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Rethinking employee engagement

Using corporate social responsibility to engage and connect remote employees.

Investments in corporate culture have become a priority for companies over the past few years, but the shift to remote work during the pandemic has put those efforts into sharp relief. As employees started working from home and all communications went online, keeping employees engaged and motivated became even more complex. “We all feel disconnected, and that leads to disengagement, but engagement increases when you feel part of something; part of the community,” says Mark Layden, CEO of CyberGrants, a leading software provider for corporate giving programs.

The benefits of employee engagement run deep. According to the Human Capital Institute (HCI), making engagement a key component of corporate success leads to greater employee happiness, productivity, retention, better customer service, and better business outcomes. Keeping employees engaged is easier said than done, though, as people juggle the additional responsibilities and stressors of working during a pandemic. “As we’ve gone through 2020, organizations realize that engagement is a necessity and not a nice-to-have,” says Sherrie Niedermeier, chief learning design officer at HCI.

One of the key drivers of employee engagement is shared values with an employer, according to recent reports from Glassdoor. “But there’s a big difference between saying what our core values are and actually living them,” says Niedermeier. Here, corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, including philanthropy, activism, and charitable donations, can help organizations align their words with their actions. “If employees are part of a volunteering opportunity, it integrates what we say with what we do,” Niedermeier adds.

Volunteering has multiple benefits as well, including increased job performance, giving employees a chance to invest in their passions, and helping them gain valuable skills. A survey by market research firm Kantar TNS shows it can also improve physical and mental health. “So much has happened in the last year, employees have felt completely out of control of the world around them,” says Jeff Summers, CMO of CyberGrants. “The ability to engage, whether through volunteerism or giving, is a way for employees to feel like they’re doing something in response to the situation.”

In addition to regaining a sense of control, virtual volunteering allows for employees to connect with causes they care about safely and with greater flexibility. Through virtual volunteering, employees can share technical skills such as creating content or translating documents, or provide coaching or advice online. Beyond skill-based volunteering, employees can also make fundraising calls, check on seniors online or by phone, and make PPE kits at home for frontline workers.

Although in-person volunteering has advantages, volunteering virtually does too, by opening up opportunities to more people. “Employees who can’t leave their computer during the day, busy executives, or people who are heads-down with childcare may not be able to carve out time to participate in traditional volunteering,” Layden says. “But they can virtually volunteer from their house, working in 15-minute increments, and still make a real impact.”

Nonprofit organizations have really suffered from decreased funding this year, says Summers, so one company’s employee volunteers updated websites for nonprofits. Another company, an investment firm, turned their in-person plans for volunteering into a virtual volunteering opportunity, with senior leaders competing for the highest volunteerism rates.

Employees care about a broad spectrum of issues, and their volunteering and giving reflected that, Layden says. At the beginning of the pandemic, many donations focused on homelessness and food insecurities, but as social justice issues came to the forefront, employees donated to additional causes, such as the NAACP legal defense fund. The multifaceted focus showed that employees could handle more than one issue at once, he says.

Virtual volunteering not only offers employees more flexibility and makes corporate offerings more inclusive, but companies that support virtual volunteer programs can also help employees feel connected and invested wherever they sit. This benefits the employees, the company, and the volunteer organization, creating a win-win for everyone.

“We’re all compelled to contribute,” Layden says. “But a company’s commitment to provide employees with opportunities to drive meaningful purpose is how the world’s most generous companies truly engage their employees.”