout and lots of regrets about every McChicken had so far.
He even grew to enjoy every time a colleague would tease him about his frugal salad served for lunch.
In hindsight, he evaluates:
At first, we were all super motivated and at the end of the first week, we were neck-to-neck on scores. Something made them give up along the road, so I was kind of left with no competition - except Alin Pausan.
From 84 to 69 kg, you bet Adi needed all the fierceness in the world to end up at the front of the final leader board. But the best part is he took the challenge on the long run and with the help of his Fitbit he now monitors stuff like how much activity he needs throughout the day, how to improve his sleep for better productivity, or how many steps he needs to catch up on.
Concept Meets Reality: Bits and Pieces
It was a nice story this one, I hope :) A bit too much in the fairytale territory, also. Of course not everything was rainbows and sunshine, of course there were things we could've done better so that everyone had the chance to go their own rhythm. And this chapter is all about what we learned.
I talked about rankings and scores in the lines above, although the Weight Loss Challenge wasn’t really about winners or losers. Rather, it was about finding a common goal and achieving something together at the workplace.
A spin on the idea of teambuilding, if you want.
In numbers, it looked like this:
We learned there are different layers to a company-level initiative: for Adi, the process was a good fit. For the runner-up, Alin Pausan, not entirely.
From the latter's input, we realized - once more - that theory is a definitely different animal than practice and there's a long way to go until we get a more optimal formula.
So what did Alin have to say?
I went into the challenge 100% determined to get fitter but more importantly acquire discipline and healthy habits. You know, plus that thing about getting out of my comfort zone.
But if I hadn't already had this broad goal in mind, I wouldn't have been able to come so far in the competition. Why? I think it's because of the overall system. In retrospect, I would've liked the weight loss process to have been structured in different levels of difficulty. Once you complete an easier level, you get the inner reward which makes it easier to stay motivated until the end.
I would also add more collaboration-based and team challenges (like, say, bringing someone else with you for a jogging session). These can keep you always aware of the 'social' dimension of your endeavor, plus they add more meaning to the process.
Another idea I think would be helpful is partnering up with local sports events to provide discounts and/or access for those of us who reach a certain level. So instead of people being driven by gaining points, you get them excited for the prospect of small, meaningful rewards along the way.
That being said, I did enjoy Weight Loss Challenge a lot and I'm really - like really - looking forward to taking my revenge against Adi. 😁
So after getting all this feedback, what good practices are we going to have in mind the next time?
- A better algorithm implying incremental challenges and a better-timed penalties & rewards system.
- More specialists in fitness and nutrition to help us get really valuable information in the long run.
- More meaning behind every action and more precise goal setting.
Improvements and good practices aside, I think we underestimated the amount of fun we were able to have. Pretty much everyone turned into rule-benders, which led to tons of laughter and great memories.
Let's now sift through other aspects participants experienced.
First, there was the issue of motivation.
Then it was about the hardship. The struggle. The hassle.
And speaking of sweet stuff, there were the positives.
Aaaand more positives.
Plus the memories we created together. Those things any challenge is worth signing up for.
What Next? The Weight Loss Challenge Aftermath
I told you Silvia organized everything in a spreadsheet where daily updates were submitted by each participant.
But on top of the regular challenges there were extra ones bringing extra points - so it became hard and tiresome to manage the process and get a consistent overview. You can imagine the whole thing was quite stuffed with data; something like this:
Ugh, not very pretty.
Was there another way of centralizing all this data? In retrospect, maybe. At that time, no.
But wait, if there wasn’t a tool that could've helped us move faster...why not fix that?
Since we have the brains to actually develop a software solution to this, we gathered a few of our devs, crafted a branding kit and some mockups, then sent the team to present the project (called EngageApp) at Startup Weekend Cluj, the 2018 edition.
Oh and look, here are a bunch of happy kiddos. Because, you know, they won Startup Weekend Cluj 2018.
All in all, the weight loss challenge opened discussion about how companies create and manage internal initiatives. We were able to see, at a local level, how businesses of different sizes tackled similar struggles in tracking internal projects and actions.
Good thing we were able to develop a solution to this - instead of one person dealing with the management, you’d have an app where everyone logs their daily data and, boom!, there you'd have aaaaall the metrics you need.
This is not an 'End of Story'
The best initiatives pop up, grow organically and thrive where goals meet personal responsibility.
For Athletic25, there was no pressure of a deadline, no doing what’s right or what’s wrong, no HR strategy. Maybe that’s why EngageApp proved to be so relatable and was quickly validated by folks in fellow companies.
But there's one more thing which, to me, is the real gain of our challenge.
To make my point, I'll share a pic I saw the other day. Here's a sad Cookie Monster.
Can I say this is literally anyone who ever tried to switch to healthy lifestyle habits? We were obviously no exceptions.
But Weight Loss Challenge proved we actually can keep that willpower going. We actually want to sign up for healthier lifestyle because it simply increases the chances we're gonna show up fresh'n'smily at the office each day. But even more than these, cultivating willpower is a skill we want in our lives regardless of the goal we use it for.
And now that I wrote this article and talked about the outcome being a new tool to improve the flow of the process...I guess we'll make it a seasonal habit and gear up to the next (improved) weight loss sprint(s) at the office.
Around25 piglets will be at it again! 🐷💪
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