This company pays employees to play pickleball: ‘Work should be fun’

 Liz Martin eagerly anticipates her afternoon pickleball matches against her co-workers at Room & Board, a Minneapolis-based furniture retailer. With an indoor pickleball court conveniently located on the first floor of the office building, Martin, a merchandising and design specialist, takes advantage of the opportunity. Every other Tuesday at noon, she spends an hour on the court before diving into back-to-back meetings. Surprisingly, pickleball has become one of her favorite parts of the day, even though she never expected to enjoy it. The court was initially installed in 2013 by Room & Board to complement its in-house gym. While the sport has always been popular among employees, its popularity has surged in the past two years, according to Nancy Manley, Room & Board's chief people officer.

Pickleball, a blend of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, was invented in 1965 but experienced unexpected growth during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did people turn to this low-cost paddle sport as a safe outdoor activity, but its popularity has endured beyond the pandemic. Upon calling employees back to the office in the fall of 2021, Manley was inundated with requests for pickleball lessons, matches, and partners.

Room & Board encourages its employees to work at least two days per week in its Minneapolis headquarters. Out of the 350 employees stationed there, Manley estimates that at least 50 employees utilize the pickleball court on a weekly basis. Unlike specific time restrictions, employees are free to use the court before, during, or after the workday. However, the majority prefer playing pickleball in the morning and afternoon. Manley emphasizes that the company doesn't want employees spending their entire office day on video calls, emphasizing the importance of work being enjoyable.

At Room & Board, setting up pickleball matches is treated as any other work meeting. Players are organized through an email listserv, and court reservations can be made using the same online software used for booking conference rooms. The company also provides paddles and balls for its staff. Manley believes that promoting employee well-being and productivity requires offering them space and resources to take care of themselves. Pickleball is just one of the outlets provided to help employees de-stress and engage in physical activity.

Debbie Hutson, a compensation manager who joined Room & Board in January 2022, struggled to make connections outside her direct team. However, playing pickleball at the office changed that for her. Hutson now teaches other employees, whom she wouldn't have interacted with otherwise, how to play pickleball. This has led to stronger relationships within the workplace, according to Hutson. Many employees also praise the cognitive benefits they experience from playing pickleball. Liz Martin, for instance, claims that even just 30 minutes on the court makes her more productive and alert when she returns to her desk.

Despite the occasional exuberance during games, with echoes of laughter and disappointment heard down the hall when a shot is missed, Manley assures that it hasn't caused any disruptions or received complaints thus far.  

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