My first experience with remote work arrangement while employed full-time was in 2005. I was with a human rights organization in Bangkok, Thailand while working from Davao City, Philippines as an ICT staff. On a small corner in our bedroom. I used only email and Skype to collaborate with the team. Surprisingly, I managed to be very productive, except for the initial constant struggle with the temptation of the bed. I have been seeking a work-from-home arrangement since then until it became so popular that technology companies swear on their remote-only work culture that I experienced firsthand. I still don’t have a dedicated office at home but way better in working remotely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced non-government organizations (NGOs) to shift to work-from-home ill-prepared as this work arrangement is not common to the sector. Although there are popular free or affordable online applications to easily pick up, most NGOs don’t have dedicated ICT staff. Usually it’s up to the “accidental techies” or staff more-inclined to take on additional ICT tasks.
The ability to shift to remote work as needed will make NGOs more resilient in the event of natural disasters or similar untoward events. More than using appropriate technology tools, a flexible work-from-home policy in the long-term will mean cost savings, increased productivity and lesser burnout.
Better work management
“I survived a meeting that could have been an email”. Meetings are too frequent, unnecessary and unplanned. When there are no clear agreed action points or follow through, the meeting and the discussion become the outputs. It shows poor work management more than anything else. Going remote will only make it worse.
NGOs don’t lack planning. It is common to have a multi-year strategic plan translated to periodic work plans, e.g. annual, bi-annual, quarterly or monthly. The challenge is in effective monitoring and measuring progress towards established objectives and agreed results.
Frameworks such as Objectives and Key Results (OKR) have proven to be effective in addressing this. The benefits of the framework include improved focus, increased transparency, and better alignment. In a tech startup I was with, we used OKRs with Asana, a popular task management app that is free for up to 15 teammates. Either working in an office or remotely, my experience with Asana resonates with what most users claim: It has reduced the amount of emails and meetings, increased efficiency and increases getting work done.
Increased trust and improved communication
Management needs to deal with the discomfort of the physical absence of the staff. This requires increased trust that the staff is doing their work. The false assurance that physical presence means better productivity compounds this.
Requiring less supervision is a usual job qualification yet micromanaging is very common. In remote work arrangement, fully trusting that colleagues will deliver is crucial. As a Manager, conveying that trust to your staff will allow them to step up and earn that trust.
Improvements on how you communicate is important. This doesn’t mean being always online or replying immediately to every new email or message. I can communicate better in writing. It allows me to think and express my thoughts properly. If necessary, I jump into a call to further clarify what I wrote. While communicating online doesn’t have the benefit of seeing physical expressions, it helps me to refrain from knee-jerk reactions. To pause and think through before responding especially on an emotionally-charged issue.
While with a tech startup, we were encouraged to join a weekly video call where everyone talks about anything besides work. Either in a group or one-on-one. This helps establish better relationships and more open communication.
Better work discipline
In home-based work, the distinction between working and being at home is blurred. I struggled with this for a long time. As a knowledge worker, I find it difficult to switch off from thinking about work. And I don’t have an office space at home. Having a routine, defining work hours and space helped. Besides setting work hours, I play only instrumental music while in front of the computer that signals work mode. I switched off most app notifications or internet connection so I am not tempted to check my phone while taking a break. Lately, I removed most work-related apps on my phone. I also follow a routine for household chores, exercise and taking a nap to get the needed reboot.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that tasks that NGOs (and other organizations) thought need to be done in the office can be accomplished while working remotely. If not better. It also reiterates the importance of digital transformation which most NGOs regard as nice to have (a topic for another blog post).
As an NGO staff, how are you coping with working remotely?