MOST big firms organise staff volunteer activities as a way to give back to the community while showing a softer side of their corporate image.

At OCBC Bank, promoting staff volunteerism has also proved to be good for business, said its chief executive Samuel Tsien.

Through activities such as cleaning homes for senior citizens and preparing food at soup kitchens, the bank's staff are bonding and learning to work with one another more effectively, he said in a recent interview.

"There are true benefits that we've been able to derive by bringing staff together to be engaged in activities that are not directly work-related," he said.

"Usually, such activities can bring about a higher chance of bonding, higher success of people working together and higher chance of breaking down the silos."

OCBC customers, too, will benefit, he added, as the spirit of service is being reinforced among the bank's staff.

The bank has managed to significantly increase staff participation in such activities by creating a structured volunteerism programme, Mr Tsien added.

OCBC has been a long-time supporter of the Singapore Children's Society and earlier this month was given an award by the Society for having pledged to donate $5 million over 10 years from 2004.

However, Mr Tsien said, he noticed that many OCBC employees were doing volunteer work outside of office hours of their own accord and he felt the bank should provide a formal structure to support and encourage these efforts.

The bank thus formed a taskforce whose first job was to disseminate a company-wide survey in which employees were asked for feedback on the bank's existing corporate social responsibility and volunteer programmes.

One of the most interesting findings was that the staff wanted more choices of volunteer activities.

OCBC formed a staff volunteer committee and named a corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager. It also appointed one CSR coordinator in each business division.

Staff are encouraged to suggest volunteer activities to any of these CSR leaders and, if approved, the bank will provide funding and support.

"As long as it fits into the organisation's overall themes, such as education, environmental protection and skills transfer, we will support the staff in those activities," said Mr Tsien.

As a result, volunteerism has shot up among OCBC staff.

In the first six months of the year, more than 1,000 staff have participated in CSR activities, compared with 600 in the whole of last year.

Altogether, OCBC staff have put in some 4,700 hours into 60 volunteer activities between January and June, up from 2,200 hours in 20 activities in the whole of last year.

Mr Tsien himself has taken part in one such volunteer activity, which OCBC co-organised with the South East Community Development Council.

Earlier this year, he spent four hours cleaning rental flats occupied by senior citizens in Chai Chee. OCBC volunteers also provided lunch and ate with the flat dwellers.