Launching an Inclusive Step Competition (Tips from an Ex-Hater)

July 14, 2020, Post by Elyse Maxwell

Elevate converted its most hesitant stepper from hater to advocate in just 30 days. Learn how you can launch an inclusive step competition that will engage even the most dubious teammates, improve your team’s overall health, and encourage meaningful connection.

It’s been just over 30 days since Elevate launched its inaugural step competition, which invited employees to reach a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, 20 days out of the month. Since the start, we’ve talked a lot about its successes, from how it changed the trajectory of one team member’s fitness goals, to how it allowed another to fall in love with her city in a new way.

But listen, we’re going to share a secret with you. 

Lean in. 

A little further. 

That’s good. 

[Whispering] Not everyone liked this challenge when it launched.

That feels so good to get off our chest. 

It’s true. When the step competition started, it got a mixed reception. Many were excited, others were apathetic, and some were downright unhappy. 

What about the fact that some people have access to treadmills? Will phones track as accurately as smartwatches? What if my job requires me to be at my desk instead of on the phone?

These were the valid concerns running through Emily’s mind at the beginning of the step competition. She was generous enough to tell us where her frustrations came from and, more importantly, how Elevate successfully assuaged them.

And assuage them we did! By the end of the 30-day step competition, Emily became a star performer.

She increased her walking distance by more than 349% and become a fierce advocate for the wellness program.

Converting a nay-sayer into an advocate is the gold standard of engagement. So, how did this program do it? 

Challenge #1: Access to Equipment

Walking is one of the most accessible activities out there, requiring little more than good shoes and comfortable clothing. But even this low-demand sport requires some equipment, and any unequal access stands to cause disillusionment and frustration for participants.

One of the first things to catch Emily’s attention was that some team members could track using a smartwatch while others could not. 

“I felt it was a little unfair that some people had access where I felt like I didn’t,” she said.

Indeed, Emily’s concerns around accuracy are well-founded. Research has shown that a phone app is significantly less accurate than manual step counting or a pedometer. A 2017 article in the Journal of Sports Sciences by approximately 21.5% or an average 1340 steps/day. That means participants who use their phones may suffer a significant disadvantage when compared to their smartwatch wearing counterparts.

Solution A: Ensure Equal Access to Tracking Tech

Ideally, when it comes to challenges like this, Emily thinks every team member should have the same equipment. If the budget allows, she encourages teams to provide participants with a simple pedometer. But, for those without the resources to do so, organizations might wish to limit tracking to phone apps for all participants to ensure that every team member has the same advantage.

Solution B: Give Ample Warning

For organizations that don’t like the idea of limited tracking ability, Emily thinks keeping morale high may be as simple as giving team members the time to upgrade their gear. 

Not every participant will feel the need to do so, but giving lots of lead time allows ambitious team members the opportunity to get what they need to feel they have an edge on the competition. 

Not only does this apply to technology, but Emily also observes that access to the right attire may be a cause of impediment for some competitors.

“You can’t do it in jeans and Chucks,” she laughs. “Thankfully, because I already had what I needed, I could do this challenge. But if I hadn’t,  sourcing these things quickly during the pandemic would have been impossible.”

Challenge #2: Not All Roles are Equal

On the Elevate team, the highest steppers are, by and large, senior leadership and members whose jobs allow them to conduct their business on the go. 

For Emily, a designer, her productivity was directly related to her time at her desk. When the step competition first rolled out, she felt far more limited in her ability to step than someone in a relationship-building or meeting-centric position. 

“When you can’t do your job unless you’re at a computer, and you’re trying to get things done as quickly as possible, 10,000 steps is a lot of time to account for.

Still, Emily managed to meet every target in this challenge, thanks to a few things the program structure got right.

Solution A: Sorry, Dolly, We’re Ditching 9-5

For Emily, abandoning the strict 9 to 5 workday was a fair compromise for adding step competition to her agenda.

While there are proven benefits to having a few hours in the day where everyone is online, this challenge more or less eradicated the regular working hours for the Elevate team. 

By (1) allowing team members to set personalized schedules and (2) adopting a corporate culture where people can exercise when it makes sense for them, the flexibility more than made up for the initial frustration. 

