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The advantages of remote working

The LGBT Consortium shares its experiences of closing its office and using the savings to invest in membership.

Background

This case study was produced for the BIG Assist programme.

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. I think it is fair to say that we are definitely in a rather large trough right now – one that it is rather deep!

As chief executive 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 making some incredibly tough decisions, without which we would simply not be here right now. As the cliche goes, we are on a journey and one that feels labyrithian much of the time, but we know we are needed as an organisation and want to ensure an effective LGBT voice is heard right.

This case study is focused on part of that journey, in particular becoming office-less. We don’t profess to have all the answers but I think it’s important to share our experiences to help out anyone else thinking of moving in this direction and we are happy to discuss issues further should anyone make it to the end of my piece 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 and whether  there is anything that needs changing and streamlining. For the Consortium this had to result in several redundancies. As horrible as this was, it isn’t why I wanted to write this case study. I wanted to discuss how even during these difficult times we have looked at the challenges as an opportunity to do things completely differently to give us a fighting chance of surviving and thriving into the future. 

The Consortium had grown so much during the glory days of funds such as Capacity Builders, that it is fair to say mission drift had occurred. We weren’t in touch with our members in the right ways. We were sometimes competing with members and generally focusing inwards rather than outwards towards our membership.

I came in with the aim of turning this situation around, and ensuring the Consortium had a strong relationship of trust and confidence with our members, while 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 using, 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, but having already moved once since coming into post this didn’t have such an appeal, and working out how much each of our small team, now just four, was working in the office it seemed quite logical to have open discussions about getting rid of the office completely.

The board was initially very nervous about this idea as they saw the identity of the Consortium as being within that office space – for me, this got to the very root of some of the 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 trialed the idea of going office-less for a month, which gave me the time I needed to get my head around some of the nuts and bolts practicalities involved in creating an effective and productive office-less environment.

After many staff discussions, and negotiation with my board of trustees, it was time to make it a reality and move to our new office-less 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.

Positive outcomes

It is safe to say that there are more considerations to going office-less 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.

  • The old building. Make sure you think about going office-less 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 to have had 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 to the landlord – we did in the old office and wiped out quite a few costs, not that I am advocating for the voluntary sector to plead poverty or anything!
  • Fixed assets. We found that becoming office-less left us with quite a store of technology that was now redundant - partly due to the magpie-like obsession of former staff in 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 the fixed assets detailed in our accounts. We already benefited from having a PayPal Giving Fund account and by taking on the task of selling our redundant equipment 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 that refurbishes old stock for voluntary organisations to take stuff away so hopefully this has 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 needed 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 and whether the 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 working from home to a certain extent for some time.
  • Phones. 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 which acts as a landline, allows us to call from our mobiles with a landline number, and allows callers to phone our main number that rings through to us all. This really was a lifeline as I was worried about voice over internet protocol (VOIP) systems or just having mobile numbers – of course, it isn’t a perfect system, but then what is?!  
  • Staff meeting. 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 meet with them on a regular basis to know that they were doing just that. With the four of us spread out geographically across southern England, we put in place 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 meeting 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 have been. There was a sense that by being strict with our online meetings, we actually saw more of each other more than we had in the office, where we were often the only person in.
  • Using members. 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 having community spaces available to use. We have taken every possible opportunity to use these spaces for our training events and our own meetings, establishing a stronger link-in, and also generating income for members that gives back to our membership in a real way.

Negative outcomes

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. Observant people may have spotted I put some of the following under the ‘positive outcomes’ 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.

  • Fixed assets. The key problem area was a photocopier (the history of which almost brings me to tears even now) which had a five year lease that had been signed before my tenure and still had four 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 regarding 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 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.
  • Post. 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 one of our 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 profile but quickly realised that with none of us located there, picking post 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 - and maybe that is a good thing for a national organisation – we shall see.
  • Overworking. One of my fears was managing staff who might begin to become less productive with the flexibility of working permanently from home. I 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 less practical 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 in 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 then I’m the chief executive – that’s my excuse! 
  • Printers. Anyone at the Consortium would now associate this word with a very large groan from me. Having staff adapt to using individual printers (which were all brand new and very well reviewed) rather than the magic photocopier was a real adjustment and there was 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.

Lessons learnt

We are now nearly two years into being an office-less organisation and although there are times when each member 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 office-less, but a byproduct 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 office-less has saved us money, made us leaner and improved our relations with our members, but there are new costs to take into account such as phones, higher printing costs and extra travel costs. 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.

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Page last edited Mar 16, 2016

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