Employee volunteerism is key to creating a strong and engaging company culture.
By Bill Strahan
When employees are asked what they consider the most positively memorable experience they’ve had with coworkers and teammates, many may start to recall a time when they celebrated achieving a certain business goal or pulled together for several sleepless nights to meet a deadline. But how much overlap is there when they are asked what experience has had a profound impact on shaping them as a person?
Enter employee volunteerism. As part of Comcast Cares Day, a group of Comcast employees volunteered at Camp Hope, a residential facility in Houston for veterans working through post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During the course of the day, co-workers heard compelling stories from vibrant heroes who were struggling with loss due to PTSD and working their way back to establishing their connections with family, friends, and society. As a team, employees saw the impact of their volunteer work and how it was fulfilling a need for those who could not have been more deserving of their efforts. This opportunity created a lasting impression through the human connection among Comcast workers and resident veterans at Camp Hope.
Those few hours together helped shape the culture of the business more than days of corporate meetings and manufactured common experiences—even those specifically designed to produce collegial bonding. Honest direct human connection, especially in the service of meeting human needs, has a greater impact on culture than an off-site’s agenda.
Having a culture that aligns to the overall interests of an organization allows it to be agile, effective, and innovative. Since culture is largely born out of the shared experiences of people, companies should focus their attention on creating opportunities for the right shared experiences to accomplish their desired culture. To move culture, an effective approach is to change the common experience of the team.
Encouraging volunteerism among teams builds culture in three key ways:
- The experience builds a common purpose for the team;
- It is organic and authentic rather than artificial or manufactured; and
- The experience typically touches something that is more human than commercial.
An ongoing commitment to volunteerism forces companies—via the experiences of its employees—out into the world to put their goals, objectives, and business plans into a broader perspective. Being where employees and customers live is incredibly helpful for breaking free from a unilateral, internally focused view of the business. It allows the organization to create a dialog among its teams about what’s happening inside the company and what’s happening outside the company, creating a common purpose that’s internal and external.
The experiences that teams share while volunteering are organic and authentic. The activities they participate in leave them with the same feelings of accomplishment that accompany achieving a business goal with the added unadulterated good feeling that comes with being helpful members of their communities.
Comcast’s day of volunteering and the work that precedes it is largely an organic, bottom-up effort led by employees. When looking for projects and organizations to help, Comcast works directly with employees in the field, as well as nonprofit and other leaders who live and work in the company’s service area, to identify volunteer opportunities that were most appropriate based on their community’s needs. Employees lead the projects, connect with their co-workers to bring them on board, and act as the points of contact with the community groups and organizations they are helping.
Comcast Cares Day has had an impact Comcast’s culture. The company encourages but does not require employees and their families to participate. In 2017, the initiative resulted in more than 105,000 volunteers working on more than 1,000 projects throughout 570 communities in 22 countries alongside local nonprofit community partners.
The data backs this up further. Comcast annually conducts a robust engagement survey with typical participation at about 90 percent across a population of almost 100,000. Across all employees, engagement scores are about 73 percent. For people who participate in Comcast Cares Day, that number goes up five points to about 78 percent. Among those teammates who further volunteer to organize the individual work sites—the leader volunteers—the score goes up an additional four points to about 83 percent. Not only does volunteerism build culture, it also builds engagement on the team. Giving people an opportunity to lead within that experience builds it even more. Those who may ask about causation versus correlation should consider that one side of the coin is building culture, and the other is attraction of a population that seeks engagement. Both are desired outcomes for any business.
What can HR do? Whether an organization has five or 5,000 employees, HR should prioritize finding opportunities for volunteerism. HR professionals should listen to what employees may already be doing in their communities and figure out ways the business can help amplify those efforts with organizational power and in-kind contributions. Taking care of all the logistical work so that employees need only think about where to go and when to be there frees them to simply serve with each other, creating authentic shared experiences which will only strengthen the company’s culture.
Bill Strahan is the executive vice president of HR at Comcast Cable.