· 5 min read · Features

HR Olympics Special 3/7: Get the most out of your staff during London 2012


Almost there… and the excitement is mounting. The world’s biggest sporting event will impact on virtually every aspect of British life. But where does this leave employers?

With so much negative press around absenteeism and perceived loss of productivity due to the Olympics, can business turn it around?

How should HR directors deploy long-lasting engagement strategies to make the best of this unique situation, turning it to everyone's advantage? What sort of ideas should they be looking at to maximise productivity - and engage staff?

A small group of office workers crowd round a screen linked to a Playstation, which can access competitive sporting games. They can pick any game they like. One young admin assistant has discovered it will play her childhood favourite: the hula-hoop. As she clicks away enthusiastically, the whoops of laughter around her create a happy office buzz. But an outsider could be forgiven for wondering what on earth they're all doing, playing computer games during working hours. Have we stepped back onto the set of The Office? Why aren't the staff working? Who is running this show?

"The staff thought it was hilarious," recalls Iain McMath, MD of engagement solutions company, Sodeko Motivation Solutions. He decided to use the 2010 FIFA Football World Cup in South Africa as an opportunity to engage employees in a big sporting event, rather than risk a drop in productivity or an increase in absenteeism. It worked. Like a charm.

"We had people supporting teams by department or by individual. We had dress-down days each week, where people could wear football gear or the national costume of the country they supported," says McMath.

"We decided if there was a risk people would take time off and we would lose focus, why not allow them to be engaged by saying 'you can watch this game at this time, but make sure you cover your work at a later point, or come in earlier'? It ensured they were effective when they were at the desk."

What about those who have no interest whatsoever in a big sporting event? "We got round that with the Playstation linked up to all the sporting games you could play on the computer. A lot chose the hula-hoop, because it's fun. Apply that sort of approach in the Games, get everyone involved, interested or not, and you'll find that anything that adds vibrancy, that staff can engage in, will work."

McMath says HR directors need a well thought out plan to present to their bosses, rather than a vague 'oh, let's all play with the Olympics to engage staff'. "The plan has to show why it will encourage people more. It is believed there will be an upsurge in sick leave over the Olympics of 15%-20%. Add that into your cost and the upside is, this plan reduces sick leave and raises a much better focus in the organisation.

"You can even link bonuses or commissions in an Olympic way. Use the five rings of performance, for example. And it doesn't just have to relate to sales targets. It can be on staff answering phones in the right way."

One Olympic hurdle for employers is when large numbers of staff all want time off simultaneously, given that the Olympic weeks come in peak time for annual holidays.

"The starting point here is to look at your existing policies," warns Paul McFarlane, partner and specialist in employment law at legal firm Weightmans. "One way round too many people requesting annual leave is to limit the amount of time anyone can take off during the games, in order to be seen to be fair. Everyone gets time off, but only a certain amount."

Using the Games as a team-building exercise is crucial, adds McFarlane. "It can be outside the office, so there are set times when they go to watch an event and when they return. That way, the employer has more control over it."

As for employers that don't want deskbound staff to be endlessly distracted by watching the games, McFarlane says the solution is in the planning. "They can block access to desk television viewing via the internet: they do have a choice."

Companies based in other parts of the UK can use exactly the same team-building approach. "Many cities are using multiscreens. Again, that can engage people outside the office. Or even take staff to a restaurant where the games are being shown. That is another way to create a sense of cohesion around the workforce," says McFarlane.

Ana Svab, Ways of Working programme manager at charity, Business in the Community, says flexible working has a huge role to play in pre-Olympic planning, because it increases productivity. And it can mean serious savings. "Employers should realise their business will be affected by the Olympics and should start preparing for that now. Look at the timetable for the Games. Will these timings allow staff to travel earlier or later? Or can you move some of your staff around flexibly, for example, three hours' work in one place, two hours at home? This is very much an opportunity. It is a good time for organisations to use the opportunity to visit clients outside London, for instance. That is one solution.

"Cap Gemini is reducing its staff's non-essential travel and is working with clients to agree what travel is really necessary during the Games. If it's not necessary, staff will be working remotely using technology. It is advising the Metropolitan Police on how to work effectively, even though easy travel will be reduced in London," says Svab.

"Businesses have no excuse not to be prepared - and to put in place a process that will benefit them for many years" says Keith Tilley, UK managing director for consultancy SunGard Availability Services.

Tilley says employers should focus on the practical issues. "Reassess your flexible working policies," he advises. "Extending existing home-working policies could have enormous benefits. Staff will certainly thank you for letting them avoid a crowded commute.

"Work closely with your IT department: they should be at the heart of your flexible working procedures. They can help allow employees to access email on their own devices - while ensuring that vital company data remains secure. Solutions exist to enable homeworkers to be productive in the event of disaster. It is not too late to be looking into this," says Tilley.

Clear communication, so everyone is aware of productivity objectives throughout the games, and getting everyone up to speed with any new or temporary flexible working procedures should be every employer's priority, wherever they are. And engagement itself will reap big rewards.

As McMath puts it: "The more you get individuals to engage, the less it becomes a company diktat."

Gold medal Olympic tips

Adrian Moorhouse, MD, Lane 4 Consulting, won a gold medal for swimming in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Here are his top tips for employee engagement:

  • Geography is a red herring. The majority of people will watch it on television
  • Don't bury your head in the sand. Get actively involved
  • Don't assume inspirational messages alone will turn the business around. They don't change behaviour
  • London based? You'd better have contingency plans for transport
  • Employees will get wrapped up in the celebration itself. Once people tap into that, they will be engaged
  • See the Olympics as an opportunity to help people perform well by creating a line of sight for the employee to a meaningful goal
  • Productivity can be increased if people are inspired. So focus the inspiration into something meaningful
  • Plan for adults, not schoolchildren. Engagement works better if you treat people like adults
  • Consider the timing. The majority of medals tend to be decided late afternoon, early evening
  • Identify specific skills demonstrated by the Olympic role models everyone will be watching. That will give you legacy
  • When it comes to watching the games at work, there's an etiquette in most firms around social time. Maintain that Create a TV room for more flexible breaks, but expect people to come back and do their normal job outside this