Opinion

Sponsoring social impact projects can help businesses manage “happiness decay”

8 min read

18 January 2017

When it comes to social impact, recent news about gig economy brands ignoring workers’ rights, or startups going bust after squandering investor cash, raises fresh questions about the values underpinning our digital society.

There’s a long way to go before “philanthropy” is as cool as “growth hacking.” Yet, as the controversy surrounding Karhoo going bust or the Uber ruling on the living wage shows, we all have a bigger social impact and ethical responsibility than simply pursuing profits and the next disruptive move.

To be fair, it’s a rare business these days that ignores corporate social responsibility or “giving something back” to the community.

The rise in social enterprises and the launch of the Social Stock Exchange – the world’s first regulated exchange dedicated to companies and investors seeking to achieve a positive social and environmental impact – suggests that businesses are increasingly ambitious beyond the bottom line.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive: there are growing signs that there is a link between philanthropic work and business success.

Like many businesses, my company’s social impact programme is motivated by a desire to contribute a wider social benefit beyond building innovative services for clients. However, we also see it as a means of managing “happiness decay” in our staff.

What is happiness decay? And why do companies need to worry about it?

Happiness decay is a realisation that however great an employer you are, no matter how beautifully designed your offices are, or amazing your employee benefits (spa truck anyone?) – ambitious people will get used to what’s on offer and it will (eventually) fail to be enough to keep them happy.

So, what’s the answer? Offer different, better benefits, more money, a change of location?  Yes, except that over time, these measures will also fail to be enough to satisfy talented employees.

Part of our solution was to launch the Spice Program aimed at making the world a better place by sponsoring staff 15 euros an hour, on top of their regular salary, to work on open source and other social impact programmes, in their own time.

We also constantly look for other ways to support our employees who want to get involved with causes that are important to them, such as sponsoring open education code camps for different community groups.

Here is what we learned about how social impact projects can help manage happiness decay:

(1) Helping staff to have more purpose in their life can be more valuable than free gym membership

People get used to nice perks and benefits, however, the insight behind the Spice Program is that humans rarely tire of having more purpose in their lives. So instead of piling on yet more benefits, why not help employees to contribute their skills or expertise to a wider social good?

(2) Allow staff to decide which projects to support

Traditional corporate social responsibility usually sees management decide on a cause then throw money at it. Alternatively, they might allow staff to spend a certain number of work days each year raising money for the cause.

This may help with PR but it’s less effective as a strategy for managing employee happiness decay. Why not allow people to choose the cause dear to their hearts and help them to advance it?

(3) Pay people to take part

Client demands and workloads mean it’s all too easy for extra projects such as good causes to be put to one side when things get busy. One way round this is to pay people to work on social impact projects in their spare time.

Participation in social impact projects should be completely voluntary, to avoid companies coming across as intrusive and controlling. In our company, roughly a third of staff take part in the Spice Program although it varies from month to month.

(4) Establish rules

It’s worth setting guidelines for the sort of projects your business is prepared to support. This could include requiring projects to meet certain criteria such as employees learning a new skill and the project benefitting the business itself, as well as delivering a wider societal impact.

A good example of a social impact project that ticks all three boxes would be designing a blueprint to kick-start mobile app development. The project allows staff to experiment with new software, which in turn introducing new competencies to the company and boosting its innovation credentials.

Meanwhile, social good is achieved by making the software available on an open source platform such as GitHub where it’s available to a wider community of developers who can use it to build mobile experiences more quickly.

So how do social impact programmes affect happiness decay?

One final top tip about using a social responsibility approach to manage happiness decay is to check that it’s working. Happiness decay is difficult to measure – probably the closest HR concept is staff engagement.

Our anecdotal experience suggests that it does: in an employee engagement survey we carried out last year, over 40 per cent of staff cited the Spice Program as an initiative that helped  them enjoy working at our company.

What’s more, people who took part in the Spice Program scored higher levels of employee engagement than others, they trusted their colleagues more, had challenged themselves to learn new things and were more willing to recommend the company as a place to work.

Participants also gained a sense of beneficence, of being able to have an impact on causes they value, including giving back to the open source community.

Sponsoring social responsibility activities will not automatically reduce happiness decay / improve employee engagement. It’s also not a substitute for workplace culture, the usual benefits or a fair rewards system.

However, in our experience, social responsibility projects are a valuable alternative to simply piling on more benefits and they help companies like ours to be good corporate citizens.

Just as importantly, they contribute to managing happiness decay via a sense of shared community values, through which great things can be achieved.

Teemu Turunen is director of social responsibility at digital innovation consultancy Futurice

Image: Shutterstock