Employer-supported volunteering and the changing workplace

Gordon Wilmott is head of health, charities and social organisations at Zurich Insurance.

Many companies recognise that supporting employees to get involved in the community is good for business and for good causes, as well as good for the employees who volunteer. Yet employer-supported volunteering (ESV) only makes up a small proportion of volunteering overall. The NCVO ESV report (PDF, 1.5MB) released in June 2019 looks at what better ESV might look like.

In the UK we have delivered a community programme through an independent UK registered charity Zurich Community Trust (ZCT) for over 30 years. ZCT has helped with corporate and employee giving in all its forms – an example being our Challenge Programme through which over 4,500 projects have been completed, mainly meeting the needs of small community and voluntary groups.

Here are some of our reflections on the report findings and how we are adapting for the future as an organisation.

Changing work patterns

One of our main reflections from the research findings was the changing context of ESV. We have already seen that the world of work is evolving and in time, people won’t work in offices alongside colleagues doing the standard nine-to-five. According to a YouGov survey, four in ten (42%) already work flexibly in some form or another, such as job sharing or compressed hours.

What does that mean for ESV programmes and in particular, team volunteering programmes? Will companies want to allocate time to team volunteering exercises if teams are virtual or transitory (with part-time, freelance or contractor staff)? Or will they become even more important?

We may find that demand for our own programmes reduces. Or that more people want to volunteer outside office hours or virtually using technology. We need to be ready to change with them and to be able to offer flexible, virtual or micro ways of volunteering in person, from home or at work.

One of the biggest challenges on our horizon is the rise of homeworking. In particular this is going to make it much harder for us to engage people. We will have to find new ways to replace the word-of-mouth buzz there is in the office.

Serious about wellbeing

As part of the changing context of ESV, the NCVO findings also highlight that there may be ‘increased expectations on employers to place more emphasis on employee wellbeing and to have a values-based culture and ethos’.

Wellbeing is crucial for the future of work. Volunteering can touch each one of the five ways to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation. We believe that our ESV programmes play an important part in being a good employer. As teams and working patterns change, it is vital that we show current and prospective employees that we care about their wellbeing. One way to do this is by making it easier for them to be able to contribute to their local communities, whether through the ZCT programmes or via opportunities they have found themselves.

Developing skills

The report highlights that while many are using skills and experience in their ESV volunteering, there is potential for more. Many of our employees will possess professional skills that are of value to the community groups. As such, through ZCT we are constantly looking at ways to share these skills in the most efficient and accessible way. However, we find it difficult to get people to commit to long-term projects such as mentoring where they could add the most value.

We need to be able to give our employees opportunities to use their professional skills in ways which work for them and where they can see the impact they are making. Some of the skills-based volunteering opportunities need to be accepted more widely as a more mainstream way for employees to develop and grow.

Maximising the impact of ESV

The report concludes by looking at some questions of how employees might be better engaged and how organisations might make ESV more impactful.

Here are some of the things we have recently done at Zurich and through ZCT to increase employee engagement in ESV and maximise the benefit to those we are seeking to help:

  • Extended the amount of time employees can spend on paid volunteering from one day of paid leave a year to three days.
  • Repackaged this to focus on hours rather than days to encourage employees to think about how they could use their time more efficiently, but also – as suggested in the report – not just concentrating on the numbers of volunteers engaged/hours volunteered but focusing on the impact and reach of the volunteering.
  • We listen to our employees to understand what motivates them and how we can create opportunities which they want to get involved with and are of value to the organisation we are working with.
  • Through ZCT we are developing knowledge sharing days where organisations are invited to come to one of our offices to learn about a range of topics during the course of a half or full day.

We have learnt that building effective ESV programmes has to work as a partnership between us and the volunteering organisations involved. It takes a lot of work to build relationships, trust and negotiate terms but this is key to delivering a programme which delivers results to both parties.

We aim to keep employer-supported volunteering very much at the core of life at Zurich for years to come. Find out more about the work of Zurich Community Trust.

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