March 17, 2023
Ben Sampson: Okay, Jessica, we get to be live. And Jessica, I'm going to introduce you, but I'm going to use some help from some notes from our mutual friend Chris Jarvis. So, just a little background, earlier in the year, Chris and I were connecting, catching up on who would be good fits to have on the WeHero Learn series. And Chris went, Ben, I think there's two or three people that I think would be really interesting. I think one of those folks is Jessica Rodell, and his highlights that he called out for me were William H. Wilson, distinguished Chair of Management, PhD Program Coordinator, Organizational Behavior, University of Georgia, Terry College of Business. And, but more so Chris told me that you have a lot of research that you've done over the past decade around employee engagement and volunteerism. You even have an article that many of us have probably read that are watching this right now on HBR, and I think that was titled Volunteer Programs That Employees Can Get Excited about. I've definitely read this when it was released back in February, 2021, and I think many people have, but that's just my long way of saying welcome. So excited to have you here and so excited to have this conversation. Thank you.
Jessica Rodell: Thanks, Ben. I'm happy to be here. Yeah. And and if Chris is happy, I did too.
Ben Sampson: Chris will be very happy. And so to our dozens of followers, one of them being Chris, which we appreciate I'm hoping that he will enjoy the interview as well.
Jessica Rodell: Well, good. He's wonderful. So I'm glad, I'm glad he recommended it.
Ben Sampson: Yeah. he, he is an incredible guy. I'm always jealous of his facial hair as well. Just one of the things I'm just, I'm really trying to work on myself. But I think Jessica, what people are going to be excited to hear from you about really is employee engagement, especially at this time. I think, you know, in every conversation list that we're having a WeHero, we're hearing really struggling getting engagement numbers. And that could be engagement, broadly speaking, but in many cases is getting engagement numbers with our volunteer programs. And you had a bunch of great points in that HBR article that you wrote back in 2021 about how to make volunteering fun and exciting and engaging. And you had a very similar vision to how you could do that, that WeHero has, how do we make stuff unique and exciting and real experiential. And I'm curious, have any of your views changed now that we're in 2023 in this environment? Are there any tips or tricks that you're noticing that companies are using to get good engagement in these programs during these times?
Jessica Rodell: Man, you start out with a hard one right off the bat. We like to dive in. It's interesting. There were just, there was so much change when everything went virtual, right? And we saw this shift in, well, first of all, dropping a lot of these programs because there was such a scramble in the beginning, in the change, in the work environment for people to know what to do with these programs. And then tempting to bring them back because I think companies that did, and people that were involved in them, even when these programs were run remotely, we're looking for the same things they were before, but had been stripped away in the pandemic. That social connection, that sense of belonging and purpose and self-worth. And, you know, we get a lot of that in our jobs and in the job tasks, which stayed when we went home.
Jessica Rodell: But so much of that is in the environment of the interaction with other people. And people were still looking for that. So I, I did see some of it shift online, to be honest, I don't know how effective it was in that virtual. I could speculate for you, how effective I think it might have been in that virtual format. And it would be the same speculation that I would have with engagement about anything in the workplace, which is when you have an established I, I'm going to share it, but if you don't want me to, you tell me and we'll move on to something
We wanna hear it
Jessica Rodell: Is when you already have the established relationships, that transition wasn't so negative because we already know each other. We already have a social connection, we have a sense of meaning and purpose and value in what we do together. We can transition on Zoom or some other online platform and we don't maybe love it as much as being in person, but we can still connect. Whereas brand new employees coming into the workforce or people trying to volunteer for the first time or create those social connections now, it's much more complicated with that barrier between us. So I saw it as, as a good bandaid in the interim when we needed to do something to try to have those types of connections and impact with each other and in our communities, but not something that would over the long run be sustainable and have the same positive benefits as as more traditional involvement.
Ben Sampson: We would notice that all the time because we would run hundreds of these volunteer experiences and you could tell the groups that like, we know each other, we have relationships, like we are excited to get together. And you have a group of new hires that, you know, half of them show up for the, the event if they are there, cameras are off, not very interactive. And you would notice a lot of that. So I think this movement that we're seeing to a lot more hybrid and in persons hopefully helping get these people you almost wanna call it socialized, but more, more more comfortable with their peers and comfortable with the brand and the company. And you know, Jessica, you talk a lot about boosting engagement and I think, you know, obviously like in some of the pieces that you write, you give great tips and advice for, for people that haven't read some of your work. What are some of the top pieces of advice that you give for boosting engagement? Top tips and tricks maybe that, that companies can do to boost that engagement number?
