Thanks to benefits including flexible working policies and volunteering schemes, the average length of service at IBM is a whopping 11 years. We look at the business benefits of offering such schemes to staff.
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We all have good intentions. A popular fantasy among the current ‘have-it-all’ generation is that of the volunteer worker, where after a hard week’s work they go out into the community to give something back. Actually finding the time to carry out charitable deeds, however, is another matter. Many employees struggle to fit in everyday tasks let alone take on anything extra. Staff at IBM have no such excuse. The IT company’s commitment to community volunteer work combined with its extensive flexible working programme not only helps employees to find suitable projects but also ensures they have the time to spare. Under the umbrella of its global On Demand Community, it offers a range of resources to support and encourage staff in their volunteer work. The man behind the initiative is IBM’s corporate community relations manager, Mark Wakefield. He believes that the programme plays an important role in helping staff to achieve a better work-life balance. “It’s not necessarily healthy for staff to spend 10 to 12 hours a day at a laptop so giving them a good reason to get away from their desk, go out into the community and do something different is a very good strategy for managing stress and work-life balance,” he explains. Once employees have decided that they want to volunteer, a dedicated website helps them to find a suitable project in their area. Staff that are already serving as volunteers, meanwhile, can register their activities on the site in order to record their actions. Once they have notched up 50 hours of service, registered staff receive a certificate signed by the chief executive of their division. For British-based staff this is general manager for the UK and Ireland, Larry Hirst. Wakefield explains that the programme was designed to reinforce some of IBM’s core values. “It’s called ‘On Demand Community’ so it reflects the brand strategy for the organisation. It is on demand in the sense that the tools, the support and the resources for staff to become volunteers in the community are available to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, literally on demand. So the programme to some extent reflects the style of work and the challenges that IBM staff have in their everyday lives. It’s flexible, it’s variable and people can choose which bits they want to do.” Since its launch in November 2003, the programme has been a resounding success. Its initial target was to get 25,000 employees worldwide to register as active volunteers in the first two years of the scheme, yet this number was exceeded in just 11 months. In the UK alone, more than 1,200 staff have registered. Wakefield believes that the programme supports many employees’ desire to work for an organisation thats values match their own. “The fact that IBM is willing to commit substantial resources to an initiative like this makes [employees] feel proud to be associated with the company. Staff increasingly want to feel they are working for a company that has strong values, strong ethics and is committed to broader goals than just making money.” And employees are not the only ones to benefit. “The large number of our staff that are active in their community are obviously great ambassadors for the company. Corporate reputation is a critical success factor for any company these days particularly when you are a professional services company where people will largely buy on the strength of your reputation. So the more staff we have out in the field demonstrating that, or exemplifying the sorts of values we have, will certainly have the benefit of enhancing our reputation,” explains Wakefield. Staff may even benefit without realising it. Tackling projects such as becoming a school governor, for example, often requires a completely different set of skills than those used in their everyday roles. Once employees have acquired a new skill set, however, they may unconsciously apply it in their working lives. “In a large company like IBM, a large number of staff tend to do very specialised roles so the opportunity to go out and say be a school governor means that they develop a whole range of different management competencies in an area that they may not have the opportunity to practice in IBM. I think it gives them a better understanding of the marketplace. A lot of our relationships are with other businesses that sound, think, look and feel a lot like us so actually getting people out into the wider community, seeing a different cross-section of society is very helpful.” IBM’s involvement continues even after employees have embarked on a project. The On Demand website, for example, contains a wide range of resources such as presentations and background materials that staff can download and use in the organisation that they have chosen to support. The business also offers volunteers some more tangible benefits. Employees that choose to work in schools, charities or not-for-profit organisations are eligible to apply for a community grant. Amounts can range from £650 up to a team volunteering grant of £4,000. To qualify, staff must volunteer for a minimum of eight hours a month for five months. Discounts on IBM’s products are also available to selected organisations. Some of IBM’s aims in offering this type of programme focus on much longer-term goals. Its volunteering programme has a strong emphasis on education, for example, which Wakefield explains will benefit the business in years to come. “Education is really important to us, both in terms of having a well-educated community from which we can recruit our future employees but also having a community which understands and can appreciate the potential benefits of technology. And a better-educated community potentially has better prospects and therefore a better environment in which we can do business.” Encouraging staff to volunteer, however, is all well and good but numerous demands on employees’ time mean that many believe they are unable to do so. This is where the organisation’s extensive flexible working programme comes into play. While many of us can only dream about choosing where we want to work and for how long, for employees at IBM the choice comes as standard. Anouska Wilson, programme manager, flexible working, explains the advantages of such a programme are twofold and have helped the organisation adapt to keep abreast of both changing customer and employee demands. “Things have changed in terms of what clients are expecting out in the marketplace. There’s no longer necessarily a nine-to-five structure out there. If you look at the very fabric of the business and what IBM is all about, it’s all about its people. One of the values that we have is around trust in our employees and in our