Why Virtual Volunteering is Driving Employee Engagement

Woman Virtual Volunteering from an outdoor patio in the tropics with her feet up and laptop open

We’ve all seen the posters. A group of happy people, a perfect demographic slice, standing around a construction site, wearing full protective gear, laughing, holding hammers (laughing at hammers?) … building something? The caption is always something like, this is what giving back looks like! But (Surprise!) it’s not.

More and more, volunteering takes place on your couch, with your coworkers, during your workday. It’s remote Volunteer Time Off (VTO), the newest/oldest trend in employee perks. And many employers are hoping that doing it virtually is going to help retain employees at a time when a fifth of workers say they are prepared to quit within the year.

What is VTO?

At its core, VTO has a fairly mundane definition. According to the Society for HR Management, “Employer-sponsored volunteerism is defined as organizational support, often in the form of paid leave or sponsorship, for employees pursuing volunteer opportunities or performing community services.”

For Kara DiGiacomo, the Executive Director of the Akamai Foundation, VTO is a “natural and organic way for us to continue supporting the communities where we live, where we work.” Starting in public relations in the pharma world, she found the most moving stories to tell were the ones where people were directly impacted. She soon found herself organizing volunteering events and moving into philanthropy. Now, at Akamai, Kara says she’s seen the approach to volunteering evolve, but it remains critical for a global company where “remote” applies to everyone on some level. “The goal really is to continue to provide flexibility for employees,” she says. “Keep them tethered to the organization, allow them to exercise those muscles that they might not be using in their day job.”

Hot VTO summer: Why now?

VTO is an easy way to show the world how you’re meeting your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals. Is VTO for CSR a recent trend or just more alphabet soup? Looking at the numbers, it appears like the real deal. According to the 2018 Employee Benefits Report issued by the Society for HR Management, VTO has grown in popularity recently. In 2009 only 15% of employers offered it, but now nearly 1 in 4 companies and nonprofits in the U.S. are using VTO.

One group pushing the trend seems to be younger employees. In a piece for Fast Company, Nathaniel Heller, Vice President & Managing Director of the philanthropic firm Geneva Global writes, “Younger employees continue to pressure leadership to break down siloes and tackle broader societal challenges within the four (proverbial) walls of the office.”

VTO … Virtually?

It may seem like it sprang fully formed from the pandemic, but virtual volunteering has been a growing trend for years. The means to do it have only gotten more accessible for volunteers. Giving back virtually also lets some workers tap more deeply into their skills and apply them where they’re needed most. DiGiacomo says that opportunity allows employees to feel like their time is being used to its greatest impact. “I think what's really critical is listening to your employees. [We] offer a variety of virtual volunteer programs oriented around STEM education, leveraging our expertise and our technical skills. We’re absolutely seeing it blossom beyond the once-and-done volunteerism.”

The pandemic pushed the equation from the other side, spurring nonprofits to create more virtual programs for volunteering. DiGiacomo says she’s seen the digital opportunities offered by nonprofits expand in recent years. “There has been a shift. Especially with COVID, the increase in virtual volunteer opportunities expanded tremendously, and a lot of organizations were really able to capitalize on that so they could bring working professionals into programs or classrooms as a complement to the education students were receiving.”

At its core, it’s a cultural exercise.

Perks, reputation, and doing good aside, volunteer programs are good for the culture of your company. Whether they’re virtual or in person, they help to reframe relationships and build new bonds. It creates “a shift in roles in a hierarchy. Those that may not have been leading a group were found to be leading a group,” DiGiacomo says. Ultimately our people “wanted the opportunity to connect and work together, build communication skills, create those shared memories with one another so that all of those experiences could translate into stronger teams.”

Thinking back to the motivational posters, maybe it’s worth exploring whether hard hats, hammers, and reflective vests are the only ways to make a difference. But if it makes you happy, you can always bring a hammer to your virtual VTO experience.