The LGBT Consortium is a UK-wide infrastructure organisation supporting approximately 250 LGBT initiatives. As with many infrastructure organisations across the country, we have been through our fair share of peaks and troughs and I think it is fair to say that we are definitely in a rather large trough right now—and one that has little feed within it! As CEO, I came into the post and quickly found that the organisation needed to do some serious thinking about how it was going to face the future, and inevitably this meant some incredibly tough decisions, without which we would simply not be here right now. As the cliché goes, we are on a journey and one that feels like more of a labyrinth much of the time, but we know we are needed as an organisation and want to ensure an effective LGBT voice is heard right across the UK.
This case study is focussed on part of that journey, in particular becoming officeless. We don’t profess to having all the answers, but I think it important to share our experiences in order to help out anyone else thinking of embarking in that direction and happy to discuss these things further should anyone make it to the end of my writing and want to hear even more!
The issues we faced
As with any organisation that faces funding difficulties, you have to look at the staff team makeup and whether or not there is anything that needs changing and streamlining. For Consortium this had to result in several redundancies, and as horrible as this is, it isn’t why I wanted to write this case-study. I wanted to discuss how even within these difficult times, we could look at them as an opportunity to do things completely differently and give us a new fighting chance of surviving and thriving into the future.
Consortium had grown so much during the glory days of funds such as Capacity Builders, that it is fair to say quite a bit of mission drift had occurred. We weren’t in touch with our Members in the right ways, we were almost competing with Members in some cases and generally focussing inwards rather than outwards towards our Membership. I came in with the aim of turning this around, and ensuring Consortium held a strong reputation of trust and confidence within our Members, whilst being run efficiently and on-mission.
The actions we took
Structurally, with a shrinking staff team, I looked around the office and realised just how little space we were maximising, but how much money we were simply throwing at it each month—literally thousands. We could have looked at sharing space with others, or moving to an even smaller space (having already moved once since coming into post this didn’t have such an appeal!) but working out how much each of our small team of now 4 was actually working in the office it seemed quite logical to have open discussions about getting rid of it completely.
The Board were initially very nervous about this idea as they saw the identity of Consortium as being within that office space—for me, this got to the very root of some of Consortium’s issues around being out of touch with our Membership. As an infrastructure body, we should be out there, talking with our Members, working from their offices rather than hiding away in a cold office in Central London. We trialled the idea of going officeless for a month period, which gave me the time I needed to get my head around some of the nuts and bolts practicalities needed to create an effective and productive officeless environment. After many staff discussions, and me negotiating with my Board of Trustees, it was time to make it a reality and move to our new officeless identity. If truth be told, I was a little nervous about whether it would work in practice, but it really was one of the best decisions I have made since coming into post.
It is safe to say that there are more considerations to consider when going officeless than I had initially envisaged, but then surely that is part of the fun of change!! I have tried to think of some of the key things we felt we got right and offer you the following nuggets but this is by no means an exhaustive list. So many things to consider that you would be quite bored by the time I had listed them all:
The old building
Make sure you think about going officeless as early as you can as you will need to take into account any lease agreement you may have at the current property. We were very fortunate that we only had a three month rolling lease so were able to get out of our building quite quickly. Without this, we may well have had a harder time achieving our aim so quickly—but be prepared to grovel with the landlord—we did in the old office and wiped off quite a few costs, not that I am advocating for the voluntary sector to plead poverty or anything!
We found that becoming an officeless organisation left us with quite a goody bag of technology that was now redundant - partly perpetuated by a magpie like obsession from previous staff at collecting a raft of technology. We used the three month period of notice on our building to take a serious look at what we actually each needed in our new home offices and discussed with our accountant writing off the rest to massively reduce fixed assets detailed in our accounts. We already benefitted from having a Paypal Giving account so took on the task of selling our redundant equipment and managed to rake in a few thousand pounds. We did however also give quite a lot away as it would not have been worth our while putting everything on Ebay. We arranged with a technology company who refurbishes old stock for non-profits to take the rubbish stuff away so hopefully this now been recycled!
Our new home offices
with the new way of working being primarily from our own homes, certain other practicalities came into play and need to be considered carefully. As a responsible employer, we wanted to make sure everyone had a safe and suitable environment from which to work so I sat down with each employee to discuss how and where they would be working from and whether Consortium needed to provide anything extra. Apart from a new office chair, I found that everyone already had that working space as we had all been doing it to a certain extent for some time.
The bane of my life for some time but we found the perfect solution in the end. We managed to source a product which allows us all to have a mobile phone each which acts as a landline, allows us to ring from our mobiles with a landline number, and allows someone to ring our main number and it rings us all. This really was a lifeline as I was worried about VOIP systems or just having mobile numbers—of course, it isn’t a perfect system, but then what is?!
The day the office closed finally, it really dawned on me that it was now my responsibility to ensure everyone did their jobs properly, without being able to see them on a regular basis to know that they were doing just that. With the four of us being spread out geographically along Southern England, we put in place several layers of supervision to ensure individuals had the support they needed from me, but the team as a whole didn’t lose the collaborative approach we had built up over time. I scheduled in a weekly Skype with each member of staff, a weekly group Skype as well, and a monthly physical meeting for the whole team. This has proved really successful with more effective team management and better staff connections in place now than there ever has been. There was a sense that by being strict with our online meetings, we actually see more of each other now that we did in the office, where we were often the only person in.