“As everyone started doing this, the 9-5 crumbled a little bit. Before, if you weren’t able to be at your computer within five minutes of a request, it didn’t look great. But [during this challenge] if you said you were on a walk, people were like ‘okay great, I’ll talk to you in an hour’. It made the day feel more flexible. Even if it was technically allowed before, it made it feel more common and accepted.”

This flexibility also enabled her to go for walks with her partner when it worked with his schedule. Allowing her to adjust her schedule to allow for integrated family time that took the sting out of adding a 90-minute time commitment to her day. 

Solution B: Celebrate Self-Competition

Another excellent strategy for alleviating the potential annoyance of meeting-heavy roles getting ahead is celebrating employees for competing against themselves, not just their colleagues.

The Elevate team did this by tracking percent improvements so that employees could compete against their own records, offering a special recognition at the end of the challenge for “most improved.”

Emily, who won that award, increased her steps by a jaw-dropping 349%. That deserves just as much celebration as finishing ahead of your other colleagues.

Challenge #3: Allowing for Down Days

Emily lives with yet-undiagnosed pain and, once or twice a month, she has a day of incredible discomfort. Some months are worse than others. When Elevate rolled out their 30-day step challenge in June, she didn’t think there was any chance she could do it. 

“I started in a negative place; I was frustrated. The first day of the step challenge coincided with my worst pain day of the year.”

Emily is not alone in being less mobile on some days than others. Whether struggling with physical or mental health or merely having an unbalanced schedule, lots of team members may prefer to do fewer extremely active days rather than a lot of moderately active ones.

Solution A: Have an Overall Step Goal 

“One thing I think the challenge did right for someone like me, who can’t anticipate which days I’ll be down, is not requiring us to get every day,” explains Emily. 

In addition to tracking a daily step threshold, the program recorded a total step count. Those who accomplished 200,000 overall were also offered a seat in the coveted ‘winners’ circle.’

“I could take a rest day without affecting the overall score at the end,” says Emily. “I ended up just barely clearing both goals, but I do think it’s helpful to have the two different ways to hit the target.” 

Solution B: Support Intentional Rest

As someone living with chronic pain, Emily needs to be careful about managing the expectations of her body and taking care of it in a way that makes sense for her unique needs. 

Sometimes, that care means resting instead of exercising. At the outset, Emily was worried that these exercise-light days would inspire judgment but was relieved to find that the culture surrounding the program was, in fact, very supportive.

“Everyone was so encouraging. Even when I had a day where I chose not to complete (I had to be intentional about those), everyone was so nice.”

To Emily’s point, encouraging team members to listen to their body signals and make decisions that work for them is a vital part of inclusive step challenges. 

“Sometimes, a half-complete for me was complete. It was what I could expect from my body that day. And everyone was so supportive when I chose to take a rest day. It allowed me to push myself to what I can do without pushing it over.”

Final Thoughts

When launching a fitness challenge in the workplace, it’s so essential to keep inclusivity and encouragement top of mind. Ultimately, the goals of our curriculum were to increase overall activity levels, build stronger relationships with our teammates, and help people find a way to integrate movement into their day.

But, no matter how simple the goals, some team members are bound to have concerns or anxieties about the dynamics of the challenge. To summarize Emily’s valuable feedback, here are a few of the things organizations can do keep a stepping challenge fun, fair, and inclusive: 

  1. Make sure everyone is using the same tracking mechanism (you can do this by limiting staff to a particular app or providing pedometers).
  2. Don’t assume everyone has fitness gear – give enough notice that people can procure whatever they need to be comfortable and safe.
  3. Walk the walk when it comes to flexible schedules. Encourage staff to rearrange their days to make the challenge fair for every type of role.
  4. Celebrate self-improvement just as much as the interpersonal competition.
  5. Allow for down days by having an overall step target as well as a daily step target.
  6. Always be encouraging, even when team members choose to take conscious recovery days. 

By implementing these practices along the way, the Elevate step challenge managed to win over one of its harshest critics. Emily increased her average steps per day by more than 349% and, most importantly, the program earned her advocacy. With her insights, nothing is stopping your organization from doing the same.

Happy stepping!