Jessica Rodell: Sure. And I'm talking specifically here about volunteering programs. Yes.
Ben Sampson: That's what we wanna be talking about.
Jessica Rodell: Okay, cool. It's, it's an interesting, I clarify because once you use the word engagement, my work spans two main areas and one of them is this volunteer component and the other one is just employee engagement at work in general, which they have some similarities, some common components that live underneath them. But they also have some unique differences. So in terms of volunteer engagement, you know, I think it, it's the core aspect and as you know, because you've read the HBR and in that one I talk about a couple of things. The one, the same one always stands out to me over and over when I'm working with companies and, and studying and looking at this specifically, is that it needs to be meaningful that we are volunteering to fulfill some greater underlying purpose. Whether that's sense of self-worth connection with others, having some value that's beyond us contributing to something that's beyond us.
Jessica Rodell: Volunteering creates a unique opportunity for us to fulfill those core psychological needs. And to the extent that we can structure our volunteering programs so that they meet those needs, then they're going to be more beneficial. They create that buy-in or what we would call in our field intrinsic motivation. We're not doing it because we're told we're not doing it because there's some shiny reward at the end. I'm doing it because I just find the act of doing it intrinsically rewarding, rewarding, and valuable, and I want to keep doing it. And it seems, I think sometimes it, it can be easy for that to get put on the sideline because those of us that plan the activities we're so involved in it that we know the meaning and the value of it, but then forget to convey that to the people, the employees, the stakeholders that are engaging in these opportunities.
Jessica Rodell: And we need to make that leap and transition. And I think in several of the things I've done, whether they're actual working with companies or doing lab experiments with undergraduate students and getting them involved in the community to see how it all plays out. It can be as simple as learning about the mission of the organization. You're helping hearing stories of recipients and beneficiaries of the work that you're doing. Just taking that moment to really let the meaning of what you're doing sinking. Hmm. I'll say I haven't done this yet, but I have encouraged a few folks to do it. And I don't know if anyone's gone through with it, but I work with a couple of companies that, you know, have software programs to track the number of hours of volunteering and I always encourage them, like, can you put an open-ended box in there to have employees write a story from what they did? What was meaningful? What did they find valuable? What did they like in what they did today? Bebecause the tracking of the hours starts to make it feel outside of our control and we're not focused on the meaning of it. And I think even just that one little moment of reflection on what you experienced can help remind people and in infuse the meaning in it, even if it's post activity sense making in there.
Ben Sampson: I love that. And it reminds me of rewinding back to Chris Jaron and I having a conversation and talking about the importance of storytelling before the event even happens mm-hmm. And how you promote an event to get engagement. And a lot of those stuff's being missed so often. It's sometimes not even is that the experience is bad, the volunteer experience could be amazing, but that the promotional efforts and conveying what people are actually doing and the why, why this is so important, the impact it can be created. I think just even solving that and another thing he pushed we here on, in our early days, we were trying to create these really unique experiences and he brought up the importance of just empathy. And he is like, with the storytelling, if you can work empathy into that and then put really immerse people put 'em in the shoes of the people they're impacting or the because they're impacting mm-hmm.
Ben Sampson: And that's was just a game changer. You could totally see as people came through these experiences, the change and the connection they had. And I think one of the biggest metrics, at least that we look at for tracking that is one engagement number of people that are participating in the volunteer programs. But what I like tracking now is donor dollars that are going to these nonprofits after they learn about, through a volunteer experience. And that's a huge indicator for us, right? Like, okay, is this hitting the mark? Is this convincing people to go out and make even more of a difference with this nonprofit organization? Yeah. So I love those pieces that you mentioned.
