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Why IBM Pays Employees For Time Away From the Office

Eighty percent of employees who participate in the program say they'll stay at the company for life.

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

Is it possible to fix the world’s biggest problems and help employees feel more inspired about their day-to-day jobs in the process? IBM—a company known for their innovative solutions—may have found a way to do it through a trio of programs that match employees with volunteer projects around the world, Fast Company reports.

IBM, “perhaps the world’s most valuable brain trust for number crunching and advanced computing,” as Fast Company writer Ben Paynter puts it, launched the Corporate Service Corps a decade ago, and as of 2008, had deployed 3,500 employees to projects in 40 countries.

Since the Corporate Service Corps began, the company has expanded its philanthropic mission to include two other similar programs: IBM Health Corps and the Smarter Cities Challenge. While each program focuses on a different issue, the idea behind all of them is to “loan coders, engineers, and even business development managers to social good projects that could change the world,” Paynter writes.

The way it works is pretty straightforward: IBM identifies a need, often in coordination with other organizations or charities, then selects a “corporate dream team of about half-dozen to a dozen” employees from across the company, Paynter writes. The “dream team” collaborates remotely for a few months, then comes together for a few weeks to test their proposed solution in real life. The employees are paid for the time they spend away from the office volunteering.

The results have been inspiring, including feats like making cancer treatments more readily available in sub-Saharan Africa, helping programmers in Senegal learn business and technical skills, improving ambulance response times in Memphis and creating a renewable energy grid in Taiwan, Paynter reports.

Unsurprisingly, the program is very popular, and as a result, extremely competitive. Only 10 percent of applicants are chosen for any given project and the selection process is rigorous. The 500 employees expected to “deploy” this year will need to have been at IBM for at least two years, have their past performance reviewed by a committee, undergo an interview and complete a series of essay questions to see if their skillset and attitude is a fit for a specific mission. Candidates who have a demonstrated interest in community service work have a leg up in the process, Paynter notes.

While the work IBM employees are doing around the world is undeniably important, one of the most valuable aspects of the programs seems to be the new perspectives employees bring with them back to the office, making them “generally become more valuable to the company,” Paynter writes. According to the Fast Company piece, an IBM survey found that 80 percent of managers say employees come back from the projects “more positive and motivated,” and 80 percent of employees deployed on projects say they’re interested in staying at the company for life.

Paynter interviewed Tom Eggebraaten, a Minnesota-based senior software engineer and “lead developer of IBM’s Watson for Oncology software.” Eggebraaten had been for the company for almost 18 years when he applied for the sub-Saharan cancer effort last summer after feeling “worn down by the process” of his job. “It was really good timing for this assignment to become available,” he told Paynter. “I was able to focus 100 percent on something…and to really see my work in a different perspective. [That] renewed passion for my day-to-day work. And I found a way to get my motivation back.”

Ultimately, being able to work on meaningful projects outside of your normal day-to-day role can teach everyone—not just some of the world’s best problem solvers—how to see challenges through a different lens and gain insight on how to tackle issues closer to home. It’s also an example for other companies to follow about the importance of volunteering for employee morale and company engagement. If your company doesn’t have team volunteer programs in place, you can use some of the same techniques to help those around you—and stay engaged in your desk job—by getting involved in a social good project in your own area.

Read more on Fast Company.  

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