Remote working

Organisations are having to move to remote working with very little warning as a result of the rapidly unfolding coronavirus pandemic. For those that do not already have established remote working systems and practices in place, and especially for small non-profit organisations (or small businesses) with limited resources, this can be extremely difficult.

How to make it work? Some key points are outlined below (click on the arrows to expand each section).

IT systems and security

Most cloud-based products can be set up and administered remotely, allow users to access the full set of features through a browser without installing any software, and either offer free versions for registered non-profits, or free basic versions to everyone with non-profit discounts on premium versions. In some cases, a modest investment in premium licences can dramatically enhance productivity for remote teams, although for many of the products below the free basic version is more than enough for small organisations.

Productivity and collaboration

Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite both provide email, calendar, file storage and online office applications including real-time collaboration on documents.

Messaging

Slack is a simple team messaging system that allow users to share instant messages with predefined groups or one-to-one, including links, documents and more. It is invaluable for allowing fully remote teams to communicate efficiently and naturally, without email overload.

Videoconferencing and VOIP calls

Zoom allows teams of up to 100 people to hold reliable online meetings using voice and/or video calling (although much smaller meetings will be more effective, as outlined below). It is more reliable than Skype and has more features (including better support for multi-person video calls, call recording, online polls, and many more customisable options), and is more secure (with end-to-end encryption), although at least one user needs a paid account to run calls with more than two people for more than 40 minutes. Zoom can be run from a browser extension, but it is best to download the desktop client. Users can schedule a meeting in advance (and share the details in advance with others), or just start one immediately and invite others to join them. Participants in Zoom calls can choose to dial in from a phone, if they don't have access to a computer, and there are local numbers in several countries.

Voipfone is one example of many 'voice over IP' (VOIP) systems that can provide a virtual version of a PBX telephone switchboard, but administered in the cloud and run entirely from phones and laptops. The organisation's phone number(s) - and you can add new numbers, in many different countries - can be configured to ring through to different people based on a voice menu system ('press one for media enquiries, two for the helpline', etc), with different users assigned to different groups and the ability to tweak the setup in various ways through a simple online interface that includes options for configuring call diverts, voicemail messages and so on. Calls come through to a 'softphone', which can be installed on a laptop, but is normally a mobile phone app, or to a physical VOIP phone if you have them.

Databases

Airtable is a cloud-based alternative to both endless Excel spreadsheets and overly complicated databases, allowing non-technical users to build powerful but user-friendly systems to manage contacts, grants, supporters, projects, M&E, employees, contractors, IT assets, events, purchases, job applicants, or anything else. Airtable is designed for when you would normally use a spreadsheet, but want to be able to structure and present data in more powerful and flexible ways using a relational database, and to share it more easily, internally or externally (or both). It is extremely easy to use, and allows users to create and then view data in a very wide range of ways, to collect data through web forms, to share it on websites, and so on. Each 'base' can contain multiple 'tables', all linked together like any normal database. I am happy to share templates for some of the use cases above (just email me).

Automation

Many repetitive tasks can be automated and integrated with other systems using Zapier; for example, sending emails or Slack notifications when new records are added to an Airtable database, or automatically tweeting new blog posts created in WordPress.

Security

Employers will need to consider the security implications of giving staff members access to organisational IT systems from their home computers and networks. There are some obvious steps that can be taken to minimise the key risks.

Endpoint protection

Bitdefender GravityZone is a good example of an 'endpoint protection system' that protects computers against viruses, ransomware, phishing attacks and other threats, and can be monitored and controlled centrally through a cloud-based administration system. The 'endpoint' software (anti-virus software for computers) can be installed on all computers that are used to access organisational IT systems, regardless of who owns them. It can be complemented by Bitdefender Mobile Security for smartphones (iOS and Android), which provides anti-virus and anti-theft (remote track, lock and wipe) protection (available separately; for example, by buying ten licences of Bitdefender Total Security).

Password management

A password management service such as LastPass help organisations to increase their IT security by using strong passwords (e.g. sH4Cr5$) rather than weak ones (e.g. currantbun188), by saving passwords in a secure online vault rather than somewhere insecure, whether online or offline, and by using different passwords for each service, rather than recycling passwords many times. It provides users with a secure online ‘vault’ on their computer, on their phone and in their browser and, when they log in with their master password, gives them access to the usernames and passwords saved for each website in their vault (and auto-completes username and password fields, for sites where they have saved these details to their vault). It also allows users to generate and then save secure passwords, and to save passwords in different folders (including, for premium business plans, shared folders for passwords to sites accessed by more than one person, which can be organised by team).

