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Reimagining Social Impact | Resources for a Remote Workplace

Alexis Perrotta

Illustration of survey results
Illustration by Marian Blair

Early this year (a.k.a, a lifetime ago), it felt as though we were all truly in the same boat. Regardless of geographic location or issue area, at the start of the pandemic many organizations in our community were coming up against similar challenges; we were working, managing teams, applying for funding, running programs, and even hiring and onboarding, all remotely. 

Now, we find ourselves—for lack of a better term—all over the place. Some of us have returned to the office while others are working from home (WFH) for the foreseeable future. And so back in September, we decided to take advantage of how very asynchronous the sector has become by sending a survey to gauge where in the planning and reopening stages different organizations are finding themselves, where they have succeeded, and what questions still remain.

Based on our survey results as well as our own research and expertise, we’ve put together this comprehensive resource to help guide you through the most challenging parts of maintaining your mission-based work in a remote environment.   

Here’s what’s included in this resource:

Reconsidering your work-from-home policy

Based on our survey findings, of the 80% of organizations who closed their offices as a result of the pandemic, less than 35% have reopened. That adds up to a whole lot of social-impact professionals navigating remote work, and for many of us, it’s brand new territory. 

It seems that regardless of the current status of your office, an audit and enhancement of your work-from-home policy is warranted. In fact, 70% of survey respondents say their organization has already revised and expanded these policies, or plan on doing so in the near term. 

If you’re still working through it (or haven’t yet begun), here are some things to remember as you update your policy:

WFH is not a one-size-fits-all

For many of us, the decision to work from home was implemented with a swiftness few of us have seen in our professional lives. Everyone went home, stayed home, and we all just kind of figured it out. 

For the longer term, it’s important to consider all job roles and include caveats in your policy to accommodate different titles as well as different personal and professional needs.

Consider the following, shared with us by the team at a small, New-England based nonprofit:

“Most staff are working from home almost exclusively, while a few staff are working in the office occasionally, and one staff member is working in the office almost all of the time. We are still trying to determine the structure for our final policy that takes into consideration all work arrangements.”

Create an agile policy

Whether you revisit your policy each quarter for the next year, invite more people to the policy decision-making table, or implement a survey after four or six months to garner staff feedback on how it’s all going, be sure to build in some agility. You’ll want to strive to accommodate the ever-changing needs of your staff. As one respondent wrote:

“[Challenges include] staff having to balance family and childcare and schools with work, [and] the constant unknown of when schools may open or close, or when one of our work offices has to close due to COVID concerns or positive case results.” 

Of course, your new policy doesn’t need to account for every outlier, but staff should be able to determine, with relative ease, how their specific situation fits into the larger policy.

Expectations for when staff do come to the office 

We’ll get to this a little later on, but for those staff who are working in person, you’ll want to make sure it’s absolutely clear what’s expected of them prior to and during their time in the office. This likely won’t be a part of your formal WFH policy, but it’ll be important supplemental guidance.

What to include in your WFH policy 

Now that we’ve outlined some of the bigger concepts to keep in mind when revising your policy, here are some of the specifics to include:

  • A policy statement and the “basics.” Think of this as a summary for the reader where you include critical information like which titles, roles, or departments are eligible to work remotely, how to submit a WFH request (or if permission is not required, how to notify the team that they’ll be remote), how many WFH days are permitted per week/month (or how many in-office days are permitted or required per week/month). 
  • Any days that are inadmissible for remote work. Perhaps you have all-staff meetings every Wednesday, or maybe your board meetings are the third Tuesday of each quarter. If there are any days where you don’t plan to permit WFH, include that information.  
  • Permissible reasons for WFH. Depending on your organizational culture, you may want to include a list of reasons why a staff person can request to work remotely. Those reasons may include parenting responsibilities (especially now that so many students are learning remotely), health or safety concerns, or personal emergencies. 
  • Communication expectations. While we don’t recommend a system in which remote workers record how they spend each hour of their work day, it’s important to include expectations around responsiveness to emails, phone calls, and chat messages, as well as whether staff are expected to have cameras on for any video conferencing. Laying out those expectations in your policy can help to alleviate some communication and productivity issues before they arise. 
  • Technology and security requirements. Depending on your organization’s issue area (or a staff person’s role), your team may be handling confidential or sensitive information. In this case, be sure to answer the following questions: Can staff use personal laptops while working remotely? What about public Wifi connections? Is a VPN necessary for certain work? Do calls need to be made on a private line? And if so, is your organization offering a stipend to cover any additional data charges that may arise as a result?
  • What about working (very) remotely? While many of us have been stuck at home as a result of the current pandemic, others are taking the opportunity to get stuck far from home. You may have employees considering working remotely for an extended period from out-of-state or even overseas. Be clear about what is, and is not, allowed.

