I recently read the brilliant book, “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. Combining insights from philosophy and psychology, the book is recommended for anyone interested in productivity and how we spend our time in the modern world. One chapter in particular really made me think about the future of volunteering and I wanted to share those thoughts with you.

If you’re not familiar with his book, Oliver argues against the typical approaches to time and productivity management, pointing out that we cannot possibly get everything done in the average human lifespan of four thousand weeks. He proposes that when we drop the pretence of getting everything done we open up new ways of thinking about how we spend our time, embracing rather than denying our limitations.

Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter called, ‘The Loneliness Of The Digital Nomad’, that challenged my thinking about the future of volunteering.

Oliver starts the chapter by pointing out that so much modern productivity thinking is geared towards helping each of us individually to take control of our time. Being in charge of our own schedule, doing things on our own terms, is often the goal. We can perhaps see that most clearly in the way work is being re-shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many of us wanting more control over when and where we work.

As Oliver explains, this flexibility and emphasis on us (not our teams, colleagues etc.) can lead to increased misalignment of our schedules, not only with those we work with, but potentially with our friends and families as well.

For example, if we know we work best in the evenings then, with our newfound workplace flexibility geared to our needs, we can now more easily do that. But, in the before-times, when we perhaps worked to a organisationally driven schedule, evenings might have been the time we used to socialise or spend time with family. Thus, in our pursuit for more control over our schedule to work when we want to, we may be impeding valuable social connections that the old ways of working made possible.

This could have significant implications, because having free time (away from work) isn’t much good if you can’t experience it with others.

“Having free time but not being able to use it with others isn’t just useless, it’s unpleasant.”

Oliver illustrates this with the way the former Soviet Union allocated shift patterns for workers in factories. For maximum efficiency, people were placed in colour coded shifts of four days on, one day off, often regardless of their connection to each other. So, two friends might be on totally different shift patterns meaning their days off work never aligned. This even happened to husbands and wives, even though it wasn’t supposed to! Needless to say this did not make for happy lives or relationships, even if it made for productive factories. Whist we may not be being forced into shift patterns, we are increasingly choosing the hours and places we work on our individual terms, and not so much in regard to others.

Oliver also highlights Swedish research that showed that when people took time off work they were happier, but when they took time off work with others, happiness increased even more. And this wasn’t just when friends and family took time off together. The effect was also seen when more people in Sweden were off work, regardless of how well they knew each other, people were happier. Even retired people were happier when others took time off work!

Simply put, taking control of our own schedules may result in more freedom to choose when and where we work, but this potentially makes it harder to forge connections, not only at work, but in our wider lives too. And, as volunteering doesn’t exist in a bubble, I think there are some potential implications for volunteering.

As more of us switch to working from home more often, working away from others on schedules that work for us but may be misaligned with others in our lives (colleagues, friends, family, other volunteers), might this not also have negative implications for how and when we volunteer? Could all this freedom about when, where and how we work mean we never get to volunteer together again?

We know that for many, volunteering is a social activity. Studies frequently state that one of the top motivations for people to volunteer is to meet people and make friends. We know this is especially true of 18-34 year olds, the age group most likely to say volunteering was important to them as a means of combatting social isolation in NCVO’s 2019 study, Time Well Spent.

As workplaces move increasingly to allow all of us to organise our time on our own terms, do we make it harder for that social, human connection to be realised in volunteering?

Away from concerns about the spread of Covid-19, is pushing more and more volunteering online, into roles that are increasingly done alone, on individual schedules and remotely, a good thing for volunteering? What about for our communities and wider society overall?

What about those who need the social connection volunteering provides: the young, the lonely, the isolated and many others? If we make it harder and harder to give them the human connection they thrive on because it’s cheaper for our organisations to close offices, work remotely and do more online, is that something we are comfortable with?

If we gain more personal freedom, but at the cost of never coming together to see or make new friends, of never coming together to volunteer, is that a world we want?

Of course there are many perspectives and nuances to these reflections. Changes in how we work might also create opportunities for volunteering, as I outlined in a blog post about employee volunteering earlier this year. Growth in online volunteering might help tackle challenges around inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

What I am asking, based on thinking prompted by Oliver’s book, is whether we are looking at all the angles? Whether, in our rush to re-shape our lives and communities after the pandemic, we are thinking about what we might lose as well as what we might gain, and whether we are happy with that trade off.

That’s why I’m excited to be be hosting the next AVM Book Club meeting at 430pm on 28th June 2022 where we will be discussing the concepts and ideas presented in “Four Thousand Weeks”. There are more details available and you can book your free place (for AVM members only) here.

If you’re not an AVM member, or you can’t join us in June, or you just want to get your thoughts out now, then please leave a comment below.


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3 thoughts on “The freedom to never volunteer together

  1. I’ll say it again: volunteering, onsite or online, is as social as it’s designed to be. To assume that onsite volunteering is automatically more social, more human, is so, so wrong. To assume online volunteering is automatically less social than such is also wrong. I have so many examples of this in my own management of volunteering as well as my own volunteering. How many times has onsite volunteering been isolating, not-at-all social, frustrating, dominated by the long-term, core volunteers, etc.? A LOT – and if you don’t think so, you aren’t paying attention! Volunteer managers – you have to be deliberate to create the environment you want with volunteers, online or off. If you think bringing everyone together offline, in the same room, automatically creates a sense of “team” – ooof, you are in for a shock. Here’s my video from two years ago about why online volunteering can be even more persona than onsite: https://youtu.be/mOswvGE_nMI

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    1. Great point Jayne! Absolutely it isn’t about online or offline and which is ‘better’ for sociability. My point is that we need to design social interaction into volunteering, not just make snap decisions and assumptions that result in ways of working that don’t have that social / together element baked in.

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  2. Love this, Rob. While flexibility and virtual opportunities can gain new volunteers, will we lose volunteers who are looking for that personal social connection if we focus too much on “being flexible?” Maybe. I think for us, balance is always the way to go. Embracing new models can always be tempered with recognizing and keeping the successes from old models. While it always boils down to the mission, why we exist, and how we can further goals, there is also the element of “what does the volunteer get out of this?”

    Liked by 1 person

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