What can we learn from the Olympic volunteer programme?

For eight days during the London 2012 Olympics I was one of the 70,000 Games Makers (volunteers) that were recruited from a pool of applicants that numbered 240,000.  Apart from this being an unforgettable experience and a huge honour I learnt many things.  I have listed three of them which I believe could be useful in other situations.

I made my application in October 2010, my first interview was in March 2011, I was told I had been selected in September 2011 and my first of five training sessions prior to the Games was in February 2012.  Throughout the process the communication was excellent, any questions were answered by an online resource or by phone and the training itself was very well organised.  Although there were thousands of different roles, we shared a common goal.

Having an unlimited supply of unpaid volunteers is rarely available to businesses but there were three points that my experience gave me which I think could apply to the day to day business world.


The first was seeing how the organisation created clearly defined objectives.  I thought this would be simple but taking into account the athletes, coaches, National Organising Committees, sport governing bodies, press, broadcasters, technical officials, spectators, general public….. was quite complex.  However, they instilled in us a clarity that ensured we could perform our roles and understand how our small cog fitted into the vast machine.  Do all of your employees or colleagues know what their role is and how it fits into the wider business?  I would expect that there will be a lot of people reading this who consider this superfluous and unnecessary – surely we don’t need to do this as it’s obvious that people know what they are doing?  Experience suggests otherwise.  I did hear some people at the Games Maker training muttering ‘I know all this, I don’t need to hear this’ but when it came to the actual volunteering shifts I never came across anyone who didnt know what they were doing exactly and how they fitted in to the wider organisation.


The second was how to create the right attitude.  Right from the moment we applied, to the interview and throughout the training there was a very clear expectation of the level of commitment and attitude they wanted from us.  There wasn’t however any attempt to brainwash us or make us into clones – indeed one of the characteristics they asked was ‘to be yourself’.  Business recruitment can often use standard phrases (‘must demonstrate a positive attitude’ or ‘must demonstrate a strong commitment’) without consideration of how these manifest themselves.  We all want to work with people with a positive attitude but what does that mean, how does it apply to your business, how can this attitude help customer engagement, can it help increase profits etc?  Maybe it doesn’t ‘seem very British’ to state this out loud but setting a strong expectation during recruitment and when employing someone will help them deliver what you are after.


The final point I saw was how clear the organisational structure was.  Despite the vast numbers, the complexity and the myriad of interactions with other bodies, organisations, suppliers etc; as Games Makers we were shown how we fitted in and how to manage the interactions.  Once again, this sounds very simple but I would suggest that many employees do not have this clarity in their day to day role.  It is obvious that an ongoing business needs flexibility so that limited resources can work across roles but even on basic aspects of a role employees are often unclear how they fit in to their organisation.


To summarise, I experienced a very well organised event.  As volunteers we were well briefed, well trained and the communication was clear and plentiful.