Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have yet to return to the office. About 45% of all U.S. workers — and close to two-thirds of white collar workers — continue to work remotely. While there are advantages to working from home, the isolated nature of the arrangement can take an emotional and mental toll on employees. Feelings of connectedness is loss through virtual communication, and a sense of purpose and motivation can wan. Maintaining employee morale has become a challenge for many organizations amid the pandemic.

At UBS, a financial services company, a pillar of our firm’s culture is rooted in how we drive social impact in the communities in which we do business. Through our community impact team, we aim to reduce inequity in employment opportunities and education, work with leading nonprofit organizations and activate employees through volunteerism and giving.

Specifically, our education efforts support first-generation college students and students from underrepresented backgrounds. Historically, these groups have faced numerous barriers and limited resources to attain a college degree and in developing a successful career. Engaging employees through mentorship programs also plays a vital role in connecting colleagues to a cause and leveraging their expertise, while fostering our firm’s emphasis on service and impact.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to disrupt our work in this area, but thankfully, we had a solution. We partnered with Strive for College, a nonprofit organization that provides one-to-one mentoring to students as they navigate the college and financial aid application process.

When the partnership began in 2019, the program was managed virtually, so it enabled UBS employees from offices across the U.S. to participate in the mentorship program. This meant that the reach of our mentors could expand far beyond the neighborhoods and cities in which we had a physical presence. It has been astonishing to see how important the online component has become to the program.

As the pandemic emerged and upended the work and learning environment, UBS mentors relied on the virtual mentoring program to stay in touch with students and to continue coaching them toward college success. Strive is now one of the largest mentorship programs we offer, with over 250 employees to date having served as mentors to nearly 500 students.

There are a lot of benefits to providing volunteer opportunities for employees. According to a volunteerism survey by Deloitte, such programs may boost morale and the workplace atmosphere. Almost 90 percent of working Americans surveyed believe employers that sponsor volunteer activities offer a better working environment than those who do not and nearly 80 percent of nonprofits say volunteerism is critical to an organization’s wellbeing. Three out of four workers say volunteer opportunities are greater morale boosters than traditional perks, like company mixers.

Volunteering has also been shown to help reduce depression, stress and anxiety. It increases self confidence and self worth and can assist in delaying or even reversing declines in cognitive functions.

At the same time, we know there is a great need for mentorship in education — especially for learners from underserved communities and first-generation college students. As the first person to go to college in my family, it’s an issue close to my heart. According to a recent poll, having a “mentor who encourages a student’s goals and dreams” ranks among the single most important factors in whether a college student earns a degree and finds success after graduation. I certainly did not when I was a first-generation student in college. Navigating senior year of high school, the college application and enrollment process can be difficult when you don’t have someone in your network to act as a guide. Companies and their employees can bridge this gap.

Our program with Strive has had an immense impact on our employees during the pandemic. It provided a sense of meaning and purpose at a time when there was so much uncertainty. It helped them stay tethered to our culture of service and drive meaningful impact. It also allowed new team members who joined UBS during the pandemic to form connections with the organization and its ethos — even when they spent months without ever meeting a colleague in person. In fact, more than 30 of our mentors are employees who started working at UBS during the pandemic.

Volunteering has long been an effective tool for employers to increase morale, productivity and retention while also giving back. Virtual mentorship programs allow companies to extend the reach of those kinds of efforts and provide employees with ways to stay connected to each other and their communities.

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