Before the UK went into lockdown, charities generally had most staff working in central head office. But in a few short weeks, full-time home working for office staff has become the norm.
In fact, plenty of people are already suggesting that the new enforced working-from-home arrangements could usher in a permanent change to workplace environments, as people grow accustomed to their new ways of operating and organisations realise opportunities to cut property costs and boost staff retention.
However, successfully implementing a culture of “distributed working”, as it’s known, requires thought and effort, both around technological solutions and the pastoral care of staff. This is especially important at times of uncertainty, like now, when many people will be feeling isolated or cooped up, and worried about the future. So it’s as important to find ways to support remote staff and boost morale as it is to ensure people have the right tools to do their jobs.
David Ainsworth is senior content and communications manager at Catalyst, part of CAST, a charity where all staff work from home four days a week. He says the three most important software tools for home-based team-working are video-conferencing, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams; a shared calendar (more important post-lockdown); and a shared messaging system such as Slack or Yammer, which enable people to share information in channels that other employees can see and follow if they wish.
Catalyst also uses Google Drive to share documents between teams, Trello for organising joint projects, and Miro, which is a virtual board you can cover with sticky notes.
CAST has produced a guide on how to hold good online meetings, which is useful for trustee board meetings as well as internal staff meetings – you can find it at https://bit.ly/Castmeetingguide. One tip from Ainsworth is this: “Appoint a chair who decides the next speaker, and raise your hand when you have a point to make. Don’t just all shout.”
Warren Jackson, head of client services at digital agency Trillium, advises keeping the video on – bandwidth permitting – because being able to read people’s body language helps communication enormously. “This is critical when the objective of a session is to tease out requirements,” he says. “If you can’t fully engage, it’s much harder to build a comprehensive understanding of the differing viewpoints present”. He also recommends that six people is the maximum for a really effective online meeting, if every participant is to have the opportunity to contribute properly.
Jackson says it’s also important to replicate the same housekeeping rules online that you would in a physical meeting, such as sharing agendas in advance and scheduling breaks so everyone knows what to expect and when.
That said, not everyone is a fan of always using video. Philippa Perry, psychologist and author, recently tweeted: “Video calling is tiring coz of the delay of the spoken word and the gestures and expressions. They’re not simultaneous. You have to listen to words and notice body language in two separate streams in your poor head. You also get distracted by your own face. Takes concentration.” Managers might want to check if employees would prefer to turn the video off at times.
Ainsworth says it’s inevitable that ways of working will change when you’re at home, and teams should think about how to mimic the things that are essential, and how to adapt or scrap other less vital tasks. He adds: “It’s likely that the first set of processes you develop won’t be exactly the right ones. Test, iterate and keep making changes until you find what’s right for you.”
At Catalyst, every morning each member of staff shares their priorities for the day, their progress against their objectives of yesterday, and anything that’s blocking them from achieving these. “This ensures we’re all aware of each other’s work and heading in a shared direction,” says Ainsworth. “On smaller pieces of work, or with newer members of staff, we might repeat this towards the end of the day too, to ensure everyone has a check-in point and is supported.”
Culture and morale
But tools and processes can only take you so far – just as important is culture, says Ainsworth: “A key element of Catalyst’s distributed-by-default structure is that it involves a culture of trust. There is little micro-management. In the end, effective distributed working involves having trust in your staff to do their jobs without being watched. It is likely they will repay that trust.”
When people are working remotely, it’s especially important to ensure they feel supported and cared about. During lockdown, managers should remember that people’s home environments may not be optimal for home working, and make allowances for this. They should also be aware that people may be less willing to admit to feeling low or stressed, so it’s important to create opportunities for them to open up about their emotions.
Rowena Harding, marketing adviser at VSO, has worked in a remote team for a few years, and has this advice: “Start the day with a wake-up call like a tea round or coffee chat. Make it video where possible and encourage people to be honest and show their room, pets, bed hair etc. This is a good way to get people up and out of bed and feeling like they have a normal day.
