Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Engaging Workplace

Believe it or not, people, most Canadians spends more time at (or on the way to/from) work than at home with family. It's not just the actual 35 or 37.5 or 40 or 70 hours at work with colleagues to think about, either. There's also the commuting (some of you out there spend three hours a day in your car or sleepily standing during a bus/skytrain combo-trip). You also might grocery shop or play a sport or volunteer somewhere outside the home, away from your family, significant other or cat/dog/iguana. I remember when I told a colleague of mine this statistic a few years ago. She wasn't happy. And she became a little depressed.

So, what's the point of depressing you? Well, when it comes to "career development" and "community building" at work, I'm a bit of an expert. I'll preface the pending "expertise" by acknowledging my ongoing adventures in lifelong learning as well as my adherence to the old adage: "the first thing you need to know about being smart is that you're stupid." I won't pretend to know
everything and history shows that I'm pretty stupid, but, as The Gumboot professes, our team has some good ideas...from everywhere.

As a Career Educator at the University of British Columbia, my work involves, well, preparing students for work. I also work on a team with 20 fantastic colleagues. So, given the above concept (we spend more time per week at work than anywhere else) it is important to consider how we can employ this professional and social space as a vehicle for positively impacting the community...and ourselves!

First, there are a lot of dysfunctional workplaces out there. Trust me, I've seen storylines from
The Office reproduced in real time in real life. I know a guy who knows a guy who began his career in a place where, for his first four months on the job, every staff meeting ended with someone crying. It was like The Office, except instead of humour there was only twice as much awkwardness...

But I digress...

My point is that one of the ways that the aforementioned semi-dysfunctional team came together was when the boss organized a volunteer opportunity with the good folks at Habitat for Humanity. As the story goes, the job was to build a fence at one of the project houses in the city. And build they did! Whether it was a "good" or "straight" or "well built" fence is irrelevant, but it certainly brought their little workplace community together in a positive way. And it could've gone just the opposite way, as hammers, nails and a bevy of sharp power tools were all at arms-reach.

Second, let's move from a team-based-project bringing the workplace together and take it to the next level. Recently, I was asked by my boss to spearhead a Christmas Community Engagement project for our office. We chose to head to the Salvation Army's Belkin House (talk to Eva, the Volunteer Coordinator if you want to help out) and made dinner and wrapped presents. This was a different kind of community-building. Our team is solid and amazing, hardly dysfunctional. We were given an opportunity to engage our surrounding community and make an impact as a group. There were three main outcomes:

Outcometh the first: it's like when people try to "make a difference" in Africa - we went in trying to help people less fortunate than us, and ended up getting more out of the experience than we ever gave. Helping out makes you feel great as individuals and as a team.
Outcometh the second: we made people smile. So many community-outreach programs succeed and fail on the backs and in the good hearts of volunteers. This was one of the successes, and we genuinely made a difference - albeit little and tiny in the grand scheme of things - in our community.
Outcometh the third: ripple effects. Since taking part in this project on December 8, 2008, many of us have gone back to volunteer again. All of us are on the volunteer call list. And we are currently in the process of building and sustaining an ongoing partnership with Belkin House. Not only that, we have become leaders, as other groups at UBC have approached us asking to join our effort. Because when you help people out, man, it's contageous.

From a career education perspective, being the office "philanthropist" or "helper" puts you in an excellent position. Helping others - positively engaging your community - is hard to say no to.* Done well and chalked full of smiles and thank-yous, these kinds of projects are the sort of thing that a new employee can take on to showcase their leadership and organizational skills as well as their unpretentious commitment to social justice. Inspiring others to be the change they want to see in the world is, after all, a pretty cool feeling.

To summarize, think about getting your office together to positively engage your community. Whether it's serving a meal, organizing a food/toy-drive event, providing free-expertise to those who need it, or "building" a fence, the impact you make will bring your team closer together while making a whole buncha people smile. Getting involved is easy (Vancouver's not even
close to being a city of equal opportunity) - just check out www.volunteervancouver.ca for more information.

Now is a great time to help out. The holiday season inspires a lot of people to volunteer in soup kitchens, community centres, not-for-profits, shelters, and the food bank. The problem is that people are poor all year long, not just at Christmas. And the economic downturn is hurting the downtrodden more than anyone else. Especially in Vancouver. Community-engagement needs to be sustained all year long. So think about how you - and your team at the office - can make the most of your time together change the world today. You might even change yourselves and change your team-dynamic while you're at it. And it's a good feeling!

Thanks. And as you get your colleagues together on a volunteer project, remember:
have fun with it!


*John's Humour-in-the-Workplace Tip: if you want to be helpful and controversial, take a Colbert or Swiftian tact and challenge disinterest and/or cynicism with comments like, "well, I kinda think you should help out, [insert colleague's name here]. Can I ask you a question? Why exactly do you hate poor people?" I can't stress enough how important it is to have a good relationship with your colleague/target as well as fantastic communication/backpeddling skills if you're going to try this out. Make sure they have a sense of humour, get irony and, most importantly, make sure you have a sense of humour, too!

1 comment:

Theodora Lamb said...

Nice post, John. If just one member of every household in Canada volunteered for something, anything at least once a year - a festival, kitchen, recreation centre - we'd be in fantastic shape! Starting with the workplace is a great beginning. Volweb.ca is also a great website. It's fairly new, operating through the 2010 Legacies people. It allows you to really narrow down what kind of volunteer work you want to be involved in.... it's really important that you find the right match for yourself.