How your nonprofit can build an effective hybrid workplace
Updated: Nov 6
Nearly everyone on the planet is experiencing psychological whiplash from the three plus years we’ve surfed the changing tides of the Covid virus. From total isolation to what looks like complete liberation, we’re still figuring out what it means for our work lives.
Bloomberg reports that 35% of Americans are choosing to work fully remotely, now branded WFH – work from home (which always sounds to me like WTF!). That’s down from a high of 43% in January 2022 and up from a paltry 7% before the pandemic.
To a great extent it’s a Rorschach Test of how each of us likes to work – cocooned in the sanctuary of a quiet home, grooving on the camaraderie of colleagues, striving to maintain a balance between the needs of our family and the demands of our job, or somewhere in between all of that.
But what began as a health necessity has, in many cases, turned into a less fulfilling and less productive way of working. Both employers and employees are guilty of hijacking the WFH trend to suit their own needs.
Employers are ditching expensive office space to save money which in some cases stifles true collaboration, impairs concentration, and most important, often leaves folks feeling less connected to the mission.
A major gifts officer at a social service nonprofit told me that his new “office” is now a shared cubical, and that he’s required to work from home at least three days a week. He hates it. He hates the isolation, hates not being able to have spontaneous conversations with his colleagues, and misses the emotional energy he used to feel every day from seeing people receive services. His solution has been to sneak into the office and make calls to donors in the stairwell (how crazy is that?). His response isn’t all that surprising. As Reisinger, Sephton, and Fetterer wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article “four in 10 [employees] say they would feel less loyalty and commitment to their company if they didn’t have a regular, permanent workspace in the office.”
Another colleague, an industrial psychology/HR professional who is required to work fully remotely, told me how frustrated he is at trying to address workplace conflicts between managers and staff via Zoom. He related a story about how pleased he was with the results of a recent mediation session until the staff person called him to complain that it was a disaster. Having the discussion on a computer screen meant that he couldn’t effectively read the body language of the two people whose conflict he was attempting to reconcile.
And, speaking of Zoom, if you haven’t heard, they’re now requiring people to work in the office several days a week!
That policy likely makes sense to Oxford University Professor, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, who has done extensive research on workplace behavior. De Neve has found that in-office time often equates to increased productivity. “Your social capital, your intellectual capital, your sense of belonging are undermined over time [by working completely remotely].”
Even when people embrace WFH, the rules for doing so can be so arbitrary they don’t make sense. A classic example is a friend who handles grants and contracts for a dean at a major university. He told me that he’s required to schlepp into the office once a week even though he’s almost always the only person there!
On the flip side, I’ve walked into some nonprofits whose work is client-centered and literally no one is there except for the person I’m meeting with. That doesn’t make any sense! How can service providers develop effective strategies when they’re not working collaboratively?
Clearly, it’s a patchwork of workplace disfunction that’s caused by a lack careful thought and planning.
I see organizations jumping into policy before they dedicate the time to thinking through whether or not that policy will work effectively for the organization.
So, how DO nonprofits build a productive hybrid workplace culture?
The short answer is that there is no quick easy solution.
This isn’t analogous to crafting a sick-leave or vacation policy, this is a STRATEGIC DECISION about how your organization will operate.
To get there, convene a series of both individual and group discussions by department (or, with the organization as a whole if you’re a small shop) where you talk through:
How each person prefers to work and where they feel most productive,
What kind of regular feedback and mentoring they want,
What kind of oversight supervisors would like to have to ensure that goals are being met, and
What kinds of work can best be accomplished through collaboration.
The two things you should not use exclusively as decision-making criteria are: 1) It’s easer to work from home and 2) it’s cheaper for the organization to not rent an office.
Give those discussions the time they deserve so that you can reach an outcome that truly meets the needs of the organization and its stakeholders. In other words, once you find out the answers to those questions, it may take you some time to create a policy that incorporates what you’ve learned with what you really need.
There are FREE templates available online that your organization can use to help it create its remote work policies (graciously compiled by OWL LABS).
After you develop the policy, try it on for six months while checking in along the way to see how it’s working. You can always retool it.
Good strategy is the foundation of any successful nonprofit. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that balancing the needs of remote and in-person work isn’t strategic to the wellbeing of your nonprofit.
As Christine Armstrong says “The problem isn’t that hybrid doesn’t work. The problem is that most organizations haven’t done the work to make it work.”
--- Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades. Want these blog posts sent your inbox? Sign up for Pat Libby's newsletter. Get in touch with questions or to get more information!