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Transitioning Successfully to a Virtual Office

The outbreak of COVID-19 is going to impact nonprofits in many ways, both short- and long-term. In addition to making changes to campaigns and events, and preparing for shifts in communication and fundraising plans, many organizations are suddenly faced with the task of shifting their teams to remote work for the first time. As a distributed team, we understand the challenges of the work-from-home approach. We wanted to take this opportunity to pass along some tips and tools that we ourselves use to maintain our productivity and find new ways to collaborate despite being in every time zone across the US. Here’s how we do what we do successfully, even though we’re far apart.

Messaging Tool

The ability to run between offices, ask questions as they arise, and generally get information as-needed is one of the hardest things to replace when you switch to remote work. That’s why we use Slack as our messaging tool. Slack provides options to chat between two or more users, to build topical channels that specific groups of coworkers can join, and to alert entire teams using specific commands. At Firefly Partners we also use slackbot to create custom automated responses. Specifically, we have created responses that direct our team to some of our most-used internal resources, such as our brand guidelines, PowerPoint template, and cell phone numbers. All someone has to do is type the help command into their own draft space, and slackbot will respond with the information they need immediately. Slack has a free option and has integrations for file sharing and calendar notifications as well. Slack also partners with TechSoup to offer free or discounted plans to nonprofits. When you start using Slack, make sure to create separate channels for casual banter and shout outs. This way you can recreate water cooler chat and have a vehicle for giving your team recognition for a job well done.

Schedule Transparency

When you work in an office, it’s easy to see who is available and who isn’t. All you have to do is peek over a cubicle wall or pop into someone’s office. With a remote team, it’s a little harder. We handle this in a few ways here at Firefly Partners. First, we share all our individual work calendars with the entire team, and clearly mark meetings and time away. This makes scheduling meetings much easier because instead of exchanging emails about availability, we immediately know when someone is free just by checking their daily schedule. Second, we use our messaging tool, in our case Slack, which has the option to create status messages. From simple ones that just say ‘BRB’ to more specific ones that detail a person’s exact time away, these status messages create the needed clarity about where someone is at any given time. You can indicate when you’re in a meeting, out to lunch, walking your dog, or even snooze notifications so you won’t be bothered with a chime or desktop alert while you’re in a meeting. Finally, staff members like our sales team who are frequently scheduling external meetings use Calendly, a program that lets others view your availability and request time on your calendar. You can set office hours and sync with your calendar program so that there aren’t any scheduling conflicts, and you can eliminate the back and forth of trying to schedule a time to meet. Calendly offers special pricing to qualified nonprofits, and there are other great and similar scheduling programs, such as Chili Piper.

Document Sharing

Whether you use Dropbox for Business, Google Drive, or another cloud-based tool, document collaboration makes the remote editorial and approval process so much easier. Version control means that you can see changes, edits, and deletions—nothing is ever truly lost. Even deleted documents can be recovered. You never run the risk of two people editing the same document at the same time or over-writing each other’s work—a soul-crushing side effect of email-circulation. This is because these services tell you when someone else is working in the document, and some even allow you to lock the file until you’re finished. Another tip is creating a clear system for filing and naming documents. We suggest using a year-month-day approach for the end of each file name. After the final version is approved, add ‘FINAL’ to its name and create an archive folder where all previous versions are held. This way you can review the process without the chance that someone circulates a version that is out-of-date. Documents that are easy to find and identify in shared folders mean fewer back-and-forth emails about where things are, and fewer issues with remote teammates distributing the wrong file.

Timeline Tool

Project timelines are the foundation of a successful project. Done well, they break down what needs to be done, by when, and by whom. But a timeline done well is useless unless the right people can access it and make sound decisions based on the information it contains. It might be tempting to sign up for complicated project management software, but if these timelines are inaccessible without a login or in-depth training, it’s not benefitting the team. Especially when people are distributed, you don’t want to create a situation where people are messaging back and forth just to get access, let alone be able to use the tool without someone over their shoulder guiding them through the process. Here at Firefly Partners we use Smartsheet (which does offer a nonprofit discount), but there are other simple and flexible tools that provide templates to get the basics done for you. We can help you vet and choose the right one for you team that allows you to see what needs to be done, by when, and by whom—all in a single place. The variety of sharing options, from full edit access to an easy link, means that anyone you want to have access to the timeline can do so any time they want, always with the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Project Management Tool

When you consider what makes a project successful, one element is being able to keep track of the little details and final decisions. Project management tools allow all the participants in a project to drill down and tackle the small things one by one. If something isn’t going according to plan, these tools allow you to log the issue, share related files, and comment back and forth until things are right. You can even open up specific projects to external groups, such as your board, your volunteers, or your clients, allowing them to identify their own needs, ask their questions, give feedback, and confirm decisions. As a conversation progresses, each team member can see exactly how a problem is being solved and when work has been completed. No longer are details lost in a single person’s email.

Video Conferencing Tool (+ Screen Sharing)

Not all of our meetings at Firefly are video calls, but we do try to make this option available internally using Zoom, and to clients, when it seems appropriate. It helps us connect with our clients and with each other, and it really does make it easier to decipher someone’s intent when you can see the facial expression that goes along with a comment. Most of these conferencing tools also allow for screen sharing, which is a very useful feature. We use this when many of us are working on a single document or looking at the same meeting agenda. Instead of getting distracted by other apps and windows, we maintain our focus by following along with the document. And we know we’re all looking at the right thing at the right time.

Flexibility and Trust

A major benefit to remote work for a lot of people is the flexibility that comes along with it. At Firefly Partners we have team members who love to work early, and others who prefer to work late. We have folks who need a longer break mid-afternoon to pick their kids up from school, and others who prefer to take a few hours off and then come back late to wrap up. This works because we trust each other to get our work done, something that has even more importance in the midst of a stressful and scary situation as we are facing right now. As you shift to remote work, you can absolutely set expectations of availability between certain hours, but then let your team know that they are trusted and won’t be micromanaged down to the final minute. We have regular team meetings that are rarely rescheduled, and regular staff meeting video calls that are pretty much set in stone. Other project-based meetings are scheduled between the necessary parties based on their availability. In terms of deliverables, when we ask someone for something, we are very specific about when it is due—it doesn’t matter to us if they do it between 9 and 5, or if they complete it early with their first cup of coffee. All that matters is that we get it when we need it.

It Will Take Time to Adjust

In case you’re wondering, this blog post is not a paid advertisement for any specific tool we’ve mentioned. It is a warm embrace for what works for us and what we have found works for our clients. As your team adjusts to the new reality we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic it’s so important to give everyone the space and time they need to process their feelings, take care of their needs, and support their friends and family. Creating a virtual workplace that sustains your nonprofit’s work and also allows your staff to take care of themselves is the important balance to strike. What we suggest for any team is to find the tools that are going to meet the collaboration needs of your organization, and we are available to go through the options available to help you land on the right options for your team. 

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