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by Gregory P. Wilken

 

Most nonprofits say they plan to continue offering remote work options post-pandemic. Be sure your nonprofit’s managers and executives are equipped to successfully lead hybrid work teams.

Remote work is here to stay. Are you ready?

Over the last three years, we have seen some of the most profound changes in the workplace we have ever witnessed. Surgical masks in all workplaces, temperature checks at the front door, vaccine mandates, social distancing… the list goes on. The most dramatic (and potentially long-lasting), however, is the dramatic increase in the number of employees who now work remotely.

Once considered a special privilege of a small number of employees, remote work has become a deal-breaker for many people: if it is not offered, they will look elsewhere for work opportunities. In fact, the opportunity to work remotely has become the third most important reason (after better pay and greater career opportunities) a candidate would accept (or reject) a job offer.

For nonprofit organizations, the ability to offer remote work is even more important. Nonprofit employees seem more attracted to a positive, flexible workplace culture than higher pay, as evidenced by this recent survey: nearly 70% of nonprofits plan to continue offering remote work options post-pandemic.

Of course, the explosion in the number of employees who work remotely has presented new and difficult challenges for employers and managers. Managing teams of employees who work a variety of different roles—from in-person to hybrid to fully remote—raises the challenges to a whole new level. This article identifies some of those challenges and offers practical tips on how to successfully overcome them.

First, a few numbers.

According to McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey, Americans like—and want—flexible work. In fact, 87% of the more than 25,000 American adults surveyed report that when given the option to work remotely, they take it. Despite this staggering preference for remote work, 41% of individuals reported that they did not have the choice to work virtually, either because their work could not be done remotely or because their employer did not allow it.

However, the same survey also indicates that employees who work remotely report facing new and difficult obstacles to peak performance. These obstacles include mental health issues, child and elder care, social isolation, and a perceived lack of career opportunities. So, what can nonprofit managers and executives do to help their (often hybrid) teams of hybrid workers?

The Challenges

Don’t get me wrong—managing employees is hard work, regardless of situation. However, managing teams of employees who themselves might be a conglomeration of those who work in-person, hybrid, and remote adds further layers of complexity. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that even the best nonprofit leaders struggle to manage these hybrid teams of (often) hybrid workers.

Effective managers should be aware that these challenges occur with in-person teams as well, although they may be exacerbated by a lack of physical proximity. Some of these challenges include:

  1. Communication—How do you communicate effectively (and consistently) across different locations, time zones, and mediums (in-person, video, telephone, email, etc.)?

  2. Connection—How do you build connection among employees (especially those who have little to no in-person contact with one another)?

  3. Culture—How do you foster a culture of coordination and collaboration?

  4. Valuation—How do you fairly and equitably evaluate, recognize, and reward all employees?

 

Some Best Practices

Effective leaders know that there is no secret to managing employees. It comes down to communicating effectively, being flexible, setting goals, and holding people accountable—by doing these, effective leaders establish trust.

However, nonprofit managers can also use a handful of specific techniques to ensure the success of their hybrid work teams. Here are five best practices to implement at your nonprofit.

Practice 1:  Set clear expectations and develop consistent rituals.

Leaders should set clear rules of engagement at the beginning of every remote work opportunity. These must include:

  1. Availability: When should (and must) employees be available when they are not physically at work?

  2. Communication: What are the expectations for responding to different methods of communication (e.g., phone calls, text messages, instant communication, email, etc.)?

  3. Meetings: How often will managers hold individual one-on-ones as well as team meetings?

  4. These expectations must include which meetings are required as well as any consequences for missing them.

Practice 2: Ensure that employees have the right technology and tools to do their jobs effectively.

Many an employee has eagerly offered to work from home only to find out their WiFi was inadequate, their home computer was incompatible with work systems, or it just didn’t work out to set up a home office in the family kitchen. Managers should discuss and resolve these issues before employees are allowed to work remotely.

Nonprofits should also decide in advance whether (and how much) assistance they will provide to employees who work remotely. However, employees who decide to “go-it-alone” and self-equip their home offices should be held to the same standards of productivity as their in-office colleagues.

