By now, it’s evident that COVID-19 has upset regular practices of work, forcing whole organizations to work from home. Yet before COVID-19, physical workspaces were often seen as a liability for nonprofit organizations, as most revenue tended towards paying employees, expansion, or general management costs instead of paying for pricey and sometimes underutilized office spaces. As government regulations continue to limit the ability to return to these physical workspaces, these already troubled relationships with office space may worsen.
Thus it is perhaps necessary for organizations with previous physical workspaces to rethink the work environment and need for these spaces to begin with. This may prove valuable to many organizations, allowing orgs to terminate leases and thereby eliminate costs of rent, furniture, and utilities. Orgs could then divert these newfound funds towards greater expansion, salaries, and other needs. To do this though, one must examine how effective nonprofit organizations work and manage from home.
In terms of basics, employers should ensure that employees have access to all technology and have a reliable internet connection. According to data from the Pew Research center, about 73% of US adults had high-speed broadband access in 2019. While this was a majority of the population, over 27% of adults lacked reliable, high-speed internet in the United States. In order to work effectively from home, it’s important then to ensure that individuals have high-speed internet access to remain connected to the organization and effectively get work done.
In some cases, this might mean employers cover certain costs for employees to develop effective work from home set-ups. This could include paying for internet broadband installation or additional technology like laptops, monitors, and headsets. While these may be unexpected expenses, many physical workspaces include technology like desktop computers and monitors, so providing these amenities to employees at home would not be a significant jump, and may still cost significantly less than paying for physical office spaces in the long term.
Employers should also consider implementing programs and technology that promote communication. Programs like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow employees to engage in quick dialogues with each other through smaller text channels and conversations. By implementing these programs, employees may account for the loss of “water cooler talk” – instances where employees are able to interact and engage with each other during the day near water coolers, break rooms, bathrooms, etc. These programs would also allow for quick questions and problems related to projects to easily get resolved between employees and would promote quicker and clearer communication beyond often formalized emails and phone calls. Beyond this, it’s also essential to ensure regular video and telephone conferencing software (i.e. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams) are readily available to employees, thus allowing employees to create meetings and maintain virtual face-to-face contact with clients and coworkers.
Other important forms of technology necessary for a work from home include programs that promote employee accountability. Programs like Trello, Asana, Basecamp, and Monday all hold their respective differences, but in general, provide easy project management and tracking. By implementing these programs, employers can easily imbed project management and effective delegation of tasks to employees across the organization. This may help to maintain productivity and collaboration across the whole organization as people work without the in-person interaction that can often keep employees motivated and accountable.
Ensuring employees effectively work from home does not just mean implementing technology though; it also requires the establishment of standards and practices that promote productivity and engagement. Employees should not just have access to these programs, but should also be trained and required to use them, ensuring efficient communication at an organization-wide level. Expectations between employees and managers should also be clear and communicated, with all parties setting established working hours so employees are aware of when they can reach others. Employees should also set preferences for communication pathways (i.e. video, Slack, email, etc), ensuring that other employees can effectively communicate with their coworkers.
While it’s important to set guidelines and practices, it’s also essential to allow for flexibility to maintain happy employees and a positive environment. Some working from home may experience more responsibilities in relation to familial or spousal duties, now having to help with child care or schooling. One should allow for flexibility in these arrangements and understand that not everyone may be able to function within the typical 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. workday. This might mean having some employees set a half day at times and allow for employees to make up hours in the night time, or allow for some employees to start their day earlier or end it later than usual. If established, employees may still produce high-quality work because they feel that they have flexibility and understanding from their organization at large.
It’s also important to stage organization wide events that promote community and belonging to foster a positive work environment. This may include regular weekly staff meetings, monthly town hall events, or organization-wide check-ins every other week. There should also be the opportunity for fun; consider implementing things like virtual happy hours, staff lunches, or even open Zoom rooms for people to work in and converse throughout the day. These measures may help facilitate employee connectedness, build community, and ensure employees are happy, productive, and in-touch with their associates and the work at large. It may also help to keep the mission of the organization alive, ensuring employees remember their role as a team member and their contribution to the greater mission and purpose of the organization.
With this, non-profit organizations may continue to prosper in a remote environment. In some ways COVID-19’s coercion of people to a virtual environment may make this later disjuncture from physical workspace entirely a much easier transition. It may require just a few additional tweaks, some extra technology, and general culture adjustments to improve overall productivity and community. With time, hopefully these practices may become more widespread and help save money for nonprofit organizations in the future.