relationships.” Flexible working has been engrained in the organisation’s culture for more than 10 years. Today, staff can choose from a wide range of options including compressed hours, job-share, annualised hours and part-time work. Many can also choose where they want to work and the organisation has a large number of home and mobile workers. Wilson explains that the programme has developed in line with employees’ changing expectations. “I think our programme’s really reflecting a social change. People have different aspirations and different values so we have to be able to reflect that in what we offer. If you look at the fabric of the business and what IBM is all about, it’s about its people. One of the values that it has is around trust in our employees. It seemed odd to just offer binary decisions [about how they could] work.” Implementing the scheme, however, has not been without its difficulties. One of the biggest challenges that Wilson has encountered has been overcoming the numerous myths that surround flexible working. These include the idea that it is only available for women with children and that staff who choose to work flexibly will jeopardise their career progression. To overcome these perceptions Wilson carries out regular communication campaigns highlighting case studies of employees that work flexibly but do not fit the stereotypical model of flexible workers. These have included women who work part-time but do not have children and male employees. Given these examples, it is perhaps unsurprising that employees have embraced the organisation’s work- life balance policies. “It’s interesting that colleagues around them and managers also have positive feedback. What you find most is the value of the company and employees’ perceived value of themselves in the company just goes up another few notches when they’re allowed to do this. And their productivity is incredible because they’re allowed to cut their hours but it’s that freedom to do what they want to do in the hours they are not here that makes them more motivated when they are here,” explains Wilson. With this kind of response, it is little wonder that the organisation has notched up an average length of service of 11 years. Wilson believes this has helped IBM to retain a valued skills base. “If you look at some of the types of roles that are performed here, some of them can be very pressurised at certain points in [an employee’s] life and to feel that they only have one choice is not very accommodating. For the business, it’s very valuable because you’ve got a huge set of acquired skills that can be deployed.” “The programme is very much a business-centred programme, in terms of retaining key staff, improving productivity and its ability to potentially cut costs,” she adds. It just goes to shows that aligning business policies to staff needs really does pay off.
Career profile Mark Wakefield’s background is rooted firmly in youth and community work. Prior to joining IBM three-and-a-half years ago, he spent 22 years managing organisations such as youth clubs and local authority youth services. It was his expertise in these areas that resulted in his move to the role of corporate community relations manager at IBM. Since joining the company he has launched several major initiatives for IBM that have raised the bar of its corporate social responsibility programme. One such scheme is an employee mentoring programme. “I set that up from scratch and in two-and-a-half years we’ve had over 1,000 IBM staff mentoring students. At the moment, there are over 600 staff involved. I think that’s a huge achievement. Staff get an awful lot out of it,” says Wakefield.
Career profile Anouska Wilson’s career with IBM spans more than 20 years, after she joined as a graduate trainee. During her time with the organisation, she has experienced a variety of roles moving between departments such as sales, training and latterly HR. It was from here that she became involved with IBM’s flexible working programme after working flexibly herself for more than eight years. She explains: “Even before that I had the flexibility to choose when and where I worked. You don’t have the feeling that someone is watching over your shoulder. You’re trusted in terms of how you achieve things. There has seemed to be a new focus since the introduction of legislation in April 2003. We’ve offered [beyond the legislative minimum] for some time but [it gave us] an opportunity to create a new formal programme that went out to the businesses to make sure they were aware of what they could do.”
Company at a glanceThe very first arm of International Business Machines (IBM) was created in Canada in 1917 to consolidate a number of businesses operating under the umbrella of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company – IBM’s forerunner. In 1924, the new name was extended to cover the whole of the organisation to mark the expansion of both its business function and global presence. IBM has continued to grow and today is the world’s largest information technology company, providing IT services, software, hardware, microelectronics, rental and financing. It has a presence in some 170 countries and a global workforce of approximately 319,000 employees.
Employee case studyAndi Britt is an associate partner in human capital management for IBM Business Consulting Services. He advises clients on issues such as people management and performance.Britt has been working flexibly for the past 13 years. He initially began to work a four-day week in order to commit more time to his voluntary work with a local church, but since having a family has found that the arrangement also gives him more time to spend with them. “That fifth day creates some space for me to do my voluntary work and to spend some time with the family,” he explains. Contrary to popular myth, Britt has not found that working flexibly has impinged on his career progression. “Most people are more intrigued and a tad envious than prejudiced,” he explains. As a school governor, Britt also appreciates IBM’s community volunteering grants. “It’s wonderful when you can go along to your local cash-strapped school and say ‘do you fancy a laptop?’ or ‘can I help you think about how you deliver your science or IT lessons because we’ve got the equipment to help you do that’.”
Pension Defined contribution scheme open to new entrants. Staff contributions of 3%. Employer contributions of 6% for staff under 35 and 6% for staff age 35 or over. HealthcarePrivate medical insurance.
Work-life balance policies Range of flexible working options, Returning mothers may work part-time for two years with a guarantee of full-time employment afterwards.
Corporate social responsibility Community volunteering programme – grants available for employees’ projects.
Social clubs Organised recreational leagues, classes and employer-sponsored trips.
Discounts Available on selected IBM PC computer hardware and software products.