We spoke to our dear friend Jan Kaan, Benelux Channel Manager at Atlassian, about the secret recipe for their company volunteering programme. Atlassian is an Australian software provider known for workplace tools like Trello and Jira. Around 150 people work in their Amsterdam EMEA office, of whom 75 percent participate in company volunteering at least once a year. That’s the largest participation rate that we’ve seen so far in any company!
In this interview with Jan, we’ll cover why volunteering helps employee engagement, how Atlassian built their company volunteering programme, and which steps you can take to create a social impact culture at your company.
Why is a company volunteering culture at work so important for employee engagement?
"There’s a reason why we keep winning Great Place to Work awards. Company volunteering has to do with employee engagement. From an employee engagement perspective, we know that every employee is searching for purpose - especially millennials. They find it very inspiring when you provide them with a purpose to complement their daily work. It will help your employees to go the extra mile for their job - it’s as simple as that."
Jan explains that volunteering is a lot of fun too.
"As a child, I grew up with the idea that it’s important to contribute to your community. I started cooking for the homeless about 10 years ago with the Salvation Army. I was really scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I had this image in my head of drunk homeless people. But, it wasn’t that. It was a very heart-warming experience. It made me think, I can do more of this. But it took a lot of effort to find opportunities and fit them into my busy schedule, so I only did it once or twice a year. I didn’t just volunteer at the Salvation Army, but also for the Red Cross, de Zonnebloem, and many others. It wasn’t until I got at Atlassian, where I get 5 days a year to volunteer, that I realized that I could do much more volunteering.
Volunteering with your colleagues as a team activity is incredibly energizing. It’s also a lot more rewarding than anything else. It gives you a much better feeling than anything that people have already done a zillion times in their lives, like go-karting or laser-tag. Company volunteering activities don’t have to cost a lot of money, at all. Just go to a retirement home, go to a school to teach kids, or look on Deedmob, it’s that easy.
Before I joined Atlassian, I didn’t think company volunteering mattered that much. I never expected that the social impact culture would really be that amazing - for me personally, as well as for my colleagues.”
What’s different about Atlassian’s volunteering culture?
"There’s a huge difference between Atlassian’s social impact culture and the previous companies I’ve worked at. The crucial thing about a company volunteering programme is its purpose. For a lot of companies, the volunteering programme solely exists to boost their reputation. Very old school CSR. It’s just for their PR propaganda and they don’t actually live by these values of giving back to the community.
At a previous job, we did a lot for underprivileged children, but it felt like it was for show. Did we really make an impact? In hindsight probably not that much. Especially when I compare it to what we do at Atlassian and what a lot of other great companies are doing nowadays. More and more companies are putting giving back to the community at the center stage."
Why do you think the volunteering programme of Atlassian is so successful?
"It takes an effort to make company volunteering happen. You can’t just say ‘hi employees, we encourage you to do volunteering team events’ or ‘you can now take a day off to volunteer’. It’s not a given that people use their 5 days to do something good, especially among our employee base. We employ a lot of expats who don’t have any knowledge of the local NGOs or social issues. So you really need to support and enable them to contribute to the local community.
The key is that a company volunteering programme has to be driven. Our Foundation Council is that driving force, of which I’m the Head. There are five members in each local Foundation Council. Membership is completely voluntary, which means that we don’t get any hours to do it and there are no earmarked FTEs in our Amsterdam office. Everyone can apply to become a member, but our application procedure is strict and we require everyone to own a volunteering project. It needs to be a small and effective team. I find it extremely addictive to work on Foundation Council projects.
As a result, volunteering and giving back is completely entrenched here. We strongly encourage each new employee to do a volunteering activity within their first 60 days at Atlassian as part of employee onboarding. When people volunteer in their first days, they are most likely to keep volunteering and giving back.
Without the Foundation Council, we would not hit the 70 percent participation rate. We need to drive attention. People are always busy doing their job, and even though they know they can volunteer, you always need to give them that extra nudge saying ‘hey, this is the opportunity, are you interested? Sign up here’.
We are the No. 1 performing region within Atlassian, and I think that’s because we’re really on top of people."
So is it then a top-down process to get people to engage in company volunteering?
"No, no, no! It’s mostly bottom-up. People in their teams have an idea, we create an opportunity out of it and it’s because of word of mouth and the Deedmob platform that people talk about it and sign up to the volunteering event. So there’s a very social element to it.
The Foundation Council facilitates bottom-up volunteering. If an employee has an idea, we go and investigate whether that kind of volunteering is possible together with the team at Deedmob. But we also ask people to invest their own time to find the right opportunity.
I think every initiative that we’ve run over the past year has been initiated here, been explored by our people, and executed by our people. Having a Foundation Council that knows what kind of volunteering is possible facilitates the process and manages expectations of employees.”
If you could start a company volunteering programme from scratch at a new company, how would you do it?
"I’m happy with a lot of things about the Atlassian Foundation Council, but there’s always room for improvement. I would definitely gather a small team to drive the initiative and include volunteering in employee onboarding. For improvements, I would have an opt-out instead of an opt-in for company volunteering activities. I think everyone should have a choice, but sometimes people are just too overwhelmed or too lazy to engage themselves. In the onboarding, I stress the volunteering activities. However, I totally understand that it can easily be forgotten. Especially when you’re in a new country and have a 3-4 day workshop filled with information about your new company. We’re a company that has hypergrowth, growing 40-50 percent year on year, meaning that we hire a lot of people, and it’s very difficult to make sure that everyone knows about the company volunteering programme and lives these values.
So this would look as follows: ‘welcome to your new company, this is your welcome pack and you’re scheduled to go and cook for the homeless or give a guest lesson on coding at a school in your 5th week.’ New people at the company just go with the flow.
It also really helps for one of the yearly team activities to be a company volunteering activity. We do this by encouraging team leads to evaluate this option.
An opt-out method would be a great way to get people engaged in the community immediately. We’ve done our research and see that if someone has worked at Atlassian for more than three years and has never volunteered, it’s incredibly difficult to get them to start. I see new people joining in the company volunteering activities, because they see everyone in their team do it."
How does Deedmob add value to your work?
"It’s great. I don’t have all the information on local NGOs myself. I also can’t see what people’s personal interests are without them telling me. I can do so many outreaches, but if we just enable people themselves to search for company volunteering opportunities on your platform - they can find whatever they want. And I don’t need to interfere with that. That’s when the multiplier effect of our work activities really kicks in.
We also use Deedmob to have one central place where all our volunteering opportunities can be found. This is ideal for new employees who want to browse around for opportunities they might want to come along to!”
How your company can become a great employer like Atlassian
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