“Encourage a coffee hour later in the day and ask someone – maybe HR – to coordinate this, so that everyone has a 15-minute coffee chat with another person. If you’re a large organisation, make this someone they would not normally talk to.
“Consider wellbeing ratings to make it easier for people to say they are feeling low without having to articulate how exactly. Think about who they can report these to and what action can take place after that, for example a chat to someone about something totally random. Use tools like WhatsApp and Slack and have random channels where water cooler chat can take place… encourage the setting up of communications for different groups such as dog walkers, cat lovers, people who cook – not just work themes – so people can find ways to connect with humans.”
Queries on the Covid-19 Charities Preparedness Facebook group about ideas for boosting morale among remote teams have also thrown up some great responses. Cancer Awareness for Teens & Twenties does Mindfulness Mondays, where a team member leads a session on tips and tricks for dealing with stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, Thoughtfulness Tuesdays to encourage some inward reflection, and Hype Wednesdays, where a team member leads a fun group activity for half an hour or so. Alice Frampton, head of development, wrote: “This Wednesday we played [the online games platfom] Jackbox, using our phones – would highly recommend.”
And on Fridays the team has Lovebox: “Throughout the week we save notes of appreciation and gratitude for specific people to our Google Drive. For half an hour in the morning on Friday we read through them/get each other to read them to us. It’s such a boost to know someone is grateful for something you did and it also makes you feel great writing them out. It’s something we do in the office with an actual box where we pop in notes. Really felt it was important to carry this through to remote working, especially as we had two new starters.”
Saying thank you
Remembering to say thank you to your staff can have more impact than you’ll ever know. Simi Bennett, executive director at Shaare Zedek UK, posted on Facebook: “I have a board member/lay leader sending a thank you at the end of each week starting this week. My team cried knowing they are appreciated at such a vulnerable time.”
Darren Worthy, fundraising manager at United Response, wrote: “We sent a text message thank you out to all our staff yesterday evening at 8.00 to arrive during the clapping for the NHS and essential workers.”
And Kate Collins, chief executive of Teenage Cancer Trust, posted on Twitter on 30 March: “Wow – my chair of the board just called to tell me to stop working for the day – go & spend time with your family, they need you too – find 30mins tomorrow to call me, but not before you’ve had a break.”
Look after yourself
Ainsworth concludes that it’s also good to think about self-care and work/life balance when working at home. “Have some kind of ritual divide between work and home life. One colleague unplugs and closes her laptop when she’s finished for the day, and puts it away in a bag. Another unfolds her kitchen table in the morning, and folds it down again at the end of the day when finished. Dividers like this allow you to switch off, even if the office is in the house with you.”
Sarah Wakeman fundraiser at Parkinson’s UK
“Daily Hangout meetings for 30 mins and so far we’ve all worked out with Joe Wicks and draw with Rob which was hilarious.”
Zoe Harris community fundraiser at East Anglian Air Ambulance
“Kids clubs for the children of staff, yoga, quiz, movie club and lots more... Team morale is high and has kept us all going.”
Rachel Wagstaff director of fundraising at London City Mission
“We do a Kahoot quiz on Friday lunchtime and people just login and chat, also have a thread on Teams where people share any encouragements they have had that day. We are a faith-based organisation so we meet once a week to pray for each other which is an amazing time as everyone has someone in their life they are worried about right now.”
Rebecca Amy Worth fundraiser at Cats Protection
“We are going to test out our new mass participation C19 product on our income generation team (they don’t know it yet ;) – we think it’ll be a super fun way to engage everyone in one activity, boost morale and give us the test we need :))”
James Shearer events manager at Stroke Association
“We spent yesterday on Skype with each other working on our own bits and unmuted to ask questions and chat as if we were sat in an office together. Was really beneficial.”
Helen Mackenzie CEO at Purity Fundraising
“We’ve started wellbeing Wednesdays when everyone calls in for an hour to check in and just chat about ‘stuff’ – not about campaigns or work – more about juggling with kids, isolation, morale generally etc, swapping ideas around what helps keep people sane through this madness.”