Virtual private networks (VPNs)

VPNs are arguably not necessary for people working at home using their own internet connection (as long as the wifi password is set and secure), but they come into their own when using a public or other open wifi network, by protecting against the risk of hacking. Many 'corporate' VPNs are expensive, but there are free products such as Windscribe that are basic but functional, and include a monthly data allowance that should be enough for occasional use.

Wellbeing

As outlined below, it is crucial to check in on staff wellbeing when everyone is working remotely - especially during a pandemic. Officevibe is a free, cloud-based system that sends out very short automated surveys to all staff members on a weekly basis to measure their satisfaction with their job, wellbeing, manager, organisation and so on, with each survey asking five different questions from a pool of 100 standardised questions. It allows organisations to monitor their team almost in real time and to react to issues as they emerge.

Managing and motivating a team

There is plenty of advice online about how best to manage and motivate a fully remote team, and I won't attempt to replicate all of it here. However, some key pointers from my experience are as follows:

Compensate for the lack of physical meetings with video calls, and ask people to turn on their cameras as much as possible, as this makes the interaction feel more personal (and discourages people from doing other things when they are supposed to be paying attention). However, don't over-compensate by organising too many virtual meetings, and keep calls focused and brief, with as few participants as possible in each call. Sub-team meetings and one-to-one calls will generally be much more productive than larger meetings.

Of course, you can still run virtual full-team meetings, and find a way of replicating whatever structure you use for those in a virtual setting. However, it often pays to tweak the format to make the most of the opportunities provided by (and to minimise the downsides of) video calls. I have found that, for anything up to a maximum of 20 people (but ideally no more than 12 or 15), it is possible to run a weekly hour-long team update video call that brings everyone together and is a useful forum for getting everyone up to speed with recent developments and plans for the immediate future. One way of running these, rather than asking everyone to provide a short update on the call, is to ask each team member to provide short written updates in advance (perhaps in a Google Sheet, or in Slack or Airtable) on what they did last week and what they plan to do this week, and then to spend the first few minutes of the call reading everyone else's updates, after which everyone gets a few minutes to ask questions of their colleagues based on the written updates. This is much more efficient than listening to everyone's verbal updates, and at least partially corrects for some people's tendency to either say too little or far too much.

Watch out for the negative impacts of remote working, and the loss of personal interaction, on your team. Introverts can become increasingly withdrawn, while extroverts can struggle in a more noticeable way. There are some practical steps that you can take beyond the obvious step of encouraging line managers to keep close tabs on their direct reports, like setting up a 'buddy' system so that each team member is temporarily matched up with a colleague (there is even a software solution to run this in Slack). You can also use Slack or similar products to set up a wellbeing channel to encourage your team to talk about how they are feeling and coping, to ask questions and to share advice and tips on issues such as balancing home-working and caring responsibilities, perfecting their home office setup, and taking regular breaks. You should also consider taking more formal steps to safeguard employees' wellbeing at home, such as ensuring that their home office meets basic health and safety guidance (see below) and that, where possible, they have a quiet space to work uninterrupted. Above all, make sure that people are turning off at the end of the day and can achieve some work/life separation, which can be a challenge for all homeworkers, but especially for those who are not used to it.

Policies and processes

Moving to remote working might require you to tweak some of your organisational policies, or even to develop some new ones. Do you need a homeworking policy, for example, that covers issues such as home office setup and equipment, connectivity, health and safety and wellbeing? Do you need to adapt any of your other policies and processes to take into account the implications of full remote working (and other aspects of coronavirus), including sick leave or domestic and compassionate leave, data protection, recruitment and selection, performance management, travel, governance, internet and social media, safeguarding, procurement, risk management, security? Email me if you would like me to send you templates for these and other policies that have been written with small, fully remote non-profit organisations in mind.

Events and meetings

Events are being cancelled or postponed at an unprecedented rate. Could you run a virtual conference or webinar in place of a face-to-face event? In many cases, the answer is yes, and with a surprising degree of success. I was closely involved in the design and delivery of a major virtual conference run by the Tax Justice Network in late 2019 - see how we did it and the lessons that we learned from it. In short, it takes quite a lot of work and it is hard to compensate for some aspects of in-person events, but with the right technology, preparation and format, it can be extremely effective, and it is quicker, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and more inclusive!

Similar but simpler approaches can be used for smaller meetings. There is no reason why board, advisory group or stakeholder meetings cannot be run virtually, for example. The key is to make sure that every participant has tested the technology in advance, and that the chair is well-briefed on how to run an effective virtual meeting. It is often the case that meetings where everyone is taking part virtually are much more effective than those where a few people dial into a face-to-face meeting, because the technology works better, it is easier to share documents virtually (sharing slides on screen, for example), and there is a level playing field rather than having the virtual participants playing second fiddle to the people in the room.