Zoe Amar: What does the charity workplace of the future look like?

Our columnist looks into her crystal ball

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

I was inspired to write this piece by an excellent blog from the community umbrella body Navca about how it has used digital to transform the way it works. It’s helped it to increase productivity, widen its impact and save money and time. By embedding digital tools and making remote working the norm, it has saved 50 per cent on office costs and has reduced spending on IT support. It’s refreshing to hear about a charity – especially a small one – using digital to reinvent how it works and punching about its weight as a result.

From predictions that automation could take one in three jobs and the growth of co-working spaces to Sadiq Khan’s plans for London to become the world’s leading smart city, your office could look very different in 2028. I’m also excited to see what the initial findings from the Civil Society Futures inquiry, due next week, mean for how charities work. So how should you plan for this brave new world?

Jane Ide, chief executive of Navca, advises charities to go back to their roots.

"As with anything else in a charity’s structure, the mission comes first and the workspace design should follow," she says, adding that charities should embrace the subsequent disruption.

"A big challenge for our sector, when there’s been so much change and restructuring in recent years, is to redesign the ways of working to suit the organisation as it is now and give it a firm platform for its future – not be stuck with what used to work. It takes a certain amount of courage to break away from the familiar, but we have a responsibility to our funders and our beneficiaries to look objectively at how we do things and identify what needs to change as well as what can usefully be kept."

Charities need to be ambitious about how they use digital to achieve their goals. Jamie Ward-Smith, chair of Doit.life, co-founder of Do-it.org and chair of the Co-op Foundation, says: "When I set up Red Foundation we were able to scale quickly, with reps across the country meeting regularly online through Hangout and Skype. This saved a lot of time and money on travelling and enabled us to take advantage of new business opportunities because we had good representation in key development areas."

Ward-Smith points out that a virtual structure can help charities recruit from a wider, more affordable talent pool across the country.

Fozia Irfan, chief executive of the Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation, moved her organisation’s grant-making from paper-based to online systems. It’s helped her charity manage a 50 per cent increase in the number of applications and reduced the amount of time the grants managers spend on administration by 75 per cent. By seeing digital as an opportunity, not a battle, her charity has emerged with a new confidence and vigour.

"The future charity workplace can be somewhere in which we can actually focus more on our core purpose rather than be weighed down by administration, freeing us to interact, connect and grow," Irfan says.

These new ways of working are also useful for trustees. Nicola Miller, founder and chair of A Mile in Her Shoes, is writing into its governance processes guidance on what can be decided on WhatsApp and email and how many people have to agree it. This enables them "to get quick decisions where they matter most, with an understanding between those involved that makes it manageable and enables things to keep moving between meetings". Charities should give thought not only to the tools, but also to how they can be used in an intuitive way to be effective.

All of this is a long way from the bricks and mortar-dependent model of the traditional charity. For larger organisations, the digital workplace might be part of a larger programme. Graeme Manuel-Jones, digital development manager at Maggie’s, previously worked at Diabetes UK when it transitioned from a conventional office to a new activity-based space with hot-desking and digital tools on tap. However, he realised that the change was about people, not just shiny new platforms, and that people needed to be emotionally invested in what the future looked like.

"I think offering flexibility, remote working and a nicer working environment can help you to attract and keep staff and make them feel more valued," he says. "The right set-up is vital, and digital is a big facilitator, but it has to go hand in hand with culture change, and with a way of planning and implementing the change that involves all staff, rather than having it 'done to' them.

"At Diabetes UK it felt like the improved workplace really helped us to work more efficiently, saving time and money, and to include and support more of our volunteers, supporters, beneficiaries and the wider diabetes community."

The future charity workplace is here already. How are you preparing for it?

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications

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