Is volunteering still on your agenda?

Given the challenging economic environment that UK companies are operating within, the fact that many companies continue to allow employees to devote time to volunteering projects, often overseas, appears to be something of a surprise.

However, large companies operating in the UK – including Boots, E.ON UK, Vodafone, Kraft Foods, Cadbury and Lloyds Banking – are finding real value in supporting projects that require them to hand over groups of employees at a time and suffer the disruption that this causes back in the workplace.

In 2010, 40% of Kraft Foods’ UK employees were involved in volunteer projects during work time and weekends. Generating benefits through volunteering is even more essential during the recession, explains Richard Doyle, HR director at Kraft Foods UK and Ireland and director of Cadbury London 2012 sponsorship: “Yes, there is a recession, and there was some expectation that volunteering would drop and be less supported, but, in actual fact, we’ve seen the reverse trend because of the benefits it gives the organisation as well as their people. The benefits include pride, engagement, team building and motivation.”

While the return on investment is not always easy to demonstrate, especially at a time when corporate spending is being closely monitored, the benefits are easy to see in anyone who has spent time out of the workplace on a volunteering project.

“There is a strong belief at Kraft Foods that putting people time and investment into this is good in so many ways. Of course it’s good in terms of the corporate social responsibility agenda, but you see the benefits in people too. You can’t bottle that; it is intangible but incredibly powerful,” says Doyle.

In June, Kraft Foods and Cadbury will formally combine, and investing time and money into volunteering projects, including the ones tied to Cadbury’s sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympic Games, has been essential in bringing together people from the two companies and effectively merging teams. Last year, members of Cadbury staff were involved in raising £20,000 for paralympic sports through volunteer work and activities, and these kinds of projects are likely to continue in the future.

Doyle adds: “There is no doubt that with the two companies coming together, initiatives like London 2012 and other volunteering programmes are great ways of delivering the new team and bringing people together. They could be the catalyst that brings the two organisations together.”

But for organisers of volunteering projects, the benefits for employers can also include cost savings if a long-term view is taken. According to one provider, companies will be able to retain more of their staff over time if they take a flexible approach to staff taking time out of the office to work on projects that might be overseas or unrelated to their role.

Ian Birbeck, a director at Projects Abroad, a company that sends teams and individuals across the world to assist in community projects ranging from home-building to teaching, explains: “I think in terms of retention it’s important. We see loads of people in their early thirties who go on career breaks because they need a break. Of course the company loses all of that skill if they go away and come back to work for a competitor. But if they fund a month away from the office, they’ll come back refreshed and ready for the next 10 years.”

Skills can also be collected along the way and brought back to the workplace, and commonly those who engage with overseas volunteering will benefit enormously from increased levels of interpersonal and organisational skills.

But there is no denying that access to these programmes has become harder for many organisations throughout the UK to justify, and although the willingness to allow staff to participate in such projects still exists, it is simply not always workable at a time when redundancies are being made and costs are being watched closely.

While the people management benefits are clear, there is always room for misinterpretation, which can have a negative impact on the workplace, adds Birbeck. “I think if companies are making redundancies in the current climate, you do see volunteering drop off a bit. If you are cutting 100 staff then sending someone else off on what is perceived to be a jolly, some companies have had to cut back. You can understand that.”

Read XpertHR’s overview for employers whose staff want to volunteer for the London 2012 Olympics.

Five benefits of volunteering projects

Even though the recession has made it more difficult for employers to spend on their staff, some companies are still finding value in volunteer projects. Here are five rewards that, according to the charity Business in the Community, employees will reap if their employer engages with such programmes.

1. Increased understanding of co-workers and respect for diversity.

Working within different teams and different circumstances can give individuals a new understanding on teamwork and what it takes to get the most from a team.

2. More innovative approach to responding to difficulties.

Moving away from a typical working environment will require new skills to be identified and sharpened.

3. Heightened appreciation of benefits provided by the team.

It is likely that being in a new team in a new place will lead to a greater sense of vulnerability for an individual. Assistance and good team support is bound to be recognised and appreciated in the right way.

4. Enlarged sense of community and social obligation.

Having a sense of community is crucial to company development, and it is just as relevant in an office as it is in any other environment. Moving into an environment where community and dependence is strong will employees to realise the benefits and values of community and teamwork.

5. Positive resistance to feelings of isolation and alienation.

Moving out of the comfort zone of the workplace and into a new environment has the ability to spark feelings of isolation, but if these are dealt with effectively there are some valuable lessons and skills that can be taken back to work.

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