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Swimming Australia

How Workplace is 'changing the game' for the Australian Swimming Team

Jacco Verhaeren is the National Head Coach at Swimming Australia. For the last 23 years, Jacco has been coaching some of the best athletes in the world. Starting his career in the Netherlands, Jacco coached regional and national teams, achieving success at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He led a team of high-performance Dutch athletes to Australia with dreams to swim at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It was here that he really achieved monumental success, with his team walking away with five gold medals and five world records. For Jacco, Workplace has helped to bring athletes, coaches, support staff, and the leadership team together in one place, to work smarter together.

Challenge

What was going on in the business that prompted a search for a solution?

After the 2012 London Olympics, Swimming Australia saw some negative press which ended in a report that illuminated the toxic culture of the team. “The Bluestone Review”, as well as the Australian Sports Commission’s Independent Swimming Review found that the culture and leadership of the Australian swim team needed work, so that’s where we started when I arrived late 2013.

Athletes, their coaches, and the other staff like physio, scientists, managers and media were disconnected, and there was no collaboration or communication between them. It was very fractured as everything was done through the coach and there wasn’t much two-way communication. This meant that if the coach changed something, the physio or nutritionist didn’t always know. As you can imagine, this can be detrimental to the goal of being in peak physical condition for an athlete. So, we needed to find a way to work together.

What was the process for organizational collaboration before using Workplace?

There wasn’t anything except for email. We had nothing that resonated with everyone across the organization. We found that using emails just wasn’t getting through to the pool decks – as you can imagine they don’t work on desktops or mobile devices like a lot of people do.

From a leadership perspective, coaches and teams would complain that I was not physically there, but they couldn’t see where I was. So in their minds, I wasn’t visible or ‘working out loud’. Now they are happy because they can see where I am, and most importantly, they understand why.

It used to take me 6 weeks to get around the country to everyone and now I can meet with anyone – from anywhere at a time that suits them. From a collaboration perspective, meetings were organized on a national level (top-down), support staff and coaches would never see each other, speak to each other and wouldn’t be aware of what the others are doing. We needed to solve this disconnection.

What were the pain points you were trying to solve?

We wanted to move towards an embedded or integrated approach because if you change something in nutrition, then the Strength and Conditioning Coach has to be aware and the Manager can’t book appointments or appearances and so on.

The most consistent factor in sport is the coaches, not the athletes. The average lifespan for an athlete is only about four to eight years, whereas the coaches are on average 30 years in the business. It’s important to encourage them to be open to innovation as they are the key stakeholder. While sport embraces technology for performance, it doesn’t embrace it in the same way culturally. We like to do things a particular way because that’s how it’s always been and we need to move out of that. Now, if we’re meeting, we’re either face-to-face or on Workplace – there’s no other option.

“My biggest achievement was allowing the athlete to not just have those people around, but really making them work together.”

Are there any metrics illustrating the pain you were having that you can share?

Before we got Workplace, it was difficult to visit every pool deck because of the logistics of Australian travel. Now, even more so with the impacts of COVID-19. On a broader scale, the pain was just that we didn’t communicate or come together. Not everyone was reading their emails, so our messages weren’t getting through.

What were your requirements for a solution?

As we move into the 2020’s, younger athletes and coaches are demanding a better way to communicate. They want something that is familiar and easy. They don’t have time for complicated technology because they don’t work on a laptop. But we realize that they do carry their mobiles in their pockets while on the pool deck, so we knew that Workplace was going to be able to transcend the generations and make it simple for everyone to use on the go. And we’re not unique, everyone no matter where you are or what industry you’re in, everyone is dealing with the same problem – connection.

Solution

How did you find Workplace? What attracted you to the solution?

We had a “clunky” product back in the Netherlands, so I always knew I needed a better way to send more informal messages. We also couldn’t go with something that is public due to privacy concerns so we needed to be able to find something that would allow us to own the data and make sure it’s secure. So we set out to find something that was all of those things and could achieve that greater sense of connection.

What was the implementation process like?

Once we found Workplace from Facebook, it didn’t take much to convince me, I knew it would work. We set up the groups we needed as a baseline and it just grew from there. The whole process was really simple and easy.

What daily processes are now easier or more efficient with Workplace?

