Athletes, venues, employees, spectators and security all come together for the world’s biggest sporting events. What could possibly go wrong? HRM talks to those charged with making sure everything runs smoothly.
For Jessica Platts, the 2016 Rio Olympic Games are already over. Due to kick off on 5 August, Platts, a human resources and workforce professional, has spent the past two years working on the build up to one of the world’s biggest sporting events.
Now back in Australia, she is head of workforce for the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (GC2018). A veteran of the London Olympics organisation in 2012, Platts says that when “working on the world’s biggest sporting events in human resources, you are basically building a start-up company over and again”.
As well as a corporate structure and business fundamentals, a strong vision is needed to guide a continually growing workforce. “What you don’t have with each new event are ground rules that say: ‘This is how we do things here’,” says Platts. “People come with different values, different views on leadership, different ideas on what flexible work means … So you need to establish a common corporate vision and an engagement program that communicates and then reinforces that to the business, and then constantly communicates and reinforces it as you grow.”
Robust workforce planning is crucial to help manage the intense hiring phases that occur for the world’s biggest sporting events. In the 18 months before London 2012, staff numbers jumped from 2300 to 8600. Platts says that event workforce planning used to be done to annual projections, but longer projections – three years or more – are now used to better manage hiring peaks.
For the next Commonwealth Games, Platts is preparing for staff numbers to “double, and then double again” to around 1000. On a much smaller scale than the Olympics, GC2018 wants to use skills within the region. “It’s not necessarily a policy position, it’s more a genuine desire to try and recruit as many local people as we can to give them the experience,” Platts notes.
GC2018 is also looking at ways it can involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across recruitment and volunteering. It’s working with Reconciliation Australia on a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which Platts says is the first of its kind for a major event and for a Commonwealth Games. One of the initiatives has been enlisting Banaam, a local company that runs Indigenous leadership and cultural education programs to deliver cultural intelligence sessions to the GC2018 team. “More broadly, we are working closely with the Yugambeh Language Group People to respectfully recognise and celebrate the extensive Indigenous heritage and culture of the Gold Coast,” Platts says.
Event organisers, particularly at the international level, are trying to ensure their workplaces reflect and celebrate the diversity of the people living in the host city. Rio 2016 has outlined a diversity manifesto that includes a program to place Paralympic athletes into Rio 2016 corporate roles. While among an intake of 58 student trainees, there is an even gender split, 25 per cent had impairments and 46 per cent are black.
After the last Olympics in London, a post-games report showed that 20 per cent of the paid workforce lived in the areas surrounding the Olympic Park and one in five came from an ethnic minority background.
There was also a major focus on inclusion. A guaranteed interview scheme for disabled applicants led to more than 2000 disabled people, including volunteers, being placed into roles during the games. London 2012 partners, contractors and suppliers were all required to conform to the diversity and inclusion strategy.
A mix of local and international hires depends on the host city’s event experience and skills base, says workplace management consultant Chiton Vuong, who has worked in Qatar, Azerbaijan, India and Singapore on some of the world’s biggest sporting events. Travelling event professionals – whether employed to mentor or ‘plan and deliver’ – must be flexible and willing to adapt their usual approach, he says. “That’s the only way that you are going to build rapport among team members and get them to follow through with what you need them to do.”
Working and living in new countries is part of the appeal, but event workplaces can produce unique challenges. After the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, Vuong travelled to Qatar to help set up the workforce for the Doha 2006 Asian Games. The event was the country’s first foray into hosting a major international multi-sport event. However, the novelty of bringing the Asian Games to the Gulf was marred by Qatar’s treatment of the foreign labour workforce it used to build infrastructure for the games. Qatar has gone on to win hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and has been condemned by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) for using “modern day slaves” to build venues. The ITUC estimates that 7000 foreign workers will die before the first ball is kicked in 2022.
Despite the bad publicity, Vuong says Qatar enticed event professionals from around the world to create a diverse workforce. However, it meant that meetings might be held in English, Arabic or even Greek. Vuong says translation wasn’t always available. “Sometimes you just rely on your team members to tell you what has taken place or they say: ‘Let me handle this one and maybe you handle a meeting with English speakers’.”
Vuong says it can be a ‘sink or swim’ situation for expats and that more cultural sensitivity training, preferably run by local people, is sometimes needed. “Expats are recruited based on being an expert in a very specific area, but some lack the inter-personal skills or knowledge needed to work in a foreign environment,” Vuong says. “It can mean that on the operational level, such as in meetings, or communicating with local colleagues, or even their choice of business attire, expats can sometimes cause offence without intending to.”
