Reimagining employee volunteering

February 8, 2018 Supriya Singh

I have always been inspired by the life and works of Vincent van Gogh. He had a deep love for nature, simple living and country life. Talking about his art, he once said, “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.” I often go back to this thought while managing employee volunteering –an amalgamation of intent, ability and shared values.

At the Tata Group, our mission is ‘to improve the quality of life of the communities we serve globally through long-term stakeholder value creation based on leadership with trust’. Employee volunteering is one of the key mechanisms through which we channel our 650,000 employees toward this mission and contribute to sustainable development. At Tata Communications, we have a focused CSR programme which aims to resolve the concerns of the society we serve: in education, employability and healthcare. And to deepen impact of our work, we have made a conscious effort to involve our vast global network of employees in CSR. We also believe that to be a ‘great place to work’, our employees ought to be invested in social issues and go beyond business.

Our long-term CSR projects impact more than 70,000 women, children, youth, farmers and community members annually. While our employees volunteer their skills and time on a regular basis, we decided earlier this year to take our commitment to community action to another level. We launched DRIVE Week – our first ever company-wide tools-down day that united employees across geographies to serve the common goal of giving back to society. DRIVE (Daring, Responsive, Inclusive, Venturing, Ethical) is a set of leadership values through which we strive to build an organisational culture that epitomises innovation and collaboration. By linking employee volunteering to DRIVE, we wanted our employees to come together and experience new ways of being and doing as individuals, as employees of Tata Communications and as members of a wider society.

During the week, employees chose to contribute to an initiative close to their heart from a variety of carefully curated activities. These ranged from mentoring youth from our skill development programmes, imparting social media skills to budding entrepreneurs, creating learning aids for children with disabilitie,s to fundraising for underserved families, working in food banks and cleaning beaches. The result? A record 6,500+ volunteers clocked a total of 25,755 hours – equivalent to nearly three years – through 276 volunteer events held in 49 cities around the globe.

So how did we get so many of our people to give so much? For starters, we treated it as a mini-movement that focused on a clear strategic objective of giving back to society. Since it involved galvaniing 10,500 employees, we created a cross-functional team and a group of committed mobilisers, most of whom were active volunteers already, and who could learn, collaborate and work together. We then focused on building the collective capacity of our mobilisers, developing them into ‘volunteer leaders’. Rallying them around one single goal and making them understand their contribution in the context of a larger whole was at the heart of the capacity-building programme. And our senior management led from the front. In the run-up to DRIVE Week, they integrated it into their weekly and monthly meetings with their respective teams.

To strengthen our efforts further, we used digital technology and created an online platform that enlisted all possible ways of volunteering across our offices globally. We wanted our employees to have the freedom to choose – the cause, time, location and community they identified with the most. Democratising and decentralising the organisation of employee volunteering is important, for these are the two most powerful enablers of a global effort of this scale.

My experience of DRIVE Week reinforced three of my long-cherished beliefs. First, assembling a cross-functional team is not enough to ensure the success of such a campaign. A cross-functional team needs to create a unified narrative which requires to be well articulated. During DRIVE WEEK, we created a story of us, of self and of the world we live in – here and now. Second, a structured leadership approach based on shared purpose fosters motivation and accountability. Third, apart from positively impacting communities, volunteering offers an excellent learning and development opportunity through which we can build critical skills and expertise in employees. Employee volunteering is a neutral space without designations. It draws one out of our comfort zone which, as we all know, is where the magic begins!

So where do go from here? We have created avenues to use our vast network of volunteer leaders to stay engaged, focused and use the experience gained during DRIVE Week to nurture a new generation of employee volunteers. Global Guidelines on CSR and employee volunteering have been launched to further clarify the intent and direction of our social efforts to our colleagues spread across the globe.

At Tata Communications, CSR is not a budget but a value system and not merely compliance but creation of shared values and better life situations for millions. This year, DRIVE Week demonstrated to us all that we can live up to the Tata Group’s high societal purpose – we have gained a great deal by focusing outward, into our communities.  Our next steps can only take us further.

Read one of our previous blogs on unlocking transformation through diversity.

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