IT workers with heart

For these companies, employee volunteerism means improved collaboration and productivity on the job

More and more companies are offering paid time off to employees who want to volunteer, either on company-sponsored initiatives or at a charity or agency of their own choosing.

You might think Steve Kranson, who works at Comerica Bank in Auburn Hills, Mich., is your average IT manager. But he's also been known to log hours dressed up like the Easter Bunny, to the delight of local kids.

Amy Crow, who spends most of her working hours as an IT project manager at Texas Health Resources , has been spotted stepping away from her computer to work on gardening and landscaping projects at nursing homes, organize donated linens and other household items for local disaster relief agencies and sing holiday songs at elementary schools in the neighborhood.

And Paychex Inc. employees Dan Canzano, vice president of IT operations and support, and Tammy Hall, director of enterprise service management, have spent some of their worktime polishing their poker-playing skills and raking in some big bucks for charity.

In all three cases, these IT professionals performed these activities with the blessing of their employers, who often allow workers to take paid time off to donate their skills, talents and time to charities and other nonprofit organizations.

I just interviewed two people under 30. They both asked about personal days for volunteering. Younger folks are asking about community involvement. Marcia Riley, vice president of talent management and human resources, ESI International

Employers also benefit from these arrangements. In fact, they are increasingly more than happy to subsidize employees' volunteer efforts outside the workplace, because they've noticed an undeniable link between employee volunteerism and improved collaboration and productivity on the job.

"Outside volunteer activities afford workers an opportunity to view their co-workers through a different lens," says David Ballai, CIO at Reed Technology in Horsham, Pa.

"You see them assisting in the community and interacting in a different environment. When they come back to work, they have a more holistic view of their peers and can appreciate how they view the world," he says. "It's great for team-building."

Moreover, volunteerism can enhance a company's image in the communities where its employees and customers live. And offering time off -- either paid for unpaid -- for charity work can also help organizations attract younger, more community-minded and tech-savvy employees, experts say.

"I just interviewed two people under 30. They both asked about personal days for volunteering. Younger folks are asking about community involvement," says Marcia Riley, vice president of talent management and human resources at ESI International, an Arlington, Va.-based training and consulting firm. "I was not asked that question 20 years ago. Younger folks are demanding this benefit, and good employers are responding."

Anecdotal evidence indicates that an increasing number of companies are offering paid time off to employees who want to volunteer, either on company-sponsored initiatives or at a charity or agency of their own choosing. Comerica, for example, has donated more than 100,000 hours of its employees' time in the past two years, which translates to more than $2 million worth of volunteer activities in the communities it serves.

"At the end of the day, our people really feel good about what they've done. Whether visiting soup kitchens or delivering Meals on Wheels, it's a great unifying event for our people, and it's great for the communities and institutions we're in," says Comerica CTO George Surdu.

Texas Health Resources, whose tagline is "Healing Hands, Caring Hearts," pays its employees for volunteer time served.

"I understand branding and marketing, but we actually live that at Texas Health," says CIO Ed Marks. "One way we live that is to allow our people to volunteer and get paid for it.

"It has a huge impact not only on our perception in the community and with the people we serve but on our employees themselves. They come back changed and with a fresh outlook on what our role is in the community, what our role is in healthcare and what our role is in IT," he says. Here's a look at some of the volunteer activities IT teams have taken on, with win-win results.

Comerica: Connecting with the community

Banking is all about relationships, according to Comerica CTO George Surdu. Volunteering in the community, he notes, is one of the best ways to build those relationships.

Comerica Bank IT staffers and their families gathered at Comerica Park for a Multiple Sclerosis Walk.

IT workers like Kranson can volunteer on projects as individuals, such as dressing up as the Easter Bunny at a local fundraiser. They also regularly go out as a team, volunteering on projects that range from assessing IT systems for the Detroit Zoo to sorting canned goods at a local food bank.

Last winter, the IT department worked with the Detroit Tigers baseball team (whose home field is Comerica Park) to collect 600 pairs of mittens, which were donated to several nonprofit organizations in the Detroit metro area.

Mike Lawson, Comerica's vice president of technology services, estimates that as a group, IT donates its time and skills to more than a dozen different charitable organizations. "It can be a form of stress relief," he says. "It's also a way for people to work with people they don't [typically] work with," he says.

Texas Health: Getting a different view of co-workers

Texas Health project manager Crow's most recent volunteer project involved waxing and arranging lumber used in building a Habitat for Humanity home.

"We arrived early in the morning, and the house wasn't fully framed yet, so I helped the guys who were nailing and hammering," she recalls. "I did sweeping and other various things, whatever needed to be done."

IT staffers at Texas Health Resources tackled a community project with Habitat for Humanity.

Crow says that one of the biggest benefits of volunteering with fellow Texas Health IT workers is that such activities give her an opportunity to get to know her co-workers.