In-home technological equipment is an area that offers potential opportunities for nonprofits. Many nonprofits who allow employees to work remotely might be eligible for technology-related grants as well as funding opportunities or discounts from hardware vendors (like TechSoup, for example).

Practice 3: Ensure that remote employees are not overlooked or forgotten during hybrid meetings.

We’ve all been in that meeting where an employee dials in from a remote location, introduces themselves, and then is forgotten or ignored for the rest of the meeting. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

Instead, managers should take these active and deliberate steps to prevent this from happening:

  1. Keep a visible and prominent list of who is participating in a meeting remotely.

  2. Frequently solicit questions and input from those who are virtual.

  3. Keep in-room and sidebar conversations to a minimum.

  4. Ensure that any materials that are distributed are available to everyone.

 

Practice 4: Focus on results, not facetime.

No employee likes to be micro-managed. In fact, one of the reasons that so many employees prefer to work remotely is to be out from under the boss who hovers over them all day long.

The reality, however, is that it is sometimes easier to manage and evaluate an employee’s work when we can directly observe them. The ability to provide real-time, actionable feedback is certainly enhanced by in-person contact. Similarly, employees who come into the office also benefit from the interaction they get with coworkers. Finally, it is certainly easier to monitor attendance, tardiness, and other potentially troublesome behavior when employees work in-person at an office.

Therefore, it is critically important to establish clear and measurable objectives for the work of remote employees. These objectives should be tied to important metrics (perhaps those associated with ESG, for example) and included in the nonprofit’s performance appraisal process.

 

However, it is crucial to avoid the temptation to measure employees simply on when they are available (or not) and how quickly they respond to communications. Remember, a quick response to a text message does not necessarily equal a productive employee (especially, for example, if an employee is sitting waiting by their phone instead of performing their tasks). For nonprofits especially, availability does not necessarily demonstrate either organizational values or dedication to fulfilling the organization’s mission. And don’t forget: nonprofit employees need time for self-care as well!

Practice 5: Consider employees’ well-being.

As researchers and social scientists look closer and closer at the impact the pandemic has had on our society, one thing has become crystal clear: the detrimental effect that COVID had on our mental and emotional health. These issues—anxiety, stress, depression, chemical dependency, and feelings of isolation—do not just affect individuals at home and in their personal lives. Employees bring them along when they come to work every day.

For employees who work remotely, the lack of social interaction may contribute to or compound the problem.  In nonprofit organizations—where employees experience an above-average amount of burnout and compassion fatigue—this is even more important.  Nonprofit managers need to be deliberate about checking on employees’ physical and emotional well-being at work. Managers should make a point to ask employees the following questions:

  1. How are you doing?

  2. Do you feel connected to the rest of the team?

  3. Are you facing any particular struggles (either professionally or personally)?

  4. What can the organization do to support you?

 

These might seem like simple questions, but even these basic check-ins can work wonders to make nonprofit employees trust that their organization cares about their well-being.

On the other hand, nonprofits can also offer (and promote) employee assistance programs (EAPs) to provide employees with professional support and resources to meet employees’ needs. If you do not already have an EAP in place, now would be a good time to check with your benefits broker or your health insurance provider to see about adding one.  EAPs are often very affordable and usually available to all employees, even those not currently enrolled in your health insurance plan.

Finally, managers should know, and be trained on, when and how to intervene when an employee appears to be really struggling. Positive intervention is crucial to maintaining your employee’s well-being.

Trust is the real “New Normal”

Many aspects of our workplaces have returned to “normal”—most employees do not have to wear a mask at work, have their temperature checked, or produce proof that they have been vaccinated. One thing that seems to have changed permanently, however, is our acceptance of remote work as the “new normal.”

Of course, this means that managing remote and hybrid employees presents new and ever-changing challenges as well. By following the practices above, managers and leaders will create a culture of mutual trust with their employees. This, in turn, will help to ensure that their employees remain engaged, and their organizations remain successful, ultimately benefiting the communities they serve.

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