December 20, 2023

Exact Sciences to Employees: ‘Go Volunteer on Work Time’ 

The company’s commitment to community involvement keeps paying off when employees get back from giving back.

images of people volunteering

Hailey Hinze and Shawn McQuillen’s teams had been through so much change. 
The two train lab workers for distinct segments of Cologuard® kit processing at a lab in Madison, Wis. In recent years, the lab organization has evolved along with Exact Sciences, flexing and reorganizing to find efficiencies and accommodate changing demand.  
Hinze and McQuillen used to work in different divisions. After a 2022 reorganization, their teams combined into one. People wanted to build relationships on the new team. They just didn’t have much to go on at first. 
“It wasn’t a clique or anything like that,” McQuillen remembers. “We just didn’t know each other, and we each did our separate things. My first real introduction to Hailey and other people on the technical team was working together on a volunteering project.” 

Volunteering at Exact

Exact Sciences offers 16 hours of paid Volunteer Time Off (VTO) for regular full-time and part-time employees, including interns, to help at nonprofits or community organizations. Those include food pantries, community gardens, habitat restoration or clean-up, kids programming — almost any effort that supports community well-being, says Stefanie Berg, who oversees employee volunteering at Exact Sciences.  
Berg’s team, Corporate Impact and Community Relations, identifies opportunities year-round in communities where the company has offices. Through a dedicated landing page on the company intranet, individuals or work teams can learn more or sign up for these activities. 
In 2023, use of VTO grew significantly. More than 1,400 employees logged VTO hours, up 33% from 2022. Exact Sciences’ workforce totals around 6,500 employees, meaning that more than 20% of employees took advantage of the program, Berg says.  
Early in the year, Exact made it easier for employees to take VTO. They no longer have to fill out a form to request the time. Now, they simply ask their manager for an OK and then submit the time off in the attendance system, just as they would log vacation time. 
Employees also receive a Team Exact Sciences T-shirt whenever a group or team goes to volunteer together. 
“We heard from employees that they wanted us to make things simpler and easier for them to give back and to be involved,” Berg says. “We took the feedback, removed the barriers, and have seen tremendous momentum as a result.” 

Taking it international 

At the beginning of 2024, Exact is extending the VTO program to its international workforce.  Berg notes that while the company always wanted to extend the same opportunities to all its workers, some issues needed addressing, such as how time off work is regulated from country to country. Exact Sciences’ benefits team worked hard to figure it all out and is excited to see the program go live and further enhance the employee experience, Berg says.  
That’s great news, says Beth Hilton, a UK-based Exact Sciences sales professional and active volunteer at a local hospice facility. She has taken the lead on organizing volunteer activities in her area and is helping roll out the new VTO program for all international employees. 
Some teams are concentrated near international offices in places such as Canada, the UK, Switzerland, and elsewhere. The VTO benefit gives employees flexibility in how they use their time, which is especially important when a team logistically can’t gather from around an entire country to do a volunteer outing, Hilton says. 
As the VTO program gets up and running, Hilton and others are navigating each country’s nuances, creating process documents in multiple languages, and figuring out how to socialize the program to employees. 
Hilton knows it will pay off. Her UK team did a volunteer project together in November, voting to spend their time at the hospice that’s close to Hilton’s heart. They spent a day readying a newly built facility to begin accepting patients — assembling beds, carrying furnishings to rooms, hanging curtains and shelves, stocking towels and sheets, placing soap dispensers, whatever was needed. 
“We could see an immediate impact, knowing people would be going from a very old building, which had served them so well for over 40 years, to a bespoke-built, beautiful place where patients and their families will be so well supported,” she says. “Our day at the hospice was really, really enjoyable, building team spirit and supporting the local community.” 
The day brought her close-knit team even closer and filled Hilton with gratitude. 
“I think Exact Sciences is an amazing company to work for, but this just makes me even prouder to work for them,” she says. 

