Why Nonprofits Must Embrace, Not Fear, Remote Work

Remote work can make sense in all sorts of contexts!
Samantha Cristoforetti taking images of the Earth from the ISS’s cupola. / via

As an executive coach to many nonprofit leaders, I often hear my clients wonder —  or worry, really — about “letting” staff work from home. I know what they are worried about. These are the same things I worried about when I was running a nonprofit.

In my previous post, “How I Learned To Work From Home & Why You Should Too,” I described my personal evolution from being a judgmental critic (think Marissa Mayer of Yahoo) of remote work to becoming someone who advocates for flexible and remote work as a skill-set employees should develop and master. As I mentioned in that piece, whether we like it or not, remote work will inevitably shape the future of the workforce. It is in the best interest of nonprofits (and truly any type of employer) to adapt to this change, work out the kinks and start reaping the benefits. In this follow-up piece, I explore the fears many nonprofit leaders share around this issue, and offer some best practices and tips from other nonprofit leaders who have already made remote work part of their organizational culture.

Why Are Some Bosses Scared to Let People Work from Home?

Don’t Open the Flood Gates!

no timeclockSure, I can see why letting one or two people here and there work from home for a few months (usually a new mother or someone who recently had surgery, for example) would be good for everybody, but what if this opens the floodgate? What if all the mothers and fathers want to work from home? How about everyone who commutes from far away suburbs? How about every time it rains? Will anyone show up to work? If I only let some people work from home, will those denied complain and try to sue us? These are some of the thoughts that keep many organizations from developing an effective remote work plan and, instead, end up creating an ad hoc policy that creates more legal risks, unfairness and general chaos.

Anne Harris, Executive VP of Talent and Culture at TNTP, a national nonprofit that partners with schools and districts, points out that this fear is unfounded. “I truly believe that not everyone is cut out to work remotely. Some people don’t enjoy it. But there are many people who really do. I think that in years past this issue has been sort of a screen for a lot of ideas like ‘If we do this, then it will open a flood gate to all these situations,’ and that hasn’t really been proven. If you think back to 20 years ago when organizations were first dabbling in flexible work arrangements, there were no flood gates, and you didn’t have all these problems you worry about. You will get strong benefits from the business and the positive impacts it can have on your workforce and there’s very few reasons not to pilot, to embrace the way the world has changed and the way the work is done, and trust your workforce. If you don’t think you can trust your workforce, then that’s a different problem that you need to solve.”

And if there really is a flood of people waiting to work remotely, perhaps it is time to develop and implement a working solution before that gate breaks.

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What Are They Doing Over There?

How will I know they are working hard? How do I determine if they are doing a good job if I don’t see what they are working on? Yup, a legitimate concern.

How will I know if employees are really working hard?

Heather Lee of Remote Year, a one-year long program that supports digital nomads as they travel together as they work remotely, shared two tips emphasizing that these are important ideas whether or not you are working remotely. The first is setting expectations. Setting clear and measurable goals is key, and the experts at Remote Year advise the employer and employee to have this conversation before the remote schedule begins. Getting clear on roles and responsibilities and coming up with metrics for success are paramount to a smooth transition.

Having regular, clear communication is her second recommendation. “Some employers have daily check-ins via Slack, Google or HipChat, followed by a longer weekly check-in over a video call. Others also incorporate a comprehensive monthly and quarterly evaluation to discuss performance — wins, lessons, and opportunities. Whatever the cadence may be, it should be discussed and determined early on, and adapted as needed.”

Harris echoes the importance of understanding and communicating clear goals. “I think for us there’s an expectation that people are going to be incorporating their lives and their outside work with the work they are doing for TNTP. I think that the advantage is that we are a very goal oriented organization so people are thinking about the kinds of outcomes we want to achieve, and we are just not focused on how we get there.”

Leaders and managers need to learn how to set goals and appropriate milestones for their employees. Then take it a step further by supporting their employees to meet those goals, and holding them accountable, rather than holding onto the number of hours they seem to be putting in at the office as a poor proxy for how hard they are working.

How About The Magic of Sitting Together?

In our increasingly digital world, I, too, believe in the magic that happens when people meet face-to-face and build trusting relationships over time. How will innovation and collaboration naturally brew when folks are working in silos, never to spark conversations on their way to a meeting or over a lunch break? I think for nonprofits that pride themselves on bringing people together to help others, it is especially tough to think about not being in the same place at the same time to collaborate on working towards a mission.

Videoconferencing: Not as new as we thought.A '60s-era video phone /
Videoconferencing: Not as new as we thought.
A ’60s-era video phone / via

Danielle Holly, CEO of Common Impact, a national nonprofit with staff and consultants in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Boston and New York City, has invested in technology to create this magic. “We’re a small nonprofit so we don’t have a huge budget for technology, but it makes such a difference to have web cams and video capabilities when we’re conducting our staff meetings. We all are there on video and are able to look at each other, laugh with each other and have solid audio. That’s only one hour out of our time, but that makes a huge difference and really carries over.” Common Impact, like many other nonprofits with multiple locations, also brings its full staff together in person once or twice a year at retreat sessions.

At TNTP, senior staff, including the CEO and president, use its intranet site, Wiki, to keep a weekly blog that shares with all staff what’s going on in their work and personal lives. Rather than sharing boring “facts and figures,” staff members blog about their kids’ basketball game wins as well as organizations they visited, or their reflection on world events, such as Black Lives Matter. The organization also keeps a micro-blog where anyone on staff can go in and ask their colleagues’ opinion on anything or share an article they recently read. “So it’s basically our virtual water-cooler and we want to find ways to feel like you’re connected and you’re with somebody even though you are not physically in the same place.”

