Team-building in off hours

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The MGH softball team is having a losing season.

It doesn't matter, though. Win or lose, the employees who make up the squad sponsored by their Owings Mills-based advertising and public relations firm say this group activity boosts morale on and off the ball field.

"It builds friendships and camaraderie among co-workers that get reflected every day," said Rich Frank, vice president and associate creative director at MGH, who also carries the informal title of vice president of entertainment and gaming.

More companies are adding or expanding extracurricular sports programs with squads and games such as flag football, soccer, volleyball, biking and dodge ball, employers and workplace experts say. Even as workers switch jobs frequently and spend more time in the office, the company sports team remains a popular and relatively inexpensive way to strengthen loyalty, build teamwork and schmooze about business with industry colleagues.

The growth comes as some bosses question the safety risks and other downsides that company sports teams can have on corporate America. Players can get hurt. Employees who work longer and commute farther might not want to give up their personal time. And even though the recreational activity is voluntary, some workers could feel obligated to join.

Howard Kurman, a partner at Offit Kurman who advises employers on labor and employment issues, said some companies have shied away from supporting sports teams because of "fear of potential liability."

Even though games are played outside of work hours and some companies require waivers, employees are not precluded from filing for worker compensation if they are injured, Kurman said.

When Peter Morrissey started his own public relations firm in Boston in 1999, he purposely stayed away from organizing a company sports team. That's because his previous employer supported a softball and basketball team. While it was fun, the company had to deal with a number of injured players and even hung-over employees who continued their after-game socializing at bars, Morrissey said.

Moreover, Morrissey observed a subtle division between employees who participated and those who didn't.

Instead of a team sport, Morrissey organized an employee walking club, an activity that everyone could easily join. On any given day, many of the firm's 10 employees take a walking break along the Charles River.

"No fuss and no liability," he said. "We can do this as a group or as individuals. The practice is a good team builder, keeps us healthy and does not involve embarrassing moments of company overindulgence on the company softball team or me - the boss - having to pick sides or favorites."

For some Baltimore-area employers, the benefits of having employee sports teams outweigh the shortcomings. Workers who join company teams often feel more connected to their employer as well as colleagues who work in different offices or departments. And it provides an opportunity for companies to network with one another. Moreover, experts and employers say, healthy employees are more productive workers.

"This is one way of allowing employees to bond together, team build and spend social time outside of work," said Alex LeBlanc, a senior vice president and market leader at Aon Consulting's Baltimore office, which advises companies on workplace issues. "That's a true benefit, particularly with a transient work force that we have nowadays."

Companies with sports teams "understand how important balance and cohesiveness and fun and joy is to productivity and lowering attrition," said Dan Rees, a workplace consultant and a professor of social work at McDaniel College who teaches a management course in human relations.

HPTi, an information technology company in Reston, Va., began supporting an "Ultimate" flying disc team three years ago at the request of employees. Soon after, soccer and softball followed, with plans to start a flag football team next year. About 15 percent of its 250-employee work force participates in one or more teams, said Timothy Keenan, the company's president.

Keenan said he has seen an improvement in performance among his workers who participate in the company teams.

"They're so used to working with each other in a nonstressful situation that when tough situations come up [at work], they find ways through it," Keenan said. "It gets to knowing how to work in a team. It's a learned skill."

At MGH, a majority of its 75 employees participate in either the softball team or the bowling team, both of which began about six years ago, said Rich Frank, the firm's entertainment and gaming guru. Because of the popularity of bowling, they play each other on teams with such names as "Mighty Gutter Hons," "Alley Brats," and "I Can't Believe It's Not Gutter."

Frank, who plays and manages the softball team, writes humorous weekly news articles recapping every game. He also puts together a harmless, trash-talking video against opponents to create excitement before most competitions.

Other than bumps and bruises, several employers say they haven't had any serious injury, minimizing concerns over liability. Workers play hard but competition is lighthearted, employers and players say. Many companies, such as insurance company Aflac, have employees sign liability waivers.

Aflac Inc. has created a huge sports culture at its Columbus, Ga., headquarters, where 60 percent of its 4,350 workers participate in one or more sports teams, said Cindy Spinks, the company's special events coordinator.

Its sports program has grown in the past several years to include softball, tennis, basketball, volleyball, bowling, golf and soccer, Spinks said. Some sports have more than one squad to meet player demand. Employees from the mailroom to the executive suite can join. Aflac, like many companies, pays for league fees, uniforms and equipment.

"For me, I can't wait until I could socialize with other employees in different buildings and departments," said Spinks, who plays on the bowling and tennis teams. "A lot of people feel that way."

Newer employees, especially, say company sports teams are a great way to develop friendships with colleagues. And most workers take the opportunity to network with their competitors on the field, who also are likely to compete against them in business as well.

Meghan Schoennagel, an executive assistant at Comcast Spotlight, joined the Hunt Valley office's softball team soon after she started her job at the cable company's advertising sales division two years ago.

"I know I'm a lousy player but I wanted to really meet people," Schoennagel said.

On a recent Wednesday evening at Carroll Park in Southwest Baltimore, Schoennagel and other players on the Comcast Spotlight team played a competitive doubleheader against Trahan, Burden and Charles, a Baltimore advertising and public relations firm.

In the top of the third inning in the first game, Comcast Spotlight was behind 6-12.

"We're feeling a little pressure here," said Schoennagel, who was sitting on a bench in the dugout. "We need to win to make it to the playoffs."

The Comcast Spotlight team rallied back to beat TBC 16-12, while it lost the second game.

Four other corporate teams from the softball league sponsored by the Advertising Association of Baltimore played doubleheaders in adjacent ball fields at Carroll Park. (The association's league has 11 teams, all sponsored by Baltimore-area advertising companies, including MGH and The Sun's advertising department.)

When MGH's doubleheader against Baltimore-based GKV Communications ended, their losing streak extended two more games.

Although the team might not win every game, June Ruppert, one of the newest members of the squad, said the players leave with something else: "You have inside jokes, and you can talk about last night's antics."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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