Jessica Rodell: Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. I, I have not done it from the agency perspective, but from a company perspective I even see that with customers that are involved in the volunteering programs, how they spend their money and what brands they choose up to two years later when they see and work with and have one-on-one in a personal volunteer experiences with the company that it sticks out and it becomes a competitive advantage and they're more likely to engage with the company for years because of it. Yeah. Yeah. You said something that, no,
Ben Sampson: Why
Jessica Rodell: You think about it lost me, it'll come back. Mm-Hmm.
Ben Sampson: So, so random. You mentioned the labs that you do and the studies you do and how you're working with college students, like testing these different engagement levers. I picture like, you know, a beach cleanup happening and you in a lab coat with a clipboard these students,
Jessica Rodell: I mean sometimes
Ben Sampson: Tell me about some of the experiments that you're doing. I would love to learn just about some of the research that you're currently undergoing with.
Jessica Rodell: Sure. I'm happy to share that. And then remind me about the meaning that the thought I had that I wanted to get back to Okay. About promoting meaning is, is I struggle myself and I think about it in my research about the balance between meaning for whom, meaning for the individual employee or meaning for the organization that they're helping. Because I see this tension that happens with, I might the, I could be assigned a boring routine task as a volunteer that I don't find meaningful on the surface, but is super critical to their mission and they need somebody to do it, versus something that is very client focused that I see immediately the impact I'm having, but it's actually not all that valuable to the nonprofit organization. Mm-Hmm. And there seems to me to be, and some of that, like you said, can totally be a dawn with storytelling.
Jessica Rodell: I will stuff 10,000 envelopes if you are showing me the benefit of it and telling the story and connecting me with the purpose mm-hmm. And sometimes that's just the job that's needed for, to really help. And so I, I think of, I think we say meaning very broadly and it's easy, actually Drew carton in my field does some of this work for employees about, even for employees within a company, that it's really important to connect the meaning or the purpose of my specific task to the broader meaning and purpose of the organization. And that seeing that connection between the two is really what's going to keep motivating me for this individual task if we don't make that connection. So it's not just this is what this organization does, it's how am I connecting the thing that I'm doing today to that bigger purpose of the organization. And I think that's really important in there too.
Ben Sampson: Yeah. And I think those are just, they're not big shifts right. That people can make in their program. They're small little shifts that will make Yeah. All the difference. And that's what I love about some of the things that you write and talk about is that we're not telling you to change your entire program or telling you to invest thousands and millions of dollars in, in, into different technologies to do this. These are small adjustments that can make like huge differences. Mm-Hmm. And that's, again, you already know I'm a huge fan, but one of the many reasons we're a big fan of your work.
Jessica Rodell: Well, thank you. It's, I I find it, it's, I can, I get challenged when I'm asked like, okay, how do I structure this program? Hmm. When people wanna know the number of activities, the type of activities, the design, I'm like, I don't really know. And I don't think there's one answer that's right for every company. What I, what I study and what I think about is the underlying psychology and the mechanism is there that we need to have good fit with what the culture of the company is. That there needs to be meaning and purpose infused and communicated in it. And when we think about those things, if they all line up, then that either dictates what the logistics look like or it works for all of them. If we have those core components underneath. Yeah. Okay. So you asked about studies.
Ben Sampson: Yes. I think it's, I'm working on you. So Yeah. Studies are working on, I think that answers my question that I always have for people like you, like what's exciting you right now about this space and I think we're going to get the answer to both those.
Jessica Rodell: Yes. I think, I think so. I hope so. So, so lab studies that you talk about, one of the projects that I'm working on that I'm, that I've been really excited about lately is looking at employee engagement and volunteering as a way to enhance perspective taking and further openness and inclusivity in the workplace. That this could be a natural tool where it puts people in new situations where it breaks down barriers, not just between employees and other people in the community, but even between employees within a an organization we may have completely different positions of status within the organization and we go volunteer side by side making us peers. Mm. And those types of situations that change the balance of those relationships where people are working on this shared goal that has meaning and purpose, where those status differences are, are equalized creates opportunities for new understanding and connection between people.
