Research studies have linked company-sponsored volunteerism to higher worker productivity and engagement, a greater sense of purpose among employees, increased collaboration, and even heightened interest from prospective job applicants.

At PayPal, employee participation in the company’s community impact program grew significantly over the course of the pandemic, with the number of annual employee volunteers increasing by 63% between 2019 and 2022. To understand why volunteer engagement increased—and how it led to a greater sense of community even as workers spent less time in one another’s presence—we spoke with Franz Paasche, PayPal’s SVP and chief corporate affairs officer. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

It feels counterintuitive that employee engagement in a workplace volunteering program would increase during the pandemic. What’s behind that?

We were thinking about, how do we build culture and community and an environment where so many people are not in the office? We were in an interesting position as a payments company, as a company that provides access to capital, that enables people to transact business from home during the pandemic—and our employees wanted to find ways to help. We found that online volunteering and getting people involved in mentorship programs and helping entrepreneurs, coaching high school students—our employees really were engaged in this work, and it brought them together at a time when a lot of things were keeping people apart.

Since the pandemic, it's only grown, because now we both do online volunteering and team volunteering. The work-from-home environment is one of the reasons why we saw a surge in additional volunteering, because it became seamless. You can volunteer on your own time and work on your own time. And people were able to find ways to integrate in a way where they could fulfill all of their work obligations but also have time for volunteering. There's a generally supportive view in the company that for people who are committed to volunteering in general, they find ways to make this work with their work obligations. We don't see a disruption of the workplace or of our productivity. We see an enhancement. Our teams and employees and sites make it work.

And we have increasingly focused on skills-based volunteering. Our employees feel this is a way to work together to support the community, but it's also building their own skills and it's part of their own development as professionals. There's a whole set of synergies around these programs, and we're seeing them just continue to burgeon and grow in a way that also creates a sense of community, a sense of culture, a reinforcement of the mission and values. It leads to a more inspired employee base at a time when I think a lot of companies, including us, are looking for how do we connect with each other in this environment?

How does the skills-based focus connect to culture?

It empowers our employees to see the connection between the skills they're building as employees of PayPal and the social impact that they can have. There's professional development that occurs in the context of skills-based volunteering that I think is inspiring for employees, but also connects them to the work they're doing every day as a finance person or an engineer or a communications person or a brand person. It connects them to the mission of the company, because they can participate in having an impact on their community. It also connects them with other people who have those skills. And we found that has enhanced the sense of community that people feel at the company.

What information did you use to pinpoint that connection?

We know how many of our employees are volunteering, because they submit and track the time they use. And like most companies, we have impact surveys where we are surveying employees on how connected they are, all the different indices of how employees are doing. We're seeing that volunteering and community impact and connection to the mission is an important part of what motivates our employees. I wouldn't say that we can break it out to the specific volunteer activities, but we can see that the increase in volunteer activity and community activity and social impact work contributes to our employee's sense of mission and sense of inspiration.

One theme that’s come up in our reporting on culture is that what gets recognized is what gets reinforced. How has employee recognition factored into this?

We are not a company that devotes a lot to internal prizes or awards, but we do make sure that our volunteers feel appreciated, are thanked, and that the social impact is recognized. So we’ll have articles that feature social impact on our internal website. We have an employee newsletter where we will highlight different volunteer activities. We create video content which we share at our global all hands where volunteer activities are recognized. We have different recognitions of our global volunteers that we will post on LinkedIn or on our newsroom site. So it's in the air and in the water, and our employees appreciate each other.

One of the takeaways is that the goal here is to build culture and build community. If you get it right, the culture of the company reinforces and recognizes the value of community impact, the value of social impact, and the value of volunteering. So you need recognition, you need ways of making people aware of the work, but the most important recognition is the recognition between and among peers, and the sense of connection to the company and the mission of the company and how we live our values as a company.