6 extreme employee excursions

Moss Adams

Picture the scene: 15 accountants dig the foundation for a school in the Nepalese village of Shaktinagar. After lunch, they split up to perform more manual labor, meet the village chief, or fish barefoot in knee-deep swamp water.

For this privilege, each Moss Adams employee raised $5,000, primarily to pay for construction materials, as well as some travel and logistics expenses. They also spent a week of personal vacation time and an average of $1,000 on immunizations and personal supplies. The October 2012 experience was so popular that this coming fall, the firm will send two teams of 15 on a second expedition organized by the nonprofit buildOn.

"It was an exceptional time," says Luc Arsenault, the partner at Moss Adams who spearheaded the trip. "To expand our horizons and travel abroad and be exposed to a new culture, there was a tremendous amount of benefit."

Residents of the village -- notable for dirt streets, no plumbing, and no Internet access -- include former indentured servants freed in 2000. "They were given a parcel of land and $150 to start their life," Arsenault says. Villagers committed their own resources and labor in a buildOn partnership to build the school for the children in the community.

Moss Adams employees returned home with a broader perspective on the world, a renewed appreciation for hard physical work, and even stronger connections to others at the firm.

Eileen Fisher

You might not be able to imagine a fashion designer sweating under the Arizona sun to build a straw bale house on the Hopi reservation. But that's precisely what Leonora Merkel, a technical designer for Eileen Fisher Inc. in Irvington, N.Y., spent one week doing in 2010: sanding wood, constructing the framework for the house, and stacking straw bales to make walls and such. The closest Merkel had ever come to similar work was building sets in school plays.

"Every day was something new and different and foreign to me," Merkel recalls. "It was a very difficult week in terms of the hard labor and the weather conditions. At night, it was freezing cold, and in the day it was excruciatingly hot."

The 10-person team, from Eileen Fisher and other companies participating in Clif Bar's In Good Company initiative, slept in tents set up on the desert sand, and were soothed to sleep by the howling of coyotes. They took turns cooking and cleaning.

Merkel learned to use a solar shower, pitch a tent, and use power tools. They also observed Native American ceremonies, learned about Hopi culture, and connected with members of the tribe, thanks to the nonprofit Red Feather Development Group and Kii' Nat Wan Lalwa, which oversaw the project.

Merkel says she came away from the experience with newfound confidence about her abilities and increased appreciation for her employer. "It taught me a lot about myself and what I'm physically and mentally capable of taking on, being able to put my fears aside," she says.

Ernst & Young

A one-week trip to the Brazilian rainforest changed the course of Andrew Soulier's career. As part of a team of 10 Earthwatch Ambassadors, the Ernst & Young manager spent his mornings hiking through the jungle, measuring tree diameters, and gathering other data for scientists looking to document native biodiversity.

In the afternoons, the team helped small businesses in Guaraqueçaba, on the east coast of Brazil, improve their business practices, cut costs, improve marketing, and develop strategies for attracting ecotourism to the region.

"They are climbing up mountains and fording muddy rivers and living in barracks and spending the entire time together wearing the same clothes. It's not your usual office assignment," says Deborah Holmes, E&Y Americas director of corporate responsibility.

The Earthwatch Institute trains Ernst & Young employees in data collection and oversees the program, which was designed to be a high-visibility signal of the firm's commitment to corporate responsibility and the environment. The program gives young professionals, often more environmentally concerned than their older colleagues, exposure to an emerging market and a hands-on green experience. Only high-performing employees are eligible to apply, and just one in 10 applicants wins a spot.

Soulier recalls the accommodations on the farm that housed the team as no-frills: zero Internet access and a separate building for the shower and bathroom. While in Brazil, he also met with Ernst & Young executives involved in local sustainability projects as well as the team working on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games -- valuable contacts that have helped him expand part of his career into South America. Now, he's working on a couple of green building projects in Brazil and helping benchmark energy use in building portfolios.

Edelman

"Richard Edelman has long had a vision for our employees to live in color," says Laura Smith, U.S. human resources managing director for public relations giant Edelman. "He taught us that in order to be the best for our clients we needed well-rounded, enriched lives, where we do more than go to work and come home."

One manifestation of that vision is Edelman Escape, a program that gives one paid week off and $1,000 to 15 employees so they can pursue a personal project or goal. Winners of an Escape have done everything from volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti, spend time with a sick relative, or meet up with a military spouse who's been deployed abroad.

"It's definitely a retention tool," Smith says, noting that most of the Escape winners are still with the firm a decade later. "Everybody that comes back, regardless of the type of Escape, tells us it shed new light on how they feel about the company."

Take David McKenzie, a senior account executive in New York, who added two weeks of personal time off to go to Shimoni, a village on the south coast of Kenya with high rates of HIV, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. Under the auspices of Global Vision International, McKenzie worked in a clinic, weighing babies, creating lesson plans about health issues, and teaching computer classes.

The North Face

Jessica Hollister will never forget the crunching noise of axes and crampons digging into the ice as she scaled a frozen waterfall alongside Mount Everest regular Conrad Anker. The senior PR coordinator for The North Face was invited on a research and development trip to climb near Anker's Bozeman, Mont. home as a thank-you for successfully submitting her company's gear for an Outside Magazine award.

"You're hanging off a wall of ice. Your nose is touching the ice in front of you. You can see water trickling down behind the ice. You're so far up, it's scary," Hollister recalls. "You get the biggest adrenaline rush."

Every year, a team of equipment and gear designers make a similar trip with athletes like Anker and Kit DesLauriers, to test out new equipment designs for North Face. But for Hollister and her colleague Lindsey Sine, a PR coordinator, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join 15 colleagues camping out for three days in a snowy canyon, hiking, and climbing with the pros.

"I feel so enriched by that experience, and I feel the impact of it every day," says Hollister, who joined a climbing gym with her husband when she returned. She and Sine can now answer questions about the company's equipment based on direct experience. Also, they understand the design process more deeply after observing designers work with the athletes in the aftermath of a day of testing out equipment in the wild.

"You can't sit in a boardroom and talk about why it's important to get someone outside unless you're out there doing it," she says. The North Face also gives employees 10 free trips a year, awarded by lottery, to do everything from kayaking to climbing or hiking in Yosemite.

PwC

Since 2008, PwC employees have travelled to Belize City to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship in a country where four in 10 people live in poverty. This year, PwC plans to build a center that will provide year-round services to the community and serve as a home base for visiting professionals, says Shannon Schuyler, PwC's U.S. corporate responsibility leader based in Chicago.

Everyone from a summer intern to a retired PwC partner can apply to participate in Project Belize, which sends around 400 people to teach in 22 schools each summer. The project has delivered 15 tons of school supplies, including more than 80 computers, and awarded 600 scholarships worth more than $150,000. Despite the harsh conditions, including sporadic electricity and extreme heat, the program receives thousands of applications every year.

"We're changing the lives of these people," Schuyler says. "You're teaching the students as well as teachers and principals and their parents."

School principals who previously put money in a jar have opened savings accounts. A 10-year old girl who learned about entrepreneurship started a jewelry business that brings the family enough to help pay for her food and clothing.

PwC professionals come back from the experience more engaged, not only staying longer at the firm than the norm but also assuming leadership roles, Schuyler says. "It's helped our people to live those values of being in somebody else's shoes and appreciating a different perspective," she says. "They've taken that and made it a part of their work ..."

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