Jessica Rodell: And that's exactly what we're looking for in today's workplaces to have more openness, more understanding of each other and more inclusivity. And so I think that volunteering's already doing that. We just don't talk about often or have the empirical evidence because I'm a nerd and that's the way I look at things to show that that is really a useful existing tool to help further those other organizational efforts. Mm-Hmm. So that's one of the lab studies that I talked about that I've been, that I worked on last year where I studied new groups of MBA students mm-hmm. And assessed every two weeks within the first semester working with them, their include and openness to the people and their teams, which are designed to be diverse teams of five or six students. And then in the middle of it took them with me to a local organization here in Athens. We had a volunteering experience, they participated in it together, we had the director of the agency come talk about it. They did a couple of hours of volunteer work together and then we looked at the differences in how much perspective they were taking with their teammates and how inclusive and open they were to each other, the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester with this in the middle, which is really cool.
Ben Sampson: I'm selfishly so excited you're doing this research because back to just like the perspective and like, I I think of it too as like empathy and just understanding and leveling out the playing field. I, I get calls from people that are looking to do these volunteer experiences and they go, we'd love to do this volunteer experience, but can we add a team building component to it? And you know, it, I have to explain, well, you know, I actually think volunteering and everybody coming together supporting the same because, doing the same thing and leveling out that playing field doesn't matter if you're a vp, an associate, whatever it is, is like one of the greatest team building experiences I think anyone could ever have. And then you see this aha moment of like, oh yeah, I didn't think about it that way. Yeah. But I'm so like glad that you're actually digging into like, no, this actually does happen and, and we're doing research to prove that this is actually really powerful as a form of team building and, and building that perspective.
Jessica Rodell: Yep. And consistently so far we see, we see that it does, I know we've, we've done some field work on that and the lab studies on it. But again, meaningfulness is always a moderator. Mm-Hmm. And those effects are not as strong if they don't see the volunteering experience as meaningful. So all these things kind of work together happening at the same time,
Ben Sampson: Writing down quotes by Jessica meaningful is a moderator.
Jessica Rodell: Sometimes have to remind myself to not use our empirical academic term.
Ben Sampson: No. All, all four are here. And sorry to cut you off, you had another thought there. That's
Jessica Rodell: Okay. No, that's okay. I was just, before we switch subjects if you wanted to, I was going to talk about the other project that's ongoing, but please, I'm happy to continue if you had more things
Ben Sampson: Please we wanna hear about it.
Jessica Rodell: Okay. The other one taking a slightly different turn, and this is in much earlier stages of research that I'm working on, is switching the model of employee engagement from effort to impact. So how do we some, I think that most of the work that I've done, I started bebecause I'm in a business school and think about the corporate world and wanted to make the case that companies should have these programs. And to do that I needed to show that they have benefits to the company that's hosting the volunteer program. So looking first at these programs are good for employee performance, they're good for employee satisfaction, you're going to recruit more talented employees and you're going to retain more talented employees by having these types of volunteer and community engagement programs that they're a part of. So that was kinda my first part and tied up in that.
Jessica Rodell: The other stakeholder is the employee themselves. That the employees feel good about themselves for doing it. That's what winds up making them attached to their companies. But the third one that often I give less attention to unfortunately is well what are we actually doing for our communities? What it, how are we, are we moving the needle? And we track ours and we track dollars and that's wonderful with, there are steps in this. But really thinking about like in our own community we have certain social issues and if you measure them at a broad level at the community level, they're often pretty consistent from year to year. Our and how can we leverage the power of employee volunteering programs to make sustainable long-term differences within our community? So I'm working with a local company that's trying to develop a program. They picked the topic based on a specific community need based on a wellness survey that's done in our community every year and have developed a plan to tackle that need and set specific objectives of how to, this one's involved with literacy, third grade reading level, how to move the needle a certain percentage over a two year period designed a program.
Jessica Rodell: We have a pilot school and a test school that we have the volunteers going in and tracking not just each individual child's improvement over the two years, but also comparing the, at a school level, the reading levels from the ones with the community engagement and the ones without. So I'm really excited to be part of it. It's a bigger, longer term project. But even within six months we've seen the needle move in terms of their standardized statewide testing scores, not self-reports on how their reading's going. And it already feels like a win, which is exciting to see.
