Suddenly find yourself working from home with some new smaller "coworkers"? We can help.
The Safe Routes Partnership has been a fully remote organization since it was founded more than 15 years ago. As many workplaces prepare to shift to a remote work model for the next several weeks, staff are getting questions about how we make it work, what to set up, how to manage teams and so on. And so sharing some advice for our allies and partners was something we thought might be useful.
We recognize that many nonprofits, agencies, and businesses are looking for best practices for a temporary remote work structure rather than seeking to make permanent system-wide changes to their information technology systems or ongoing policies and procedures. This blog post will focus on our top five remote work strategies that have proven effective for us over time and can be implemented quickly. If you want to look at more permanent efforts, here is a link to a blog post we released last year with long-term strategies: Five Ways Nonprofits Can Thrive as Remote Organizations.
1. Discuss and define the deliverables
The secret to remote work is having regular check-ins with staff. While in-person office environments allow you to bump into other staff to remember that deadline or to see someone’s face to know that they are concerned about something, remote work requires that you will not leave such opportunities to chance. Instead, discuss them as routine elements of regular check-ins. What work needs to be done, and in what time frame? As a supervisor, your deliverables are to work with staff to identify the critical aspects of the job that you will check- in on during weekly meetings.? These deliverables are the drivers for your conversations and a key to working together in a remote supervision environment. It’s the same as in-person work with a great deal more communication and fewer assumptions. Our discussions focus on the work product and outcomes rather than the process, giving staff the flexibility to adjust their environments and schedules to produce high quality work and meet deadlines – typically the end goal for everyone.
2. Communicate and clarify
Supervisors and staff should both think about what needs to move forward during this remote work period, opening up a back and forth dialogue to clearly define priorities and timelines. The discussion can then move on to how much time the deliverables will take over each day, week, or month, and what the expectations are for the rest of the employee’s workweek and if there are any gaps between what needs to get done and the time available. This reconciliation of time and expectations is especially important now as there are likely to be distractions at home or potentially shortened work hours due to lack of childcare or other factors. Be sure to review any changes in between check-in meetings to adjust work as necessary and do not hesitate to message, email, or hop on a quick call between check-in meetings to clarify. We have found routine check-in meetings to be foundational when it comes to remote work. Identify: when will you check in with your supervisor each week? When will you check in with each of your staff? We’ve found that having weekly check-in calls is critical not just for keep track of work deliverables but also for maintaining not only a sense of a relationship but nurturing relationships when there is no physical proximity. Our calls almost always start off with a few minutes of friendly conversation before moving on to a top-level review of deliverables and discussion about organizational matters or other general events.
3. Be focused and present
There has been quite a bit of talk over the years about balancing work and life. To maintain work/life balance requires necessary compartmentalization of “work” and “non-work” aspects of life, which more times than not given technology, time zones, school schedules, and the like is just not possible, especially now with schools closed and most routine day-to-day boundaries out the window. This unprecedented period we are going through is a great time to practice our discipline in being “present” --carving out 15, 30, or 60 minutes of focused work to tackle the core tasks related to the planned deliverables. Being focused and present on one-on-one check-in meetings and team conference calls can go a long way to ensuring that group meetings and one-on-one discussions are productive and everyone feels valued. And for some of us, if being focused and present requires a child to be by our side for the meeting so we know they are fine, then we should all trust what works for ourselves and our co-workers.
4. Expect the unexpected, trust, and keep an open mind
A few years ago, we hired a new staff person, and when we contacted her to start onboarding, she noted that she had a new address in another state. Since we are a remote organization and her work was not tied to specific geography, that change had no bearing on the work she would do for us—except that we needed to mail her computer to a different location to get started! Let go of previous assumptions you may have had about where and when your staff are expected to work, and keep an open mind to alternative arrangements involving work hours, work location, and so forth. Supervisors should expect the unexpected and consider new ideas in the context of whether or not the work can and will still be accomplished. Staff should speak to the work and their ability to move forward regardless of the unexpected change. This discussion will set the stage for employees to do their best work allowing accommodations where needed without creating distractions for the day-to-day work.
5. Focus on people more than infrastructure
There are endless options for group meeting technologies, videoconferencing, direct messaging apps, and project management tools. We share specifics on the tools we use in our longer blog post. But at the end of the day, it is the one-on-one conversations and team discussions that support success. Just as nothing replaces in-person meetings, we have found that in the remote environment, we cannot discount the value of connecting on a voice call rather than interpreting emails, direct messages, and so on. How many times in an in-office or remote environment have you lost a day of productivity clarifying what was said over email and responding with emails including multiple paragraphs? We find that if the email is getting longer than a few sentences, a phone call is likely going to be a more effective way to discuss something. Check-in calls should always be video or voice calls, and we have found success with both. At the end of the day, people quite literally want to be heard.
It is our hope that these strategies are useful, and we recognize that they are not groundbreaking. Many of them are considered best practice in human resource that tend to get lax in the in-person environment but are critical to success when operating remotely.
We are a small nonprofit, and while we are used to working remotely, we also recognize that we are trying to do it right now with spouses at home doing the same, kids in the house who cannot be ignored, and the unprecedented stress of the pandemic. We are operating close at capacity, but we want to do more to support other nonprofits at this time and will to do what we can. If this blog sparks any questions for you or if you would like more information, please drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will strive to see if we can help.