What is it that keeps a professional volunteer motivated? They may have a work contract, but with no income attached to it, you might imagine that they would be tempted to walk away from their work at any time; the lure of income elsewhere pulling them away or the challenging issues they’re working on grinding them down. Where do they get that resourcefulness and industriousness they’re so often credited with?
I’ve been doing some work with a team from a large international development charity which sends professional volunteers to help on various projects in different countries. The volunteers are involved on all sorts of different projects, so one might be helping with environmental management, while another is working on providing health services in far flung places, and yet another is focused on fundraising. The volunteers sometimes work in remote places, across language barriers and in cultures and work contexts very different to the ones they are used to. The workplaces they travel to are usually less well-resourced than organisations at home, and might be in rural locations or deep within inner city areas. The issues they are working on are often complex and messy. As one volunteer put it, “it is hard to get satisfaction and not go crazy”.
But frequently they manage just this. And when they do, it seems to be because they’ve become very good at creating work situations that are motivating in themselves. When they talk about their experiences, it’s a rare volunteer who does not mention their relationships at work. All the evidence suggests that when these are going well, people stick around. They find their interactions rewarding. Moments of shared laughter, interest and joy can make their day. In more difficult times, feelings of solidarity and the pool of shared experience keep people engaged. Sometimes it seems that their work partner is the only one in their life who can fully appreciate how difficult a particular task was to manage, or how many hours they’ve put in trying to connect with a particular contact.
These volunteers tell me that large a part of their time is spent doing things away from their specific areas of responsibility, in order to make friends. The nods of approval, smiles of encouragement and words of understanding help them to push on with their day-to-day tasks. They tell me that when they like people, it is easier to help. They become more responsive. Sending an email or replying to a query becomes important to them. A colleague’s problem becomes in some part their own. In other words, they become personally invested. When this happens, work ceases to feel like work. Going the extra mile is not really something they think about. They just do it.
When another organisation I am working with asked me last month if it really mattered whether someone had friends at work or liked their manager, or whether respect was enough, I thought back to these volunteers. Respect between colleagues is a necessary ingredient of good work. But on occasions when associations spill into friendships, the reasons for which we find our job motivating double. We become attached not only to the work we are doing, but also to the people who surround it.
How can we apply this to our workplaces? Those volunteers who go the distance manage to create happy relationships as part of their everyday. Volunteers have neither the resources – nor the staying power – to wait for annual team-building retreats, so they must create daily habits and routines that encourage sociability and familiarity. Perhaps managers and employees from other types of organisations can learn from the experience of these volunteers. I am sure there are lots of neat examples out there, from incentivised car-pooling to supporting employee gardens, or just encouraging employees to eat their lunch together. Famous office designs like those of Google may not be replicable in every type of organisation or work situation. But they are more than a gimmick to lure the best people: they are a signal that these companies understand where employees find energy and inspiration.