Paris: Companies have been using off-site meetings and retreats to foster a sense of camaraderie among employees for decades, but obstacle courses or golf tournaments are becoming as dated as guaranteed frequent-flier upgrades to first class.
Paris: Today, more corporations are turning to hands-on volunteer projects to get their people motivated and working as a team.
In many cases, participants say such activities help them forge bonds that remain even after they return to the office.
When the breweries Molson and Coors merged two years ago, the new leadership team wanted to start things off on the right footing with a team-building exercise.
“We quickly got past the idea of a ropes course or golf outing; we really wanted something where we would give back to one of the communities where we do business,” said Samuel Walker, chief legal officer for Molson Coors. As a result, the 11 members of the executive team spent a full day of their Las Vegas meeting this year helping build a house under the tutelage of Habitat for Humanity.
“We had to unload this truck full of cement roof tiles,” Walker said. “We actually had to figure out how to have kind of a bucket line, handing these very heavy tiles from one person to the next. That’s the ultimate team-building exercise.”
Walker’s experience is far from unique. The number of professional organizations setting aside an afternoon or even a full day during an off-site meeting or convention to frame a house, build a playground or paint an after-school centre is on the rise.
Guy Amato, president and chief executive of Habitat for Humanity’s Las Vegas affiliate, said the number of requests from groups that wanted to participate in building homes while they were in town had gone from roughly half a dozen in 2005 and 2006 to 11 scheduled so far in 2007.
Dee Danmeyer, executive director of Habitat’s affiliate in Orlando, Florida—another popular city for meetings and conventions—said demand was so high that the non-profit organization was booked through early 2008.
Alan Ranzer, executive director of Impact 4 Good, a US organization that matches corporate groups with volunteer opportunities, said the number of requests he had received had gone up 50% in the past year. “We really are getting a lot more calls. It’s something companies are picking up for multiple reasons,” Ranzer said. “They see value in it for image purposes. Consumers are out there looking for companies that care, and that goes a long way.”
Statistics back up Ranzer’s assertion. According to the 2004 Cone Corporate Citizenship Study, 86% of American consumers who responded said they were somewhat likely to very likely to switch to a brand associated with a cause, if product price and quality were equal.
“People in general aren’t very trustworthy of businesses,” said Charles Moore, executive director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, a non-profit group focused on corporate giving.
“Companies are taking their philanthropy more seriously, and there are just as many business advantages as social advantages. There’s a team-building phenomenon. We find in team volunteerism there’s a camaraderie quotient.”
Moore added that a company perceived as a good corporate citizen could reap benefits ranging from better recruitment and retention to stronger relationships with customers and suppliers.
“Young people today and new employees are looking for organizations that really do demonstrate ethical core values,” said Sharon Allen, chairman of Deloitte & Touche USA. At Deloitte’s annual partner meeting in San Diego last November, about 250 participants built a playground in conjunction with Kaboom, a non-profit group that builds and refurbishes outdoor play areas in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Allen said many employees did not have the chance to talk and get to know one another while at the office.
Labouring side by side on a volunteer project gave them the opportunity to build relationships that enhanced their communication and productivity when they returned to the office.
At volunteer projects during annual marketing meetings of Unilever US, Kimberly Senter, director for category management, said she felt she could get to know her colleagues without the pressure of formal networking.
“You’re connecting on a very personal level,” she said. “There’s not a lot of talking shop. It’s more, ‘Pass me the hammer.’”
Bob Kapelski, corporate schools manager for United Parcel Service, orchestrates volunteer projects for new managers as part of the company’s introductory two-week training. Kapelski spoke of organizing a trip to a charity near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, called IMEC, a cooperative that collects secondhand medical equipment and distributes it to hospitals in developing countries. New managers were put to work sanitizing equipment like operating tables and wheelchairs, loading them onto pallets and wrapping them for shipping. The purpose of the exercise was to let new managers apply the skills they had just learned in the classroom.
“Part of the curriculum is leadership training,” Kapelski said. “They’re looking at a situation where they’re asked to organize something and work with people.”
Brian Sassaman, a senior website designer at UPS, went through the supervisor training school in New Hampshire last July and said it had given him a better grasp of the principles he had been taught, as well as a positive feeling about his employer.
“I came away impressed that UPS would commit their people to doing that. They were basically paying us to do this.” Sassaman added that since returning to UPS headquarters in Atlanta, he had sought more volunteer projects that he could do on his own time.
Glenn Welling, a managing director in investment banking at Credit Suisse, said, “I think people learned a lot about each other.”
In May 2006, a team of 35 employees from Credit Suisse visited New Orleans for a team-building meeting that included a day spent gutting a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“It was not uncommon seeing a managing director trying to tear down some mould-damaged wall and to watch a 25-year-old analyst come over to help him,” Welling said.
Senter of Unilever said, “It feels great to work for a company that does more than just write the cheque.” She added that when she had worked on a project refurbishing a Boys and Girls Club in Las Vegas, youngsters turned out to express their appreciation.
“They’re holding up signs saying, ‘We love you, Unilever.’ Frankly, in your day job you don’t get that kind of appreciation.”