Coronavirus analysis: Top tips for remote working

Charities, like other organisations, had little time to prepare for working from home amid the coronavirus escalation. Rebecca Cooney finds out how they can make the most out of the experience

(Photograph: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images)
(Photograph: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images)

As the coronavirus closed first offices, then pubs, theatres and transport hubs, remote working became a sudden reality this week, and many charities were caught by surprise. In a survey by the Small Charities Coalition last week, fewer than two in five (37 per cent) of respondents said they were prepared to have staff working from home.

As everyone adjusts to what is rapidly becoming the new normal, Third Sector asks charities whose staff are already working remotely, and a management expert, for their top tips.

Jess Young, communications coordinator at the management support organisation Engagement Success says the first step is to establish what each member of your team’s working from home situation looks like:

  • Will they have kids at home?
  • Will they be able to work during normal working hours, or will they need to start earlier or finish later?
  • Is there still a demand for their role at the moment and, if not, are there other tasks they can be doing?

“This conversation needs to happen on an individual-by-individual basis,” she says, “and you need to be crystal clear about everyone’s hours of work.”

For charities in particular, Young says, the tone set by managers can be crucial to keep everyone engaged with the charity’s mission.

“Rather than focusing on the fact that you can’t deliver events, for example, one thing that can be really powerful is to try to treat the situation as a positive opportunity," she says. "Ask your team: ‘What can we do to keep service users engaged?’”

The local infrastructure umbrella body Navca has supported remote working for a number of years. Jane Ide, the organisation’s chief executive, agrees that communication is vital, particularly for managers.

“Be really clear what you need the team to do, over-communicate in both directions, never stop,” she says, adding that communication will also help managers pick up when someone is having a tough time or struggling to switch off.

A number of charities that responded to the SCC survey expressed concern about how they could be sure staff would actually be working.

But Ide says: “Remember that you employ adults and treat them as such. People worry that they can’t trust staff to do what they’re supposed to. You can, and if you can’t then you shouldn’t be employing them.”

Young agrees, saying that although there might be some dip in productivity, “there’s no reason for output to go through the floor”.

That said, it’s important to allow yourself a period of adjustment, particularly to get used to the technology involved in remote working, according to Verity Glasgow, co-director of the relationship support charity OnePlusOne, which moved entirely to remote working 18 months ago.

“Be honest if you’re finding it difficult and get some support from colleagues,” she says.

She advises looking into software that enables quick and easy communications, such as Slack, WhatsApp, Zoom or Google Hangouts.

“Instant messaging, video calling and screen sharing all help you to have the kinds of discussions you would normally have across the desk,” she says.

It might also be worth considering supporting your team with contributions to the cost of heating and, more importantly, broadband, which can have a huge impact on the quality of meetings, she says.

If bandwidth is a problem during video calls, try reverting to audio-only, she says, and make sure everyone knows how to mute themselves when they are not speaking, to limit feedback and background noise.

When making video calls, she says, “listen closely or use visual cues to ensure you don’t talk over people, and don’t get distracted by your phone or by carrying on with your work because you don’t think people will notice – they will.”

Productivity is important, she says, but so is looking after yourself, so try to balance the routine with flexibility.

“Just because you are at home, it doesn’t mean you have to be ‘seen to be’ working every minute of the day,” she says. “Try to have a short break every two hours, leave your desk, make a cup of tea, let the dog out, water your flowers.”

If you can manage it within social distancing restrictions, she says, go for a walk around the block before work to build in space between home and work.

And try to start and finish at a set time to give yourself routine. It can help to list your hours in your email signature, especially if you’re using your own phone for work, she says.

While structure is key, it's also important to build in the fun, she says, so share pictures and conversations that are not solely about work.

“Stay connected in whatever way you can, whether it’s an instant message or a friendly call,” she says. “And if your pets decide to join your conference calls, let them.”

Young says this is particularly relevant from a management point of view.

“Informal communication can be left out because it’s harder remotely, but it’s also more important to make everyone feel connected,” she says.

“As a leader, try to stay humble. Ask questions, either about things you don’t understand or fun, light stuff, like what everyone had for breakfast.”

Above all, Ide says, don’t take yourself too seriously: “Don’t worry about what you look like on the video call, because no one’s going to judge you.”

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