Based on what we heard from our network of organizations, many leadership teams are at a point where they’re trying to determine how to turn their reactive work-from-home model into a more sustainable and comprehensive policy that reflects the current state of the social-impact world. 

I hope that as your team starts to develop a longer-term plan, the above resources and suggestions will be a valuable part of your policy-making process.

Team building and engagement

Aside from concerns around staff and client safety (here are some CDC resources to support your safe reopening efforts), the question that we heard most frequently from survey respondents was how to keep staff engaged and morale high.

Earlier in the year, we launched Idealist Live, our three-part webinar series. In the third event, “Self-Care for Everybody,” we brought together Holistic Life Foundation’s Ali Smith and Jessica Kennedy of Mental Health America for an honest and informative conversation on how we can all be taking care of ourselves, especially in the face of a global pandemic and continuing racial injustice and civil unrest.

After the event we gathered valuable guidance around self-care including an introduction to self-care practices, resources for BIPOC social-impact professionals, resources for nonprofit professionals and those in the helping professions, and plenty more. Try out some of the practices included in the post, and consider sharing with your team as well. 

Some other ways to lift staff morale and increase engagement:

  • Casual Zoom. Take some time each week (even 15 minutes) to gather your team and check in the same way you would have in the elevator or in the office kitchen. In other words, this isn’t a work check in, but more of a “How was your weekend?” or “Did you end up trying that amazing dumpling recipe I sent you?” kind of check in.
  • Jackbox games or other virtual games. Another low-stakes, low-stress way to lift spirits is bringing your team together for some online games. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and online games are not what they used to be, pre-pandemic! A few to check out include Jackbox Games, Psych!, and Scattegories  
  • Measure it. Don’t forget that there are paid tools that can help you gather and analyze feedback from staff to gauge how everyone is holding up. These tools include TINYpulse, Officevibe, and Culture Amp (this last one comes highly recommended by the team over at Funders for LGBTQ Issues). Some tools have even updated their suite of services to include management and tracking specifically for remote teams. 
  • Don’t forget reviews! Now more than ever, nonprofit professionals are looking for the signals that remind them they’re still making an impact and growing professionally. While staff reviews may have been the first thing to fall to the wayside back in March, it’s critical (not just for productivity and goal setting, but for morale and employee satisfaction, too!) to execute your employee review process as close to “normal” as possible. If you’re not sure how to run a performance review remotely, here’s an excellent resource from the Harvard Business Review.

One final thing that we could all use right now is mutual trust. Some organizations reported a relatively easy transition to remote work; teams felt cared for and communicated with, and transparency was a guiding principle. Others, however, hit some bumps (of all sizes) along the way. If the latter sounds more like what your team experienced, you may need to do a little trust work. 

Encourage your team to be honest and forthright about their personal and professional needs, mental health, workload, goals, at-home challenges, and countless other things, by establishing (or reestablishing) trust among your employees and direct reports.

Remote hiring and onboarding

While it may come as a surprise to some, many organizations across the sector have continued to hire throughout the pandemic. In fact, job postings have increased by over 45% between April and September of this year, and over 60% of survey respondents have continued their hiring efforts throughout the pandemic and unrest. And while certain aspects of remote hiring may feel similar to what we used to do in person, there are quite a few adjustments to be made in terms of hiring and onboarding.