These are simple and effective ways to spark that magic of team chemistry that fuels teamwork, collaboration and innovation.

What Else Should I Be Thinking About?

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Let Them Choose. And Let Them Change Their Mind.

Not everyone should work from home, and not everyone wants to work from home. Do not make your staff work from home if they are not set up with reliable internet access, equipment or have a quiet, comfortable space to work (without a crying child trying to break into the closet where mommy is trying to work… speaking from experience). Also, don’t coerce them to work remote if they simply don’t want to. A remote work experiment at a Chinese travel company called Ctrip highlighted in the Harvard Business Review piece “A Working From Home Experiment Shows High Performers Like It Better” and consulting firm Tinypulse’s white paper on remote workers, “What Leaders Need to Know About Remote Workers,” show that employees that are forced to work from home are not as happy and do not reap the same benefits as those who choose to. People want to have a choice and you would be surprised who wants to opt in and out. Periodically assess how it is going, keep the communication open and allow people to choose to come back to the office if it is not working.

Train Managers to Support Their Employees and Hold Them Accountable.

Managers need to be trained to avoid micromanagement and instead provide the right level and frequency of support and communication, focused on outcomes (goals) rather than outputs (hours in the office).

Make it Legit.  

Informal programs and ad hoc arrangements can leave organizations open to legal liability for worker’s compensation and for potential violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Also, state registration requirements can get complex when you begin hiring remote workers from multiples states. If you are going to have out-of-state or international employees, make sure to know the requirements for working with employees from their place of residency. For peace of mind, consult with an attorney about your remote work policy and make sure it is aligned with all applicable rules and regulations.

Still not convinced?

I once had a stellar employee I secretly hoped to grow into a senior leader. She had a beautiful baby one day, and I was so happy for her. She moved further away from the office, her commute increased, yet her performance never suffered, and I felt so fortunate to have her talent on our team. Then one day, she proposed to incorporate a flexible work schedule for her role, and laid out a carefully thought through plan. I was so ignorant about flex schedule based on goals and work products that I honestly thought she was proposing to work part time, and happily agreed to it. Oh I was so stupid. She patiently explained that she was hoping to keep her full time staff status, and work out a plan so that she could work longer days on four days with clearly agreed upon deliverables. I denied her request, she stayed as long as she could, then she was gone to work for a larger organization that understood her needs.

A goal for some.
A goal for some.

Had I been more open minded, more trusting of my team’s talent, more confident as a manager, less entitled of my staff’s time and devotion, even just more mature, I would have at least given this arrangement a chance.

Now I know that remote workers are happier, more satisfied and suffer from less work exhaustion. Remote workers are more cost effective, making it possible to reduce the corporate real estate portfolio by as much as 40% – 50%.

Now I know that remote work allows organizations to have access to greater talent. This requires patience and a rigorous hiring and onboarding process, but the result means you get to scout candidates near and far.

Now I know that remote work also leaves a smaller carbon footprint. Remote workers use less fuel since they are commuting less. Organizations also use less paper, less electricity to sustain an office, and so on.

And the remote work trend will only get bigger. The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016 shows that excluding salary 16.8% of millennials prioritize work-life balance and 11% prioritizes work flexibility. Research also shows that 68% of current workers expect to work remotely in the future. We are not going back.

It simply makes sense to work out the challenges and at least pilot the idea if you are not already doing so. What occurs to me is that all the fears I had as a nonprofit leader around remote work are still the same challenges I had as a leader in general: Keeping my staff happy, getting the work done, honoring program quality and building a positive, productive work culture. Prospect of remote work is just another big change that magnifies all the existing fears the leaders may have about running a great organization. I could have been a better leader. Instead, it took my husband’s temporary relocation to Kentucky and my first baby to understand the benefit of remote work first hand.

Why Are Nonprofits Well Positioned For Remote Work?

Flex work is ideal for nonprofits’ rich cultures.

It had never occurred to me before that nonprofits were well positioned for remote work. However, Misty McLaughlin of Work In Place and the Jackson River consulting organization enlightened me on this perspective, “I feel like this is a great place for the nonprofit sector to innovate. I think the nonprofit sector is specifically made for remote work in a lot of ways. A lot of the work of nonprofit organizations is service provision or fieldwork, depending on the specific cause or sector, and so it just happens that people are doing work outside of the office anyway. I think it’s just not necessarily acknowledged as remote work.”

Holly of Common Impact goes a step further, “Companies are really struggling the most with the cultural shift and the trust issues with senior leadership. I think from a nonprofit’s perspective that this is the place where we really can be a model because we tend to have really rich cultures, everyone’s mission driven and connected to begin with and so I think we have a lot to teach other sectors.”

I would love to see nonprofits dedicated to public service also serve and take good care of their own staff. Nonprofit employees should not always have to take one for the team. I would love to see nonprofits benefit from a larger pool of great talent that includes new parents, the disabled, the retirees, residents of isolated locations or those who cannot or will not commute hours each day. I would love to see nonprofits holding their employees accountable for the quality of work they do, not for the number of hours they have logged in the office, and on the way to the office. I don’t want to hear of yet another talented development director who had to leave because she had a baby and wanted to work from home; I hear some version of this story almost monthly from my clients, recruiters and friends in the sector. It’s enough already.

I extend my warmest thanks to Danielle Holly of Common Impact, Misty McLaughlin of Work in Place, Anne Harris of TNTP, and Heather Lee of Remote Year, who contributed their valuable experiences and thoughts around remote work with me. I also thank Nicole Rothwell for her research work (and emotional support!) for this piece.