Why virtual volunteering is a perfect match for hybrid work

Employee volunteerism is settling into a hybrid model of its own — giving workers a way to connect with each other and a greater sense of purpose.

By Sarah Halasz Graham — February 28, 2023

Last July, employees of HP’s commercial organization located in cities around the world participated in a neighborhood clean-up project — together.

Over the course of a week, hundreds of members of the 10,000-person, globally distributed team logged on to the citizen-scientist app Marine Debris Tracker and hit the street — or the beach or the trail — alongside colleagues and family members and picked up trash. They cataloged each piece of paper and plastic they found, disposed of it in the Earth-friendliest way, and logged their progress on an online leaderboard. By the time the project finished, employees from Barcelona to Bucharest and Madrid to Mexico City had logged 17,000 collected items.

As hybrid work becomes the new normal for millions, employee volunteerism is settling into a hybrid model of its own, where projects are coordinated online for global teams and take place on volunteers’ schedules. It’s a structure, proponents say, that allows for flexibility, team engagement, and the kind of bite-sized compassion breaks that can improve employees’ mental health and reduce stress.

“You can engage people all over the world,” says Meghan Lamont, the Barcelona-based chief of staff and communications manager for HP’s sales operations team. “And because you’re all contributing to the same project at the same time, it almost feels like you’re in a face-to-face volunteering event.”

Tapping into employees’ passion for purpose

That feeling of belonging, combined with the way corporate volunteering allows employees to tap into their personal passions and skills, bears big benefits not only for workers but also for employers.

In a 2021 McKinsey & Company study, 63% of employees polled said they want more opportunities for purpose-driven corporate projects. Employees who live their purpose at work report higher levels of health, resilience, and energy. They feel more satisfaction at work, more engagement, and achievement.

When offered those projects, employees are more willing to stick around. Data from Benevity, a corporate purpose platform that helps companies build and track volunteering efforts, suggests that newer employees are 52% less likely to leave when they engage in purpose-driven activities at work.

“Volunteering solves a lot of business problems,” says Sona Khosla, Benevity’s chief impact officer. “Companies that have strong volunteering programs also have strong pride. Their employees are much more likely to refer other candidates, which then helps attract more talent that’s committed to passionate, purpose-driven work.”

Fresh data from Benevity shows that companies logged 14.2 million hours volunteered in 2022, a 57% increase from 2021. More than half of the hours logged for volunteer opportunities — 54% — happened online, a nearly 100% jump from 2019.

Khosla notes that when employees share not only their time but also their professional skills within their communities, they even help transform company culture.

“People who did skills-based volunteering were much more likely to get promoted than those who didn’t,” she says, referencing Benevity data. “When we looked at the demographic data, those people who were volunteering were more likely to be women or people of color. So, all of a sudden, their volunteer programs became almost a pipeline for diverse leadership.”

Ibrahim Rayintakath

Uniting far-flung teams

Lamont, who coordinated the clean-up project, headed a push beginning in 2020 to expand sustainability-related volunteerism within her unit, encouraging her colleagues to make use of the four hours per month of paid volunteer time off HP offers to each employee. Lamont led her unit to an 80% increase in the number of volunteer hours logged.

“It was definitely something that worked for us, to really unite and engage teams that work from home, hybrid, and globally,” she says.

The projects looked something like this: Lamont and her team initiated a campaign — tracking biodiversity, mapping neighborhoods, counting penguins, or monitoring climate-change impacts by photographing clouds in the sky, for example. Volunteers completed tasks on their own time and tracked their progress in the corresponding project app. Organizers highlighted the team’s progress throughout the week, and top performers received incentives, such as trees planted in their names.

Carole Lam-Chin, the volunteer program manager for the HP Foundation, which helps drive and advance volunteering for employees, says these projects exemplify one of the perks of the hybrid model.

Prior to the pandemic, she says, “Teleworkers really were on their own. We tried to find ways to engage them, but if they’re 50 miles away from an HP site, they’re not going to drive 50 miles to participate in a volunteer activity. Remote workers now finally have the opportunity to get together and volunteer and participate and feel really that they’re part of this global volunteer community within HP.”

 At HP, employees logged 250,000 volunteer hours in 2022, a 90% year-over-year increase and significant progress toward the company’s goal of 1.5 million volunteer hours in the decade between 2016 and 2025. Virtual opportunities, Lam-Chin says, helped fuel that bump. 

“[Virtual volunteering] was definitely something that worked for us, to really unite and engage teams that work from home, hybrid, and globally.”

— Meghan Lamont, chief of staff and communications manager, Sales Operations, HP Inc.

“I feel like employees have really embraced this,” she says.

Next month, the HP Foundation launches “40 Days of Doing Good,” an annual global campaign when HP employees around the world come together to strengthen local (and virtual) communities through volunteering. The campaign has a separate portal with virtual activities, including volunteering projects for MapSwipeHour of Code, and CareerVillage.

Virtual engagement, personal impact

In 2021, Cristina Dumitru, who serves as HP’s Romania communication lead, launched a volunteering project to teach computer and career skills to at-risk teens and young adults in Romania’s child protective services system. In 2022, participation ballooned from 30 participants to 150.

As part of the mentoring program, called HP Digital Learning, Cristina Dumitru herself took on a mentee. She spent eight months tutoring in digital and web skills, interviewing, and resume-writing over Zoom. She says that her mentee, now 19, eventually enrolled in Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Cristina Dumitru credits the flexibility of the project’s virtual format with attracting a bigger pool of volunteers. She estimates 60% of her team’s volunteer endeavors — from mentoring to humanitarian aid for neighboring Ukraine — now happen online.

“My colleagues could do it from their living rooms, from their kitchen offices,” she says. “This opened the doors to many people who had never volunteered before for us.”

Cristina Dumitru and her mentee continued their rapport after the program ended, and these days, their relationship is a mix of WhatsApp check-ins and in-person meet-ups — a hybrid model of sorts.

“The future of volunteering is hybrid volunteering — to keep what we learned to do best in our virtual projects but also to keep the empathy of a face-to-face social and personal connection,” she says. “It’s a win-win situation.”


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