IT workers with heart

At first glance, you might think Steve Kranson, who works at Comerica Bank in Auburn Hills, Mich., is your average IT manager. But he's been known to put in some time dressed as the Easter Bunny, to the delight of local kids.

Amy Crow, who spends most of her working hours as an IT project manager at Texas Health Resources, has been spotted stepping away from her computer to work on landscaping projects at nursing homes, organize donated linens and other household items for local disaster relief agencies, and sing holiday songs at elementary schools in the Arlington, Texas, area.

And Paychex employees Dan Canzano, vice president of IT operations and support, and Tammy Hall, director of enterprise service management, have spent some of their work time polishing their poker-playing skills to rake in big bucks for charity.

In all three cases, these IT professionals performed their activities with the blessing of their employers, who often allow workers to take paid time off to donate their talents and time to charities and other nonprofit organizations.

After all, employers benefit from these arrangements, too. In fact, they are increasingly more than happy to subsidize employees' volunteer efforts outside the workplace because they've noticed an undeniable link between employee volunteerism and improved collaboration and productivity on the job.

"Outside volunteer activities afford workers an opportunity to view their co-workers through a different lens," says David Ballai, CIO at Reed Technology in Horsham, Pa.

Moreover, volunteerism can enhance a company's image within the communities where its employees and customers live. And offering time off -- either paid or unpaid -- for charity work can also help organizations attract younger, more community-minded and tech-savvy employees, experts say.

"I just interviewed two people under 30. They both asked about personal days for volunteering. Younger folks are asking about community involvement," says Marcia Riley, vice president of talent management and human resources at ESI International, an Arlington, Va.-based training and consulting firm. "I was not asked that question 20 years ago. Younger folks are demanding this benefit, and good employers are responding."

"At the end of the day, our people really feel good about what they've done. Whether visiting soup kitchens or delivering Meals on Wheels, it's a great unifying event for our people, and it's great for the communities and institutions we're in," says Comerica CTO George Surdu.

Texas Health Resources, whose slogan is "Healing Hands, Caring Hearts," pays its employees for volunteer time served.

"I understand branding and marketing, but we actually live that at Texas Health," says CIO Ed Marx.

Here's a look at some volunteer activities that IT teams at these companies have taken on, with win-win results.

Comerica: Connecting with the community

Banking is all about relationships, says Surdu. Volunteering in the community, he notes, is one of the best ways to build relationships.

IT workers like Kranson volunteer individually on projects such as dressing up as the Easter Bunny at a local fundraiser. They also regularly volunteer as a team on activities that range from assessing IT systems for the Detroit Zoo to sorting canned goods at a local food bank.

Last winter, the IT department worked with the Detroit Tigers baseball team (whose home field is Comerica Park) to collect 600 pairs of mittens, which were donated to several nonprofit organizations in the Detroit metro area.

Mike Lawson, Comerica's vice president of technology services, estimates that as a group, IT donates its time and skills to more than a dozen charitable organizations. "It can be a form of stress relief," he says. "It's also a way for people to work with people they don't [typically] work with," he says.

Texas Health: Seeing co-workers in a different light

Texas Health project manager Crow's most recent volunteer activity involved waxing and arranging lumber used in a Habitat for Humanity home-building project.

"We arrived early in the morning, and the house wasn't fully framed yet, so I helped the guys who were nailing and hammering," she recalls. "I did sweeping and other various things, whatever needed to be done."

Crow says that one of the biggest benefits of volunteering with fellow Texas Health IT workers is that such activities give her an opportunity to get to know her co-workers.

"I think it allows us to see each other in a different light, to see different skills than those we use on the job," she says. "I was so impressed to see the skills of my teammates. People not in leadership roles at work took a leadership role on the house-building project because of their skills."

Paychex: Boosting pride while touching the community

Five years ago, when celebrity poker was all the rage, an IT director at Rochester, N.Y.-based Paychex suggested that the company's 1,000-person IT department stage its own poker tournament and donate the proceeds to breast cancer research. Twenty bucks got you into the game, which was limited to 100 players. That year, proceeds came to about $2,000, all of which went directly to cancer research.

Since then, the tournament has become an annual event, raising $2,000 to $2,500 a year.

Another Paychex IT director proposed that the department get involved with inner-city Rochester schoolchildren. He felt that the company's IT professionals could mentor students and encourage them to do well in school and pursue careers in the technology arena.

This effort annually involves between 15 and 20 IT staffers who volunteer their time to students. At the end of the program, the students are formally recognized at a graduation ceremony and luncheon at Paychex's headquarters.

"There is no tracking of activities relative to company time," notes Canzano. "The company encourages employees to participate [in volunteer activities]. It's absolutely part of our culture and a source of pride for us."

This story, "IT workers with heart" was originally published by Computerworld.

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