Benefits for employers 

For perhaps the first time in history, some workplaces today see five generations of employees working side by side: Silent Generation (born 1925-45), Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Generation X (born 1965-80), Millennials (born 1981-96), and Generation Z (born 1997 and later). 
Volunteer programs are one great way for organizations to attract and support all those groups, says Melissa Bublitz, the Liz Kramer Professor of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology. 
Gallup studies show that workers of all ages value organizations that care about employees’ well-being. That can look different from generation to generation.  
Millennials and Gen Z prioritize social responsibility more than previous generations, and the U.S. Census shows that Gen X volunteers the most hours each year. Support for volunteering is one way for organizations to elevate worker and community well-being, Bublitz says.  
And when an organization supports volunteering, that doesn’t mean it has to do it all itself — it can empower employee ownership. 
“When a company sets up a process for employees to lead a volunteer initiative and promotes it throughout the organization, that widens exposure to the types of volunteer opportunities and organizations supported, and it also increases employee commitment,” Bublitz says. For employees, “it becomes their initiative when they feel supported.” 
An organization with many kinds of departments may face challenges if all teams can’t enjoy the same level of time flexibility for volunteering, for business reasons. Bublitz says leaders must be sensitive to those disparities. Another watch-out: activities tied to holidays, since not all employees celebrate the same way and holidays can be busy times at work for some departments. The best approach is a variety of activities appealing to different interests and available at a variety of times throughout the year, she says. 
But however it looks, a corporate volunteer program “shows that an employer cares, about employees and also about community,” Bublitz says. “It also provides a way to develop the social connections employees have with each other, which can help teams work better together.” 

Creating healthier workplaces 

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally reshaped the workforce, reshaping people’s tolerances, attitudes, and priorities. In the era of “quiet quitting” and the Great Resignation, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office in 2022 introduced a framework to help business leaders design policies and create workplace cultures to support workers’ mental health and well-being. 
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said at the time. “As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being, and this Surgeon General’s Framework shows us how we can start. … The benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”     
The blueprint lays out five essentials that address the basic needs of the humans who make up the workforce, and they apply across industries and job roles. They include: 
•  Protection from harm, meaning physical and psychological safety 
•  Work-life harmony, or the ability to integrate work and non-work demands 
•  Mattering at work, or a person knowing that they and their work make a difference 
•  Opportunity for growth, meaning the chance to reach goals based on skills  
•  Connection and community, involving positive workplace social interactions and relationships 
Monica Meinholz, who manages employee engagement at Exact Sciences, says a workplace volunteering program supports that last pillar of connection. 
When volunteer opportunities give people a chance to connect away from work, they pay off when they’re back in the office, Meinholz says.  
“The more time that people have opportunities to be with each other in spaces outside of a meeting, outside of making business decisions, outside of the day-to-day grind, the more they’re going to have access to build relationships and trust,” she says. “That will not only give them someone whom they can confide in and trust, but it will create that psychologically safe place for somebody to exist at work.” 

Team-building results 

McQuillen says that’s precisely what happened when the newly formed lab trainer team volunteered as a group.  
The team brought their lab expertise to the Goodman Community Center in Madison, where they taught a group of kids what DNA was, how to dress for lab safety, and what it was like to work in a science lab. Using a curriculum Hinze helped develop, the team guided kids through a fun color-change experiment that taught them to use pipettes and other activities designed to expose kids to STEM careers.  
The kids loved it. The volunteers loved it too. And once the team was back on the job, positive interactions came naturally, McQuillen says. 
“It made it easy to reach out to my new tech lab training friends,” he says. “I felt very comfortable to ask, ‘Hey, I'm training something I’m not comfortable with yet. Will you be my guinea pigs while I present this?’ It was a nonjudgmental environment to improve my work, and that definitely helped me out professionally.” 
“I had the time of my life” on the volunteering project, McQuillen says. “And it brought our team closer together.” 
Hinze says the efforts also shape how Exact Sciences is viewed in its communities.  
“Bringing that positive energy and reputation into the community is fantastic for Exact Sciences,” she says. “People at Exact volunteer a lot, and a lot of people see us. They might not know everything about who we are and what we do, but we’re putting a positive face out there. We’re representing the company well and sharing our time and knowledge in the community.” 
McQuillen agrees. “It’s benefiting us, and it’s benefiting them. All around, it’s just all good.”