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How to create and manage a flexible, virtual office

One way to reduce costs while maintaining or increasing quality of operations is to get rid of the office, and have everyone work from home. Sound crazy? Read on and see how it can make your organisation even stronger. 

Things you'll need

  • An open mind.
  • Trust.
  • The view that Outcomes matter more than Outputs.
1

Introduction

Non-profits need to be particularly lean when it comes to their operations – any savings can go straight to services to beneficiaries. “Lean” means doing as much as possible with as little as possible, without any sacrifice of quality.

One way to reduce costs while maintaining or increasing quality of operations is to get rid of the office, and have everyone work from home. To anyone who hasn’t tried it, this may sound crazy. But think of this – your hard-earned funds are paying for a) rent to a landlord, b) cleaning, c) heating, water, and electricity, d) phone lines and IT equipment which may duplicate what your employees have at home, and which they are not using when they’re at work. None of those is creating value for your beneficiaries.

If you’re convinced, here’s how to make this a reality.

2

First, engage your employees in planning.

You will get a mix of reactions, from delight (particularly from those with a long commute, or caring responsibilities) to dread (particularly from those who took this job to get them out of the home). Explain how much money you will save by doing this, acknowledge that there will be costs too, and get them to contribute to plans. Create some space to complain – then work with those who dread the change, looking at their concerns, and taking a “how might I...” approach to overcoming them (the last thing you want to do is ignore them).

3

Second, plan a “home day”.

Get everyone to work from home for one day. Find out what they will need – a few may have no computer or no internet, and you will need to help them get these. Don't scrimp on this. To ensure productivity is maintained employees working at home should have comparable equipment to that in the office. Explain how they claim expenses, e.g. for landline and mobile phone calls or broadband connections that they need. Arrange for calls to your main number to be plugged through to someone who will answer them. The night before, lock up the office turn off the lights and heating. Afterwards, ask for feedback on what was good and bad, and what could have been done differently.

4

Third, plan a “home week”.

The lessons from the home day will help you plan this.

5

Finally, plan the office exit.

It may take a while to exit your lease, sell it on, or rent your space, and this gives you time to plan all the other necessary changes.

6

Hints and tips

However, this doesn’t explain how you make it work when you can’t see people.  Here are some tips for successful management of the virtual office:

  • Use social networking – eGroups, Facebook, Twitter – to keep social relationship-building going. Facebook, for example, can be the equivalent to the water cooler. Using Skype for calls is cheap or free, and allows visual conferencing if you have a webcam.
  • Use web-based IT. Have documents saved on an external server (e.g. Box where space is cheap and often free), and use web-based software (e.g. Googlemail or Microsoft Office 365) rather than relying on people’s own computers and software. There are many cheap, web-based solutions for all types of IT need. If you have specific needs that aren’t met by what’s out there, someone may well be able to design a solution at an acceptable cost.
  • Establish objectives and targets. People perform best if they know what they’re trying to achieve, particularly if this is done in weekly or fortnightly chunks. Check in regularly with all staff about these - as you would when passing their desk in the office.
  • Be flexible about hours. One of the great things about home working is that no one needs to open or lock up – if the job doesn’t require you to be present at a particular time, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be done to suit the employee. For example, parents may love working very early, during the school day, and after bedtime, so they can see more of their kids. Some people would gladly give up a proportion of their income to have this flexibility (especially when you consider the savings on commuting).
  • Schedule feedback sessions. This may happen naturally in the office, and may be neglected when people are out of sight. Ensure all managers schedule it regularly.
  • Teleconference. Again, there are many providers, at low cost, and with practice, teleconferenced meetings can be highly productive. Make sure the agenda and documents are circulated well in advance, and ensure the chair guides people through the agenda and ensures that everyone gets heard. This includes knowing who is on the call, tracking who has been speaking, and asking those who haven’t spoken whether they want to add anything to each topic discussed.
  • Trust. Many managers want to know how they can be sure their employees are working when they can’t see them. Answer – they can’t be sure.  However, if there are targets, standards of work, and other clear expectations about output that are being met reliably, does it matter whether, at a given moment, the employee is working, or walking the dog? Trust your employees to figure out how best to deliver to your expectations, and you may well find them exceeded.
  • Meet. Once in a while, get everyone together – for training, teambuilding and socialising. A couple of times a year will probably suffice. Do also encourage your employees to work outside their home if they feel isolated – libraries, cafes, and even a spare desk at another organisation may be options.
  • Track the benefits. When the novelty wears off, it will be useful to remind people just how much money you’ve saved, and what other benefits you’ve achieved, from CO2 emissions reductions (which should be very substantial), to improved work/life balance.

Giving up the office reduces your organisation’s carbon footprint and costs. It can also significantly increase the pool from which you recruit (because they no longer need to be within commuting distance of your office), and can make your organisation more flexible.

Further information

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Page last edited Jul 25, 2017 History

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