Zoe Amar: What happens to the charity office now?

With some businesses announcing staff will now be able to work at home 'forever', could charities look to retire their office spaces?

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Twitter caused a stir recently when it announced that staff could work from home "forever". Then Shopify’s chief executive declared that "office-centricity" was over, closed the offices until 2021 and said he would be allowing staff to work remotely permanently. And as many organisations continue to work from home for the foreseeable future during Covid-19, what does that mean for the charity office?

Jettisoning the office might be a tempting prospect if your charity’s business model permits. With fundraising income falling, giving notice on your lease is worth considering.

The reality is that until there is a coronavirus vaccine, social distancing in your office will make it look very different anyway: think standing room only in communal areas, hygiene stations and "sneeze guards" between desks. 

But as the pandemic unfolds it’s clear that one size doesn’t fit all. Shifting to a remote model will work for some charities, but not for others.

Before you decide what to do, there are big questions to answer: what’s the role of your workplace? What could any changes mean for your charity’s operations and culture? Most importantly, will these new arrangements work for your staff? 

I asked three charities to tell me about their office plans.

Remote working has created a change of mindset

Matt James, director of communications and engagement at WellChild, told me that his charity had been on a steep learning curve with digital since the crisis began, with staff using Trello to manage tasks, Teams to communicate and Zoom for board meetings.

Now that the office is no longer the centre of gravity, WellChild has accelerated its digital transformation, and its online library of Covid-19 information and guidance for families has been accessed more than 36,000 times. 

"The pandemic has shown us that productivity and impact do not rely on our four walls," said James. "Recognising that has made us a more dynamic, agile organisation overnight." 

But James said the office still has a role, acting as a distribution centre for WellChild to get 76,000 items of personal protective equpment to the families during the crisis. 

Face-to-face still matters

Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women's Resource Centre, told me that her trustees were looking into how in-person and digital operations will blend. She said her charity’s female leadership courses had received good feedback, "partly because of the relationships, support and trust the women build in face-to-face settings". 

Hayes’ charity will make a decision based on the needs of the women it supports because some live in poverty and cannot access technology.

Charities should also look at what staff need, she said: you might have colleagues who are not safe at home. Others might not have workspaces in their homes.

Be prepared for radical change

Philip Goodwin, chief executive of VSO International, said an overall reduction in the requirement for office space and, as a result, "national and international charities will become more decentralised in structure".

His charity is ahead of the curve. Pre-pandemic, less than 5 per cent of VSO International’s employees worked in the Kingston office every day and Goodwin’s team no longer saw it as the nerve centre. Now content and digital platforms are the hubs around which employees cluster.

Yet this raises its own challenges, which Goodwin identified as a culture and leadership issue. He asked: "How do we ensure regular connections and pick up where there are issues to be dealt with? What are the signs? How do you listen differently when you don’t often physically see people?"

Leaders such as Goodwin know that staff relationships are the glue that holds charities together. He’s looking at "face-to-face networking opportunities throughout the year" that would allow staff to meet in the future, without the fixed cost of an office.  

So does your charity still need an office? There’s no easy answer. Cost matters, but so do the needs of beneficiaries and staff. The only way to find this out is to talk to them. 

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