Ben Sampson: Yeah, but I love that you're doing that study because you're right. So many companies look at this and they look at the ROI, which is not return of impact, it's return on our investment in this internally, right? Mm-Hmm. Should be return of impact I wish. But I think it's great that you're looking at that and I think there's so much value in instead of going, Hey, it's to our 10,000 employees, we want you to volunteer eight hours a year and go volunteer wherever you see fit. I think there's a lot of value in companies going, we're we've, we've surveyed our employees, we know that these because areas in our community are near and dear to your hearts. We're going to focus all of our energy, our volunteer efforts or donor dollars to these one or two different areas and then really track and measure where the needle moves.
Ben Sampson: And we've noticed that just on our end as well, just seeing engagement naturally go up as a result. And, and I think people are incredibly smart, right? Are I, excuse my French, our meters are really good now, we know like where we're coming into experience and like, oh this is just busy work. I'm just here showing up to do something. We can read really quickly like, oh this is actually making impact. I can, I can see this connection and I see what my company's doing in the big picture and why I'm a part of that. And I just see that drive far more success. And for companies that are really looking for just how do we boost engagement numbers, it'll come if you invest in that, in my belief. So again, very excited that you're studying that because a lot of this is is us going like, oh yes, that that's, we really believe that's how it works. But it'll be nice having actual data and research to back that.
Jessica Rodell: Yeah, I I think so too. I think it's, it's funny I've always grappled with again the balance, and this is in that HBR article a little bit you talked about between, all right, should companies choose where the efforts are going to be directed or should individuals, and from a psychology perspective, people are going to be more motivated when it's an autonomous decision and that would say, oh, we should let everybody choose whatever volunteering activity they want. But on the flip side, we're more motivated when we have a social collective experience where there's that shared goal and we're going to achieve something. And so if you can argue either way, how do we create the right type of a program that capitalizes on all of that? And, and I think there is a happy medium in what you're saying, right? You, you survey everybody, everyone has voice and they have input and you're trying to come up with this plan together, but then you articulate the plan and you're all on board working to accomplish something creates that buy-in for everybody.
Ben Sampson: I couldn't agree. I couldn't agree more. Yeah. Is there any more research that we should talk about that's exciting you right now? Jessica
Jessica Rodell: Current? Hmm. Probably not. I want, I want, I want to tap into one, but we're just so, so, so early in it because it has to do, it's a qualitative paper, which is not my typical area of research. But it is on the sincerity of these programs and how they are communicated from the top through, which kind of fits with what we were just saying about how all of it's communicated and how we create these programs as a collective. But what we're trying to really look at is it's the same as what we see in a lot of initiatives that, that when you convey the sincerity of why the organization's doing it, that cascades down from the top through employees and gets communicated and that adds to the buy-in in it. So, but that's what, beyond that, no,
Ben Sampson: I think that just means we're going to have to have a round two interview <laugh> when you're done with that research and after hearing all this Jessica cut, it's like I might send you two or three other research ideas like, Hey, we great. Yes. Can you actually like go and put some data and metrics behind that for us?
Jessica Rodell: Yes. Fantastic. I would be happy to talk about that.
Ben Sampson: I know we're at, you know, almost 30 minutes, so just two more quick questions for you. Yeah, yeah. One, you're obviously like studying volunteering and you're, you're passionate about it in your own personal time when you volunteer, what do you love to go do? What are, what are becauses or nonprofits that you like to sport?
Jessica Rodell: Oh, that is a, that comes at such a tough time because I just took myself off of a volunteer activity yesterday, trying to rebalance my life and it was so painful for me to do it.
The guilt just said it instant
Jessica Rodell: A long time. I was like, ah, yeah. Right now the study I was talking about from effort to impact, that takes the most of my time because it's not really a study at the moment, but it's being really involved in that elementary school. I did not, I have a fourth grader at home, but I didn't know about how important third grade reading level was. Yeah. That it was a critical tipping point from learning to read, to reading, to learn. And that after that everything you do in school is based on the assumption that you can read and you just fall so significantly far behind, which isn't, I mean it's impactful for the students and how they do in fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, but is changes the trajectory of their lives and the stability and health of communities with if you don't have a solid education to build off of. So doing this particular project in our community has made that very salient for me. And seeing that if we get this right, that the idea is to roll it out for every elementary school in our counties and the neighboring counties and have that grow, seeing the potential of what that can do is really empowering for me right now.
