On a balmy Beijing night in August four years ago, China passed the Olympic torch to the UK. But with all the opportunities the Olympics can provide to London – tourism, investment, a showcase – may come dangerous challenges to our businesses, to our infrastructure… and to our workforce.
And in the Chinese Mandarin dialect, our one word 'crisis' is made up of two: 'danger plus opportunity'. On Friday, 8 August 2008, the eyes of the world alighted on a rather large 'bird's nest' in Beijing. Said bird's nest was the Beijing National Stadium and the event was the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Not only was the 91,000-seat arena full to capacity, more than 100 heads of state were in the audience and 4.7 billion viewers tuned in to watch the stunning footprint-shaped fireworks make their way to the venue, as Beijing welcomed the world.
The city seamlessly marked the launch of the biggest sporting event the world had ever seen. But the following morning, as a globe awoke, reeling from the spectacle, press reports emerged that, of the 29 footprint fireworks, 27 were computer-generated images; while Lin Miaoke, the child whose rendition of the Chinese national anthem stole the show, was revealed to have been chosen only for her appearance and had lip-synched the words of the song actually sung by another, less comely, young girl. The result: a perfectly choreographed, flawlessly executed event came under worldwide scrutiny.
But the controversy didn't end there. While international sportspeople competed for gold in Beijing, the foreign press reported on a broad range of matters: protests against the Chinese treatment of Darfur, civil unrest in Tibet, China's questionable human rights record, its censorship of press and media, as well as its urban air pollution.
None of these reports made for breaking news, but while the global press was in the country, they investigated, because China had become topical. Fast-forward to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and, thanks to Twitter, the web was flooded with debate about whether or not India could afford to host the games. Pictures showing children building the stadium were circulated worldwide and criticism of India's chain of command was voiced on international talk shows.
In fact, commenting on the UK's forthcoming festivities, prime minister David Cameron has referred to the London Games as a "global drama" - without perhaps being aware of the full implications of the 'drama' bit of it.
Both China (2nd biggest economy in the world by GDP) and India (4th biggest economy) faced criticism and controversy because they were under the scrutiny of millions. So, in less than four months, when the Olympic torch is lit over our own capital city, London, will your business - and our economy (7th biggest in the world by GDP) - be ready to hold its own in front of the world's probing eyes? Can we confidently greet investors and impress a nervous and excited throng of foreign tourists?
A snap poll in January, on hrmagazine.co.uk, of 120 HR professionals found 75% do not believe the Olympics will be enough to boost the UK's uncertain economy. Nor have they got their house in order when it comes to mobilising their workforce either: recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark's poll of 1,000 office workers, also in January, found more than two-thirds (71%) of employers are yet to draft a leave-and-absence plan for the Olympics.
Recruitment and engagement are two of the core strands to the HR director's role and with unemployment soaring, public sector employees mobilising in industrial action over pensions and workplace stress levels higher than ever before, according to the CIPD, will these be the media highlights the world's press will fish out when they come?
Sally Jones-Evans, HR director of operations at Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), thinks not. "As a British citizen, I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of - the press will always find something negative if it wants to. The entire developed world is struggling with economics and this is not a UK phenomenon. I'm not overly concerned, because we have a great heritage.
"In the UK, we are self-flagellating, but the rest of the world doesn't see the UK that way."
But she adds: "My advice to an HRD would be: 'Don't be the one who gets to September and realises you have missed the chance the Olympics could bring.' This is not just about London - and UK employers need to plan in advance."
When it comes to planning, UK employers are getting there slowly but surely. According to research published at the start of the year by BT, 38% of private firms and 48% of employers in the public sector have already put a flexible working plan in place.
But there is more to the opportunity than forming a contingency plan for Olympics disruption.
Leon Taylor, Olympic silver medallist (Athens) in diving and BT's Olympics 2012 ambassador, says: "The games will be watched by two-thirds of the world's population. This is far bigger than sport - it is a tool that will attract the world's population. The games could bring a £1 billion boost to the UK economy and we are so close to the Olympics; business needs to capitalise."
Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, couldn't agree more. "With a growing range of media, including social networks where customers can write about their experiences, the Olympics will provide a great opportunity to show the world what we are good at. But there is also the risk of visitors writing about poor experiences," she says.