We’ve all heard about the tools that make virtual hiring possible (as well as their limitations). But there seems to be a need for additional guidance around the actual interview and how the conversation and line of questioning may be a bit different in our post-pandemic world. Here are some interview questions to add to your list:

  • How are you? I have noticed that there seems to be a lot more space for honest check-ins these days, and I’m hearing the usual “How are you today?”, “Great, thanks! And you?” less and less. For some interviewees (especially those who are currently unemployed), asking how they are and how they’re feeling can be the first time somebody has asked them that question all day, or even all week. Starting off an interview a little more sensitively than usual can go a long way creating a comfortable space for a candidate. 
  • Have you learned any new skills over the course of the last few months? This question is not meant to shame, but rather is intended to offer an interviewee an opportunity to leverage anything they may have undertaken or learned during quarantine. 
  • What have you learned about yourself and your work style? Some folks may realize that working from home is a more natural and productive set-up for them, while others may really have struggled with how to navigate the virtual work space. This question offers interviewees an opportunity to reflect on what has (or has not) worked well, and how to put that learning into practice to support your mission should they be hired to fill the position.
  • Tell us about your work-from-home set-up and how you create boundaries between your work life and home life. It could also be useful to ask an interviewee to share how their set-up (and boundaries) may have evolved and shifted over the course of the last six to seven months. 
  • How have you stayed connected to colleagues (or how will you)? Prior to the pandemic, you may not have been as concerned as to whether you felt like an applicant was social. And while you certainly don’t want to discount any introverted candidates, hiring an applicant who will be onboarded remotely means you both need to know that they feel comfortable reaching out to colleagues to introduce themselves, ask questions, and mine historical knowledge. Whether your team communicates mostly via Slack, Google Chat, email, or Zoom, make sure a potential hire is also comfortable and confident in that space. 

In terms of onboarding, structure and specificity seem to be key. While we all likely remember an onboarding experience that included a few training sessions and meet-and-greets over the course of a week or two, onboarding for remote employees needs to be far more prescriptive and descriptive. 

As one survey respondent put it, “New staff don’t know what ‘normal’ operation procedures (or our faces) look like.” 

So, in addition to setting up formal and informal meet-and-greets, consider recording and sharing some of the aspects of your organizational culture and procedures that may have gone without saying before (when most of us were still working in person). 

Think about things that you may never have had to specifically name before, but everyone was able to just kind of “pick up on” after days, weeks, or months at the office. Consider expectations around in-office (or virtual) face time, attire, late night or weekend work, or lunch breaks and vacation days, as well as how a team’s priorities may shift (and in response to what/whom). All of these things may now need to be spelled out in no uncertain terms during the virtual onboarding process.

Remember that pre-pandemic, oftentimes a new employee’s fastest avenue to comprehension was on-the-job observation, but now it’s your job as an employer to make sure you’re setting up new employees for success by making information as accessible (or at least almost as accessible) as it used to be. 

For more suggestions on how to get to know new remote hires, read “6 Ways to Get to Know New Staff When You Can’t Meet in Person.”

Managing online events and programming

Now that we’ve covered recruiting, hiring, onboarding, managing, and engaging with a remote team, let’s switch gears and talk about how to virtually engage with folks outside of your immediate in-office orbit. This may mean prospective donors, students, clients, or conference attendees.

Since so many organizations are reporting a shift of in-person events and programming to a virtual space, here are some suggestions and resources:

  • Be accessible. If you’re considering a shift to virtual programming, be sure to consider programmatic access. Does the intended audience have the technology and tools required to participate? If not, are you planning to facilitate their acquisition? Is there a lower-tech way that you may be able to deliver a similar service or program?
  • Get it in writing. If you plan to record any part of your virtual program, be sure that you have the proper privacy and technology policies in place.
  • Now is the time to overcommunicate! As you prepare to shift your program offerings or events online, you’ll need an exhaustive communication toolkit. Segmented lists, email marketing, email automation, FAQs, tech support plans and materials, scheduled testing, and plenty of buffer time should all be prepared and ready to go. 

Here are three more resources on running successful online events and programs that you’ll want to be sure to reference:

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I’m willing to guess that this time last year, few of us were putting such painstaking efforts into mapping out and implementing a multifaceted approach to remote work. But I hope that with these resources as well as the successes and challenges shared by fellow social-impact professionals, you’ll develop and enhance a sustainable, equitable, and successful remote-work practice that serves your team as well as your mission.

And if you’re searching for WFH resources to share out with your staff, be sure to check out our collection of remote work articles on Idealist Career Advice.

Alexis Perrotta

As the Senior Editor at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.