Looking at those ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, which I was doing to construct an org design case study, leaves me wondering who they are directed at. They contain useful, perhaps factual, and certainly carefully chosen information that presents aspects people in External Comms Departments want other people to know.  But it’s not clear which people they are targeting – researchers, analysts, investors customers, employees?  Thus, in general, an organisation’s ‘about’ page tells a thin, partial story.

In some aspects the ‘About’ page is like an organisation chart.  It has some information but is significantly incomplete – an organisation chart doesn’t tell you what the organisation is ‘about’ and neither does the ‘About’ page.   As an example, compare two banks’ ‘About’ opening paras:

Triodos Bank is a global pioneer in sustainable banking, using the power of finance to support projects that benefit people and the planet. We believe that banking can be a powerful force for good: serving individuals and communities as well as building a more sustainable society’.

HSBC is ‘one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations. We serve around 38 million customers through four global businesses: Retail Banking and Wealth Management, Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets, and Global Private Banking’.

Although these paint very different pictures of each organisation and hint at different pre-occupations and organisation designs, they both miss what I think is a key feature of ‘Aboutness’ –  the feelings, behaviours,  experiences and human-ness that includes stories,  anecdotes and conversations illustrating answers to questions like  ‘What does it feel like to work in this place?  How do our customers experience our products and services?  How principled are we in what we do?  How do we relate to each other?  What makes us laugh?  How do we look out for each other’?

Last week when I was pondering ‘About’, I was also acting as a guide to a friend who was visiting the UK for the first time.  I took her to various places to give her a flavour of ‘about UK’. (Read the BBC version here.)  Heaven knows what she now thinks the UK is ‘about’ but we had a good time and she gave up the idea that we all ate buttered crumpets and drank tea from bone china teacups at 4:00 p.m. every day, sitting in Cotswold cottages with Farrow and Ball wallpaper.  (Possibly these ideas were gleaned from some other ‘About Britain’ page?)

In the course of the week, I (we) met four people who were all volunteer workers in their respective organisations.  Philip, an ‘ambassador’ (according to the badge he wore) was very amusing in his telling of Blickling Hall’s history, Margaret, a volunteer encouraged us to participate in Blickling’s ‘The Word Defiant’ participative art installation. Roger educated us, in the most delightful way on Cromer’s RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) station and Shelia co-hosted the Freedom from Torture, Write to Life group’s summer party.

They told us the ‘party-line’ story that they were there to tell – for example, Philip talked about the history of Blickling Hall, told us why some of the buildings had chimneys and some didn’t and gave us various other info snippets.   The fun thing was he did so in an uninhibited, involving, humorous way that left us asking each other if in his non-volunteer role he was a comic actor or had been an eccentric history teacher (or both) – he gave people a toffee if they could answer one of his questions correctly.

In telling their ‘required’ story the volunteers also told different story about their organisations – almost as an unconscious variant of that left-hand column right hand column exercise.  Margaret, for example, said that ‘Head Office’ was expecting the volunteers to encourage Blickling House visitors to interact with the Defiant activities ‘Head Office thinks it’s a good thing so we have to do it.’   She expressed amusement tinged with bemusement as visitors, prompted by her in a kind, considerate, way busily redacted words from a copy of a page of Northanger Abbey to create a sentence about their experience of the exhibition from the words they left visible.

Roger was amazing in his knowledge of the RNLI and a passionate supporter of its principles.  He loved the way, as he put it, the organisation is run as efficiently as possible in a pragmatic/common sense way that gets the best from people.  He was a real champion of its value to communities and societies.

And Sheila was adamant that she wasn’t the Write to Life group’s ‘co-ordinator’.  She said she supported and facilitated what the group wanted to do, but it’s ‘their group.’

What I found strking about the four was they didn’t have any of the aura of  ’employees’. They loved what they were doing and that’s why they did it.  (Notice they are also not subject to the same organisationational stuff as employees, which may be what makes a difference).

Each gave us a rich and human glimpse of their organisations – a very different take from the sterile and impersonal ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, or many employees give in the course of delivering ‘the customer experience’. All four were hugely enthusiastic, energetic, and involved in their first-hand ‘abouts’ of their organisations and the bit they worked in.  They were upbeat, positive, and dedicated to serving what they saw as the clear purpose of their organisations.

Contrast their attitudes with what Jeffrey Pfeffer would have us believe in his new book ‘Dying for a Paycheck’.  This ‘maps a range of ills in the modern workplace — from the disappearance of good health insurance to the psychological effects of long hours and work-family conflict — and how these are killing people’ or a similar book by David Graebner, Bullshit Jobs which examines the question, ‘Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need?’

Neither book celebrates the joy of working that the volunteers demonstrated.  So now I’m wondering if volunteer work is ‘about’ enjoyment, purpose and contribution while paid employment is about meaningless jobs? It can’t be as clear cut as that.  Surely the people on the payroll of the RNLI, Blickling Hall, or Freedom from Torture don’t feel they are in bullshit jobs.  And what about people who are in paid jobs but are also volunteers in other organisations, or who participate in employer-led volunteer schemes?  How do they feel about working in the different contexts?

What is it about volunteers and their work that makes them about advocating for their organisations in a way that being a paid employee doesn’t?   If we could capitalise on their enthusiasm and commitment would our organisations, and their ‘about’ pages start looking and feeling like great places to work.  What can we learn from the volunteer experience that we could apply to our employed workforce?  Let me know.

Image: Stained glass window, Cromer Lifeboat Station