Lessons from Tokyo’s Olympic Committee: How to Lead a Team during the Tail-End of COVID

Throughout the vast majority of past Olympic Games, the chief of the Olympics Organizing Committee has been a coveted role. Seb Coe, who presided over London’s 2012 festivities, referred to the position as a privileged one, similar to overseeing Halley’s comet: “It doesn’t come around that often, and everything is in alignment.”


Not so in 2021.


COVID-19’s stamp is everywhere during these Olympic Games. The stands are mostly empty, beaming grins and agonized grimaces are hidden behind face masks, and the signs that adorn everything from stadiums to sweat towels announce that this is “2020,” a relentless reminder of the year that was pulled out from underneath us.


And yet, under the Chairmanship of Seiko Hashimoto, the games are going ahead. Against some pretty steep odds – Japan’s issues with the vaccine rollout, outbreaks of the delta variant, local protests and that last-minute decision to keep live audiences out – the athletes are out there giving their all, providing entertainment, inspiration, and allowing us at back home to pretend that our opinions on the finer nuances of the modern pentathlon are somehow valid.


There are some lessons for business leaders to learn here. COVID is retreating, but in fits and starts, which calls for a response that is both flexible yet resolute. One of the more striking parallels is how to navigate a return-to-work strategy:


  • Set clear expectations about which days being in the office are required, preferred, and legitimately optional. If you want your employees there for the opening ceremony because the world might happen to be watching, communicate that in advance and with enough time to accommodate any reservations on their part.
  • A helpful way of combining structure with some give-and-take is to ask teams within your organization to line up their schedules, so that they can get the benefits of in-person collaboration without having to completely sacrifice the perks of working from home. There is, of course, also an important health benefit to consider here; until vaccine rates reach that critical point and their efficacy against variants has been confirmed, it makes sense to limit exposure between people. The Olympic Committee foregrounded this principle in the buildup to the games – as much as possible, they’re asking athletes to move around in bubbles.
  • Athletes have been told that they should not be high-fiving or hugging after crossing the finish line… but they can, if emotions dictate, touch elbows. Be innovative as to how to keep your corporate culture, but try and sensibly adapt it to the “new normal.” If you and your employees considered the Thursday coffee hour or the taco Tuesday happy hour to be sacrosanct, then be creative as to how these might be reintegrated safely but effectively. Perhaps chose locations that have outdoor seating, online menus, or great Wi-Fi so that people can still attend remotely if they’d prefer.



Olivia Humphrey is a Project Manager at ECA. She can be reached at [email protected].


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