I don’t mean using them just to our advantage, but really being in touch with them and making best use of their spaces. Many of our members have their own offices, with some even have community spaces available to use. We have taken every possible opportunity to use these spaces for our training events and our own meetings, meaning a stronger link in, but also an income generation for those members—giving back to our membership in a real way.
Plan, plan, plan and then definitely plan some more! There is so much to consider when an organisation has held an office for a long time that I cannot say that enough. For those observant people you may spot I put some of the following under the “what went well” section too! Let’s just say, there were good and bad elements within some of these areas. These things may seem quite basic, but trust me, when you are faced with doing all of this in a relatively short period of time, I would have appreciated the pointers myself!
The key problem area was a photocopier (this history of which almost brings me to tears even now!!) which had a five year lease, had been signed before my tenure and still had 4 years to run. The company we dealt with weren’t particularly helpful and in the end we had to pay the complete amount off in order to just shift the beast of a machine that was otherwise destined for my own house—to the horror of my partner. It was a huge writing-off exercise, and a big learning curve for the board re liabilities, but the only sensible option in the end. Make sure you take these sorts of liabilities into account as the costs can mount up very quickly and be very unhelpful during what is effectively a cost saving exercise.
What to do with stuff
Although we managed to sell a lot of technology, and get rid of lots of other bits, we still ended up being left with years of accumulated resources, stationery (everyone loves a bit of stationery but seriously, we had a lot!). Consider what you want to do with everything that needs keeping (e.g. accounts archives) early as someone might just end up having rather a few boxes in their garage (that would be me then!). We also realised we had quite a library of physical reports, etc. so also had a volunteer undertake an exercise of checking for online versions of everything so we only needed to keep those that were no longer available.
The key thing we managed to miss out of all our planning was where post would end up—obvious I know! Suddenly, without a physical office, we needed not only a registered address but also a postal address. We managed to negotiate with our one of members that we would use their address as our registered address, but where to place a PO Box was more of a challenge. We had traditionally been based in London so wanted to keep that appearance but quickly realised that with none of us being located there, picking it up was impractical, and having it forwarded was expensive. It is fair to say that not too much comes by post these days, but it is still important to have. We have now moved our postal address closer to me but this has severed our physical links to London - but maybe that is a good thing for a national org - we shall see.
One of my fears was managing staff who might begin to become more unproductive with the flexibility of working permanently from home and hadn’t anticipated I would be faced with the complete opposite. We all keep rigorous office logs, along with information about what has been achieved each week. I quickly began to see that everyone was slowly working more hours, and at more unpractical times! We were creeping into the habit of working in the evenings, doing a quick bit at the weekend, on top of working our real hours during the week. Now, as much as I love people getting more done, I am a great believer of work-life balance to ensure you have the right frame of mind to achieve things effectively. As a staff team, we did a lot of work around time-management, learning from each other’s pockets of good practice. I am still guilty of not following our own self-imposed rules, but everyone else is—but then I’m the CEO—that’s my excuse!
Anyone at Consortium would now associate this word with a very large groan from me. Having staff adjust to using individual printers (which were all brand new and very well reviewed) rather than the magic photocopier was a read adjustment and almost a rebellion! We simply couldn’t afford to purchase a number of colour laser printers, so opted for good quality inkjet ones, with low on-going print costs. Let’s just say some people weren’t happy with this but my advice is stay resolute and just keep on smiling—they will understand the need for change eventually.
We are now nearly two years into being an officeless organisation and although there are times when each of our small team yearns for that office atmosphere, on the whole it works incredibly well for us. It not only gave us all a new sense of enthusiasm for what we were doing, but also had some much more tangible benefits.
- The costs we saved by not having an office were so considerable that we were able to employ a new part-time member of staff, increasing our ability to engage with our membership.
- This new employee has enabled us to look at our approach to membership and as a result we have completely revised our membership offer, and clarified who is and who isn’t a member of Consortium. Never before have we been so in touch with our members, who all now know who we are, what we do, and why we do it! What more could you want for an infrastructure organisation!
- Reducing our fixed assets has also proved to be more of a benefit than we first thought. It has enabled us to build our business case for creating a lean organisation that is able to adapt quickly to further change when necessary, with a couple of funders actively picking up on the fact that having virtually no long-term liabilities made us a much more fundable prospect.
- Not necessarily as a direct result of being officeless, but a by-product of the other work we have done since this time, is the massive increase in our visibility. We are seeing our name in places we haven’t before and have requests coming in for new connections we had been longing for.
My parting thoughts, if I haven’t bored you too much already—well done for reaching the end by the way—are to consider the small things carefully. Becoming officeless has saved us money, made us leaner and improved our relations with our Members, but there are new costs to take into account: new phones, higher printing costs and extra travel costs but these are a small price to pay for where we have brought the organisation to. We are still here, we are struggling to survive (who isn’t) but we have the right tools to give it the best shot at providing LGBT organisations with the infrastructure support they want and need into the future. Good luck if this is your next move—we are happy to talk anything through.