"Every year, we carry out a survey of 26,000 customers and satisfaction scores in the UK are on average 77 out of 100 and rising. But we find organisations with scores of 80 or more are the ones really seeing the profits of good customer service. There is a direct correlation between engaged staff and good customer service and 77% of the UK's GDP comes from the service sector. But there is an opportunity here for more organisations and industry sectors and there is a direct role for the HR director in making customer service great.
"This is a challenging economy and we need to be more innovative. These are the board-level conversations HR directors need to be having. The UK is on a world stage and we have to get behind the Olympics."
Keith Hatter, CEO of performance consultancy K2, is developing a scheme called 'The Athlete at Work', comparing the challenges facing elite sportspeople to those being addressed by employees in business. He believes this Olympic year will give employers the chance to address performance issues in their businesses.
"Employers need to consider the collective elite performance of their workforce and how to deliver when it matters," says Hatter. "Like athletes in training, employers should be striving for progress, not perfection - and with a summer of sport right in front of staff, there is an opportunity to do this.
"I think of HR directors as human performance directors - and they should apply exactly the same ideas in work as Olympians."
At Lloyds - one of the first sponsors to sign up for the forthcoming Games back in 2008 - employees and the HR department are making the most of every opportunity to benefit from the festivities. The company has designed a guide for other employers to help prepare for the events, with the mantra: 'prepare now and then focus on the positives'. Jones-Evans explains: "Employee engagement goes back a long way and we want to bring the spirit of the games into the workplace."
Lloyds has also encouraged staff to work with young people in schools in helping to develop sports programmes, through volunteering.
But, Jones-Evans adds, HRDs don't have to work for a sponsoring organisation - or even be based in London - to realise the benefits the Olympics can bring. "These are a very British Olympics," she says. "Some 90% of the population will live within one mile of the Olympic Torch relay - and HR directors have the opportunity to be the voice at the board table about this.
"HR can raise the standards of customer service, because there will be an explosion of new business. It is important employers raise their game now and HR directors have an important role to influence the way businesses act… We would be sorry if we didn't put out the right messages."
How I see it
Derrick Ahlfeldt, head of HR at Visa Europe
Visa Europe has been a sponsor of the Olympic and Paralympic Games since 1986 and this year marks its 14th Olympics.
Its senior VP HR, Derrick Ahlfeldt, explains: "With our headquarters in Paddington, London 2012 poses exciting opportunities for Visa Europe to engage employees with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as it is right here on our doorstep. We have not been approaching 2012 as a one-off focal point, the impact of which will only be felt this year; but we have been building towards London 2012 as a means of engaging employees for years.
"Our success depends on the quality of staff and, with 48 nationalities under one roof, we have built a diverse team."
Visa cards are used to make 1.9 billion transactions in the UK each quarter and with a rise in usage of contactless and mobile payments, the company needs a workforce that is adaptable and innovative.
Ahlfeldt explains: "In order to deliver in this new payments environment, we require skilled and motivated employees, particularly as 2012 will be a unique opportunity to showcase the innovations our employees make possible.
"Visa Europe has linked its sponsorship of the games to its overall wellbeing strategy, which is 'to create an environment within which employees can make healthy lifestyle choices'. It is an approach that looks at not only physical wellbeing, but also an employee's emotional, social, environmental, financial, career and community wellbeing."
One example of this link is Visa Europe's participation in the 'Fit for 2012' challenge. This is a corporate challenge designed to promote individual health and wellbeing. More than 200 employees have been competing against employees from other Olympic sponsors, namely Adidas, BMW, Coca-Cola, Deloitte and UPS, in a programme designed to improve health and fitness indicators, both for the individual and the company.
"Specifically around games time, there are a number of initiatives and opportunities that will engage our sponsorship commitments with the commitments we make to our employees," says Ahlfeldt. "For example, through Visa's sponsorship of the games, we have a small number of torch relay slots which we have awarded to staff who have been chosen through an internal nomination process, where the focus has been on rewarding individuals for their contributions to the community.
"It is paramount our employees benefit from our sponsorship by giving them once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that demonstrate Visa's pride in its employees and Olympic sponsorship.
"Another example of where we are enabling employees to get involved during the summer of 2012 is through volunteering. Approximately 80 Visa Europe employees are currently going through the LOCOG selection process to become volunteers at either the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Visa Europe is supporting their application by giving them paid time off to attend selection and training events, and providing an extra week's annual leave to enable them to volunteer this summer.
"We are proud of our people - and proud of our sponsorship. When you have two assets available, it is only sensible to combine them."
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