It’s definitely easier to come together to better design our strategy across the board. Because we work in blocks of four years, that long-term strategy is really important. It also helps that we can facilitate communication from anywhere, at any time, so I can have my leadership team, or the athlete leaders on the same page.

If you really drill down into all of the trouble we had with the 2012 London Olympics, you realise that the root cause was a breakdown in communication, integration & collaboration. For me it’s a game changer – you can only send so many emails.

What does organisational collaboration look like now?

We were working in our own bubble. Now, we have 20 of these integrated ‘bubbles’ that have coaches, high-performance athletes and support staff all working together in different locations and with different athletes. The pivotal role that Workplace plays for us is that ‘it connects all the bubbles’ simultaneously. It has brought subject-matter experts like biomechanics together so they can share knowledge and bounce off each other – the biomechanics (technique) group is one of our most popular groups!

From a leadership perspective, we talk to coaches on Workplace which helps guide synergy and teamwork. It also helps to frame logistical decisions like going with Dolphins to meets to qualify for Tokyo.

There’s always lots of travel involved to all coaches and teams around the country to see how they are preparing. For me personally, I don’t have to explain where I am. I do that by ‘working out loud’ on Workplace, sharing photos from pool decks and in meetings, as well as training videos and interesting articles. Some of this helps to drive innovation in the form of new ideas and new ways to use technology in the pool. It also allows us to have our ‘finger on the pulse’ of press and media so that we know what’s going on externally.

What features are most important for your business, e.g. Groups, Live Video, MCGs?

We use images and videos for sharing and ‘working out loud’. We use a variety of different groups for different purposes from leadership team communication to an Olympics campaign that has its own dedicated group. Recognising the great work our people do also happens on Workplace. This is the best part, especially when you’re travelling together and you want to share how you went and all the people that are involved. There are so many people working behind the scenes on an athlete and giving them a shout out on Workplace goes a long way to giving them the recognition they deserve beyond medals. It’s incredibly powerful and you have so many unexpected moments.

” My idea of ‘success’ is when people recognize my philosophy and where we’re heading. And that is playing out right in front of us on Workplace.”

Jacco Verhaeren
National Head Coach at Swimming Australia

Results

Are there any metrics to show how things have changed in the business?

For me, the success is obvious when I go to pool decks and people recognise who I am, where I’ve been and talk to me about their new ideas. That’s where the value is. Also, to see others actually communicating with each other through likes and comments. They are opportunities that you don’t get on email. Having a sense of visibility over the amazing work that we do really inspires us. I am really proud of how everyone has embraced the technology – and even more proud of how we all work together and support each other now.

What effect has Workplace had on the culture at Swimming Australia?

The reality is, we can have all these great ideas, but if the athletes don’t know it, it doesn’t make any sense. We needed better visibility and communication for our integrated, team-based approach, and that’s what Workplace gives us. If the support staff work in isolation, it’s meaningless.

How is Workplace shaping the next generation of swimmers?

Better collaboration between those who help them to be the best they can be. For them it’s all about reducing injury time, better-facilitating changes to their routines & techniques, getting feedback from them about what they want to do and bringing subject matter experts together on the use of new technology. Workplace is also a really great way to engage the athlete leaders so that the leadership team can get a view of what is happening across the country and how they’re feeling so that we can consider that in our strategic decision making.

The autonomy to do something is also so important to their resilience. By giving them a voice through Workplace, they are able to be involved in their own decision-making and have a sense of ownership over their future. For example, we’re asking the question to the athletes about how they want us to celebrate the highs and the lows and getting that feedback. We need them to know that emotional support is there from the broader organization and that looking after their mental health is a priority.

How will you use Workplace into the future?

People have started to see the real value in it. Through consistent messaging and leading by example, we have managed to get everyone in the organization on board. I really value the way everyone is working well together, and I am positive this will continue on the platform. Moving past the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 (2021 now), we aim to keep driving it and expanding what’s possible on Workplace. We want to create more groups, more interaction and more sharing with all of our people. 

“You can have the best intentions and the best people in the world, working at the highest level, but if nobody knows and if they don’t collaborate with their peers, it’s meaningless in sport.”

– Jacco Verhaeren
National Head Coach at Swimming Australia

For a free consultation about how Workplace could transform your organization’s culture, please get in touch

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