"I think it allows us to see each other in a different light, to see different skills than those we use on the job," she says. "I was so impressed to see the skills of my teammates. People not in leadership roles at work took a leadership role on the house-building project because of their skills."

She says it's also incredibly rewarding to see the physical results of a day spent doing volunteer work. Day to day in IT, "people are normally sitting at computers coding," she notes. "The work is all mental or in a computer system. Here, we get to see what we accomplished."

As part of its community time-off benefit, Arlington-based Texas Health allows employees to take eight hours of paid leave to volunteer. "It absolutely affects how I feel about working here," Crow says. "It makes me feel good that the company has this program as a benefit."

Paychex: Boosting pride while touching the community

Five years ago, when celebrity poker was all the rage, an IT director at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex suggested that the company's 1,000-person IT department stage its own poker tournament and donate the proceeds to breast cancer research. Twenty bucks got you into the game, which was limited to 100 players. That year, proceeds came to about $2,000, all of which went directly to cancer research.

Since then, the tournament has become an annual event, raising $2,000 to $2,500 a year.

Another Paychex IT director proposed that the department get involved with inner-city Rochester schoolchildren. He felt that the company's IT professionals could mentor students and encourage them to do well in school and pursue careers in the technology arena.

Paychex IT staffers recently volunteered as a group to help clean up at a local arboretum.

That effort annually involves between 15 and 20 IT staffers who volunteer their time to the students who, at the end of the program, are formally recognized at a graduation ceremony and luncheon at Paychex's headquarters.

"There is no tracking of activities relative to company time," notes Canzano. "The company encourages employees to participate [in volunteer activities]. It's absolutely part of our culture and a source of pride for us."

It's also a big morale booster for employees like Donna Deffenbaugh, administrative assistant to the IT department. Deffenbaugh has been on volunteer teams that have done gardening work at a local arboretum and helped out at a group home for disadvantaged people.

"This year, we went to a senior citizen home, and the back of my shirt said 'Paychex,'" Deffenbaugh recalls. "One woman at the home worked at Paychex in the mid-1970s, and she was so excited and told me how she used to do payroll. They were thrilled to come up and ask us about Paychex. It's very motivating."

Booz Allen Hamilton: Employees pick their projects

"I've done everything from refurbishing homes in the D.C. area to helping organize a bowling event for a scholarship program for kids," says Derrick Burton, director of internal IT strategy at McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton . "There's a culture here that says you don't just work for Booz, you work for the community you're in," he explains. As Burton sees it, IT brings unique talents to bear on all variety of volunteer projects.

"Engineering and IT people are good at diagnosing the problem and mapping out the project. People in IT are also used to hard deadlines and used to doing a lot with a little money. Those skills and the drive to make sure it's done right all come out in the variety of projects we work on," he says.

Volunteering on outside projects also gives IT employees an opportunity to match names and email addresses with real, live co-workers.

"With mobility and people working all over the place, you do a lot of collaborating, but you don't know folks and you don't see folks," Burton notes. "Bringing them together builds teamwork and camaraderie. You also have junior and senior people working together on the same projects. What you find out is people are just people. They've got kids to raise and bills to pay. You get the opportunity to have conversations with other people in the firm who you may not have been comfortable having a conversation with before because you thought they were somehow superior."

For the most part, employees come up with the volunteer projects to work on. The company kicks in with dollars, offering employees who donate 40 hours of their time to charitable works the opportunity to apply for a service grant.

"This way, you have dollars plus employees delivering value with their skills," notes Joe Suarez, senior adviser, community partnership and philanthropy, at Booz Allen Hamilton.

The benefit of this employee-centric model is that it allows employees to choose projects where they know they can best apply their own skills and have the greatest impact, he adds.

Adventist Health: Making connections among busy staffers

IT employees at Adventist Health System can volunteer an hour a week on company time and get paid for it. They take a team approach, pooling their skills and their time to, among other things, help a charity called the Center for Independent Living by building ramps at the homes of people who rely on wheelchairs. In the past five years, IT workers have built 15 to 20 ramps.

"It requires no experience and after many years, we've gotten pretty good at it," says Francisco Manalo, an IT director at Adventist Health's Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

"It helps to build a strong team because most of our IT folks don't work together," he says.

"It's also a very rewarding experience seeing the homeowner [use the ramp for the first time] after the building is completed," says IT manager David Walker, who is the coordinator for the ramp-building projects.

Other volunteer projects Adventist employees have worked on as a team include building homes for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up litter on highways, refurbishing playgrounds and working at a food bank.

"We encourage volunteerism from the top down, but it's also a grass-roots effort," says CIO John McLendon. Even though the focus is volunteering for the project at hand, work-related benefits also accrue.

"You'd be surprised how much work you get done picking up trash on the side of the road," he says. "[The] added bonus is that when you come back to work and need help from someone in applications support or another department, you have something in common with that person. When relationships are made through volunteerism, it paves the way for efficiency."

Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.

This story, "IT workers with heart" was originally published by Computerworld.

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