A Quarantine Survival Guide for Nonprofit Employees

In the past weeks, as thousands of nonprofits shifted to remote working environments, we saw a flood of resources and tips for how to keep your mission moving forward in a virtual workspace.  Although many thought we would be working from our kitchen table for only a few weeks, it is clear that remote-work practices are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Although technology makes remote work much easier today than 15 years ago when the Alliance hired its first off-site employee, it does take just a little more planning and intentionality than what some of us thought.

Remote working can become a breeding ground for worries … Managers worrying that they don’t have a sense of what their staff members are doing. Employees worrying that their managers think they are doing laundry instead of working. Everyone worrying about the disruption and chaos that has become their new normal. (Not to mention those of us worrying about not having enough toilet paper!)

All kidding aside, remote working does present some unique challenges, and as veterans in this work space, the Alliance wants to provide some strategies that will set your team up for long-term success.   

We are presenting our Three Golden Rules of Remote Working. These are key learnings our team has gleaned over the past 15 years. 

Of course there are many tips, tricks and tech that will help your organization flourish during the quarantine — we have included a fantastic library of resources below. If you have others to add, please be sure to do so in the comments section. We would love to hear from you! 

Golden Rule #1: Streamline your internal communications 

Effective communications in a virtual space is both essential and illusive. The challenge is how to get the right information to the right people. You cannot copy the entire office on every email, but sometimes it feels like that is the only way to keep the right people in the loop. 

We have learned that the right mix, at least for us, involves both high and low tech. We have a project management platform (Asana), virtual meeting platform (Zoom), instant messaging and video chats (G Suite) — but where the rubber really hits the pavement is in our daily huddles. Every day we hop on a 20-minute call so the team can check in with each other and share urgent priorities. This works because we are a team of 15 — but larger organizations could implement this same strategy at the department or team level.

Tip: Create guidelines about when to use instant messages, email and phone or video calls.

Golden Rule #2: Be intentional about building trust

We know trust is absolutely critical to high-performing teams, but it can be hard to come by when you work remotely. In addition there is plenty of research suggesting that remote paranoia is real. 

Imagine this scenario — you write an email to your boss outlining what you consider to be a brilliant suggestion. As you push the send button, you imagine the kudos and positive regard you will receive. Although you go back to work, you can’t stop yourself from checking email every few minutes as you eagerly await the recognition you deserve. Two hours pass and you start to question your wording … the idea … your very existence. The spiral begins. In an office work environment, you would just pop into your boss’s office to get the reassurance you need. In remote working, this is MUCH trickier (if you were to email your boss again, you risk appearing needy). 

The difficulty of building trust is definitely a downside of working remotely; however, it is possible if you openly identify the problem — name it — so that everyone recognizes the challenges and can work collectively toward solutions. 

At the Alliance, we have learned that honesty and transparency are key. Here are the strategies we employ:

  • We use a shared calendar system so that we know when others are busy. 
  • We encourage teammates to set expectations. For example, one of our colleagues told us that, in order to increase her focus and productivity, she will only be checking emails twice a day (we could instant message if we need an immediate response). This works because it alerts the team to a change in her communications pattern. 

Tip: Consider creating a “shared expectations” document that outlines your commitment to building a culture of trust with your remote team — and that it is everyone’s job to work toward that end. 

Golden Rule #3: Institutionalize recognition

Every employee wants to feel valued and recognized for his hard work — and your current office culture probably supports that. In a remote work setting, however, all those small cheers and accolades that happen naturally in an office setting easily evaporate as staff members, glued to their screens, work toward the next deadline. After a while, even the largest of accomplishments are met with little energy or response. You have inadvertently created a culture that suppresses applause. 

You can create an online culture that supports recognition, but you have to be aware and intentional. At the Alliance, we created a recognition statement as a way of institutionalizing applause — indicating that all of us need to take the time to celebrate our accomplishments, both big and small. Here is our statement:

  • We appreciate each other, and we find the time to recognize our efforts. This is both structured, planned recognition but also informal in-the-moment applause.

Tip: Incorporate into your team meetings an opportunity for staff to share accolades and show appreciation for one another. It may make your meetings a little longer, but it will be well worth the time.  

Although the challenges of remote working are real, so are the rewards. Here are just a few of the benefits of offering a remote work option (even after the pandemic):

  • Attracting specific skills
  • Saving money (less staff = less office space) 
  • Enhancing accessibility for those with disabilities
  • Attracting and retaining talent
  • Improving employee engagement and morale
  • Enhancing staff productivity