Ben Sampson: That's a, we can, we can nerd out just on education. We work with a, a nonprofit organization called the Kids That Need Foundation and it, it blows my mind that there's still 16 million kids in the US that don't have the right school supplies or don't have access to school supplies to be successful and mm-hmm. We, we do this program to get these kids access to school supplies and also the teachers access to them as well. because teachers are spending one or two paychecks a year to buy school supplies for their kids. And we support, a lot of kids are at the third and fourth grade levels and we got a question in regards to why are we so focused on third and fourth grade? And our response similar to you is that such a critical, pivotal moment in a child's educational path. We know that if we can get them the right access to school supplies at that third grade level and that we can increase their self-esteem and confidence because they have the school supplies to be successful, it dramatically increases their success rate throughout the rest of their educational career. So yeah, we could just, again, we could just nerd out on just on that. Yep. But we won't we'll see it for another time. because I can get myself in trouble. We'll be on the call for two hours. But Jessica,
Jessica Rodell: What's the problem with doing this research, right? Because I, I find all of the issues in our community compelling and I love the community that I live in and I want to contribute to all them. So then I over volunteer have fatigue, right? I'm like, okay, yeah, I'll do that. Okay, fine. I'll do that too. Let's, let's skip and well that doesn't help anybody.
Ben Sampson: Yeah. Just further yourself out. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Jessica, this is wonderful. Obviously we have just only scratched the surface in regards to like what your knowledge base is and what we can talk about
Jessica Rodell: Of all the volunteering ideas. Yes.
Ben Sampson: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. You and I could talk for hours like this, but you know, for people that are really interested in your work, what's a good way to follow you and learn more about all the work that you're doing?
Jessica Rodell: Ah, that is a nerve wracking question for a person that has never even had a Facebook account. So that's a really good question. I don't know the answer to that. I'm so sorry. That is, it's good. That's great. It's a great point and I should do better with it, but I do not have any social media presence whatsoever. I mean you could, the university does here and I share my research through that or with Chris, but honestly this will be the part you get rid of
Ben Sampson: I think we can keep it in. I love that you're off social media. That's, you're like a unicorn Jessica, and we should applaud that.
Jessica Rodell: Oh. But not really because this is important stuff and you know, I just went to, and I'm sorry I don't wanna take more time either. I just, I just went to this conference with a bunch of academics about really how do we, what's our role as academics and getting our research out there to affect practice and how do we best do that? Because let's face it, you're not going to comb the university library and read the dense academic articles for it. And that's the world that we live in and it doesn't translate to practice super easily, but there's so much work in so many areas of workplaces and community engagement that's happening that needs to find its way into practice. And so it, it's a concern in general. And I think our journals in the academic world are trying to do a better job of pushing those things out to news outlets and media and writing them up in a way that other people can connect with. But but I answer every email that I get, so if anybody really wanted to know.
Ben Sampson: We won't, we won't publicize your email, but folks who have questions they can even reach out to WeHero. Maybe if they're good questions we can give 'em the Jessica. But also Jessica, just thank you for jumping on and you're already bringing awareness, you know, outside of your academic research just by doing this. So this already makes a huge difference.
Jessica Rodell: Well thanks. It's why I signed on with Chris to, to work with him because I thought I would like for the, I would like to have a pulse on what's actually happening in organizations as, as their programs continue to evolve and all and be able to study and speak to whatever the pressing issues are as each year passes. But if I were my ideal self, I would do a better job of getting all of it out there.
Ben Sampson: Well, you know, I'm a huge fan of it's staying with you and then we can just do a round two and keep doing this and giving it to people as well. So,
Jessica Rodell: Fantastic. That would be great.
Ben Sampson: Me. Selfish reasons as well, but we can help you with that too.
Jessica Rodell: Perfect.
Ben Sampson: I'll, well thanks Jessica. Take Good. And to people listening we'll link that HBR article that Jessica and I were both referencing. And we can also even reference Jessica's University site as well for people that wanna dig in and do that. And I guess, we'll we can even do realize worth as well, Jessica and link that in as well. Great for people that are wanna see more for the amazing work, not just that Jessica's doing, but that, but the realized work team is doing because they're rock stars and we love those guys. Yeah. All right, thanks Jessica.
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