The Workforce is with you

Vanessa Doherty, a director of Business in the Community, tells you everything you might want to know about employee volunteering

Employee volunteering, it seems, has come of age. Never before have so many big guns been rolled out to raise awareness of the individual, community and business benefits of voluntary work - the government have even designated 2005 the 'Year of the Volunteer'. But what does employee volunteering mean? Why should and how could employees, businesses and communities get involved?

In answer to the first question, employee volunteering is probably better described as employee community involvement, covering as it does an almost endless variety of ways in which employees can participate in community projects with their company's support. For example, before hoodies were making the news at Bluewater, property investment company Prudential plc was working in partnership with police and local businesses in Manchester to address the problems of graffiti and vandalism in the city's Arndale Centre. They helped pupils from Walkden High School in Salford to research the issue, gather their findings, then produce and act in a drama about the causes and the consequences of vandalism. They subsequently toured the show around Greater Manchester schools. In the following three months the Arndale Centre reported a 22% reduction in malicious damage insurance claims.

Universal benefits

A good employee community involvement programme will usually result from an employer deciding it is committed to having a positive and productive impact on society. This desire to impact positively in the workplace, on the surrounding community and on society is what is often now described as Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR.

There are good reasons why many community groups, educational establishments and good causes are now working in partnership with businesses. For one thing, such partnerships usually yield swift and tangible results. Working with a team of enthusiastic volunteers for a day can bring instant transformation to a run-down or drab physical environment. Working with a company lawyer, accountant or marketing professional can provide longer-term support, resources and matched funding. Having an employee on a Board of Trustees or as a coaching partner can bring new skills and ideas and build longer-term capacity and networks.

As far as businesses are concerned, the main benefit of employee community involvement is a human resources one. Employee involvement can provide useful, cost-effective team-building activities as well as a host of tailored training and development opportunities. For instance, mentoring a school child enhances listening and coaching skills while running a team activity develops leadership competence, particularly communication and project management skills.

New standards

Employee involvement, as well as having a proven role in boosting staff morale and motivation, can make a critical difference to staff recruitment and retention. Many firms conducting job interviews now find themselves being asked searching questions with regard to their corporate responsibility and community involvement practices. It would seem that the next generation of graduates perceive this kind of approach as standard in a good employer.

Associated business benefits are also seen in the areas of enhanced brand image and company reputation. In this information age, a company is instantly visible on a global stage, so being a good corporate citizen can positively support their licence to operate.

One under-explored area of benefit to business is in the crucial area of innovation. By placing employees in new and challenging situations, exposing them to diverse and unfamiliar customer groups, businesses are increasingly finding that unexpected and welcome innovations can have a result.

Where to begin?

Starting up and running an employee involvement programme requires forethought and very careful planning. Every programme should be unique to the particular business and community it is serving - having said that, there are some simple process steps that should always be taken to ensure success. The first step is to ensure that the right team is in place. Every programme needs senior business and community champions, the early and full involvement of the human resources people and sufficient dedicated operational support.

A strong and enduring programme will also require an early strategic conversation about "fit". For example, what skills does the business have to offer and what skills does a business want to develop further? What business objectives will a community involvement programme enhance? Is there a cultural empathy between the business and a particular community group or cause? What kind of activities are staff already supporting and what would they like to do within the community? What geographical constraints are there, if any?

The more a programme can be grounded in what the business and the community actually want to achieve, the more successful the resulting programme will be. For instance, the Co-operative Bank in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, is one of the largest employers in its local community, from which it draws 85% of its staff. Having long suffered from economic deprivation, the Skelmersdale area has a legacy of unemployment and lower-than-average literacy levels. In 2000, therefore, the bank embarked on a strategic investment to support the local community, focussing on providing access to training and employment opportunities. In 2003, staff gave a total of 1,600 hours to the project.

In most cases policy decisions will need to be made as part of the planning process. For example, a business may decide to develop specific time-off policies to make clear how much time staff can spend on community activities. HR might also decide to include community involvement in the appraisal process, and decisions will need to be taken on which community organisation(s) should be supported. Finding the right community partner(s) is easy if the homework has been done because the business will know exactly what kind of employee involvement it is looking for and how it intends to manage it. Brokers such as local volunteering bureaux or my own organisation, Business in the Community, can also help to match individual employees and whole businesses with communities and causes and to develop tailored employee involvement programmes.

Multiple choice

Options for employee involvement through Business in the Community's member companies currently include hands-on physical team challenges lasting a day or so. These are a great way to meet a new community partner. Many employees now mentor children in schools, supporting their reading and numeracy skills for an hour every week. Senior managers often pair up with head teachers or social enterprise leaders for regular mutual coaching sessions.

The ways in which employees can get involved with a particular community partner is limited only by their own imaginations and the time alotted by their employer. For example, catering company Sodexho has developed a healthier eating programme in disadvantaged communities across the UK and Ireland. Using their own imagination and creativity and working in partnership with a school, Sodexho graduate trainees compile a week of activities for a "Healthy Eating Week". The activities are usually highly praised by the participating schools. The head teacher at Godolphin Junior School in Slough said: "It's really excellent to see a large company asking their trainee managers to come and work in different environments with a view to actually getting to know what happens outside their workplace."

A strong communication programme will always underpin a successful community involvement programme. Employees should be consulted about proposed partners, and communication will be needed to recruit employees into a new scheme and to recognise and celebrate successful activities. Internal and external communication tools and techniques should be used appropriately, including company magazines, newsletters and the intranet.

Businesses, fearing a cynical media reaction, are often reticent about publicising their employees' work in the community. However community groups are often keen to maximise publicity and can work with a business to highlight activity of which both partners are proud. Research indicates customers are supportive of community activity as long as the fit between the business and the cause makes sense and the partnership is seen to deliver genuinely mutual benefits. Customers are also keen to hear about business activity in the community, as long as it isn't seen as boastful - a tricky balancing act of "shouting quietly" is required.

As with any other workplace activity, it is important to make clear from the outset what an employee community involvement scheme is designed to achieve. Objectives should be clear and measurable, and impact should be evaluated. Awards schemes can be a valuable way of thanking employees and reviewing a scheme. Business in the Community runs an annual award scheme and also offers the Percent Standard, a measurement tool, which enables businesses to value their annual community investment.

A strong employee community involvement programme can be a powerful force for good, but if it is to succeed it needs to fit strategically within an organisation's overall goals, and the right partner(s) must define at the outset the mutual benefits they hope to achieve. Careful planning, high-level support and sufficient resource are essential to success, as are well-constructed communication and evaluation programmes.

For more information visit www.bitc.org.uk or contact Vanessa Doherty, vanessa.doherty@bitc.org.uk

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