However, organisers for the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, where Vuong spent three years setting up the workforce, relied mostly on local people. “Their idea wasn’t to go out and hire expats because of the available workforce,” he says. But while India’s talent pool “looked good on paper,” Vuong says event managers and teams that had no event experience faced a tough ride. “You depend on a team that has the knowledge and knows what they are doing to deliver.”
Vuong was in India during the 2008 Mumbai bombing and shooting attacks. It was an unsettling time, and athletes and competing countries questioned the event’s security arrangements. Fortunately, their concerns were not realised, but in light of last year’s attack outside a Paris football stadium and ongoing threats, security is a major consideration.
“You can’t compromise in this area,” says Michael Brown, CEO of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC), which Australia is jointly hosting with New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Brown admits that while organisers do “everything you can conceivably think of” to maintain safety, there are never any guarantees that things will go according to plan. “We all live in that space of trepidation,” he says.
The RLWC works with governments from the three host countries, Australian state police and independent contractors to maximise event security. To minimise internal threats, pre-screening police checks are run on staff and volunteers. “Anybody involved with the event from our side who is
a representative of the Rugby League World Cup will go through those.”
Security scenarios are some of the hundreds of ‘what ifs’ that Brown will prepare for. As CEO of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, where 32 games were held across five Australian cities, Brown says there is benefit in understanding the detail. “It was right down to: ‘What if someone wants to seek refugee status? What happens if there’s a death? If someone gets seriously injured?’.”
Brown will recruit people with a can-do attitude and a drive for their job, despite knowing their role will end after the event finishes. The RLWC team for 2017 will be geographically dispersed, but organisation begins centrally. “For the AFC Asian Cup, up until about 10 months to go, everybody was based in Sydney,” Brown says. Host city venue managers were then hand picked and Brown visited them fortnightly, while host city steering committee meetings, newsletters, teleconferences and weekly management catch-ups helped to reinforce cohesion and progress.
This commitment to the event and its values also needs to be embraced by the volunteer workforce, which Brown describes as the lifeblood of an event. He recalls speaking to two older female volunteers after the Asian Cup who didn’t want it to end. “They said to me: ‘Michael, I don’t know what I’m going to do when the alarm rings at quarter past eight tomorrow morning. This has been everything that I wanted to get involved in’.”
Recruiting the volunteer workforce, particularly at one of the world’s biggest sporting events, is an enormous undertaking. Anne-Maree Holland is general manager workforce and operations for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Holland’s team has had to pull the entire Olympic workforce – made up of 6500 paid staff, 50,000 volunteers and 85,000 external contractors – together.
It’s a crucial time now for her; she must ensure these employees are trained, rostered, accredited and in uniform. “If any of these steps are missed, it has a snowball effect further down the line…”
Rio 2016 has partnered with external organisations to help fill the roles, which include bus drivers, cleaning and waste services, food preparation assistants (an estimated 11 million meals will be served during the games) and housekeeping assistants to work at the athletes village, which will have around 32,000 beds.
“Through the Rio 2016 contractor integration program, we are linking these organisations with local trade schools that will partner with them to provide a trained, entry-level workforce to fulfil the many roles available,” Holland says. She says there’s enough talent within Brazil to fill 95 per cent of the roles, with the remaining five per cent going to expats with specific experience.
Building a games workforce for some of the world’s biggest sporting events is a familiar pressure for Holland; she’s worked across five continents and on four summer and three winter Olympics (her first was Sydney 2000). Holland thinks technology has changed the way events are managed. “What we’re in, is the volume business – pushing large workforces through the supply chain very quickly. The technology has improved so much to enable us to do that more efficiently.”
Massive call centres and huge postage budgets have been replaced by emails, texts and apps. HR software systems warrant the investment she says. “If you have that and you have some talent in your HR team, you can do almost anything.”
As the clock ticks down, Holland will be taking this positive mindset – just like the athletes competing – when she moves into her ‘games’ role at the central command centre to support her venue-based workforce managers. It will be all hands on deck, but she hopes to get out every now and then to see the action.
“Every time the opening ceremony begins, and I see the thousands and thousands of workers performing as one team, then all the hard work becomes worth it.”
This article is an edited version. The original version appeared in the May 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Game On.” AHRI members receive HRMonthly magazine 11 times a year. To learn more about membership options, click here.