After the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the NGO sector experienced important funding constraints and the advent of an era of austerity whose repercussions continue to be felt to this day. As the health and social services sectors around the world encountered new funding restrictions and directions, including a shrinking interest in supporting coalition-based work, the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD) faced an important dilemma: while it still had just as much work to accomplish, if not more, there were now fewer resources available to do so.
The turn of the new millennium also ushered in a move towards increasingly flexible approaches to human and material resources management and changes in our understanding of what drives productivity at work. Open space offices, remote work practices and yoga classes during lunch were slowly replacing the 9 to 5 cubicle model that had defined the North American workplace for several decades prior.
As a coalition of community-based organizations and other groups working in the field of development and HIV in Canada and internationally, ICAD was already used to employing a range of technological supports to manage work processes across large geographical distances and varied time zones.
Open space offices, remote work practices and yoga classes during lunch were slowly replacing the 9 to 5 cubicle model that had defined the North American workplace for several decades prior.Since the organization works to strengthen services for people living with and at risk of HIV but it does not offer front-line services, it didn’t necessarily require a physical venue for its operations.
The idea of moving to a virtual office model therefore presented itself quite organically in the lifecourse of the organization. Not only would this move away from a “bricks and mortar” office offer important cost-saving opportunities for ICAD, but it could also bring about a source of vitality and renewal for the organization and its staff. After a carefully planned and executed transition process, ICAD launched its virtual office on October 1, 2014.
With over two years of virtual work now under its belt, ICAD has learned some key lessons on what it means to move to a virtual model, and what it takes to make the virtual office space work:
ICAD’s decision to move to a virtual model was not made impulsively. It built upon a carefully crafted and executed process that involved the participation of the organization’s staff, board and various Canadian and global collaborators. As a first step, ICAD’s Executive Director was tasked with looking at four different cost-saving models:
- a move towards a new, smaller and more affordable office;
- a new office space shared with another community-based organization;
- a hybrid model combining a virtual component with the possibility for staff to access a shared work space within a partner organization;
- a fully virtual approach that would see staff members working from their respective homes.
Each model was carefully studied and included scenario planning that involved risk analysis and budget forecasting.
Eventually, it was decided that the virtual model held the most promise given ICAD’s needs and available resources. Even once this decision had been made, however, the organization continued to be very meticulous and precise in its planning process. To ensure that the staff would be comfortable with the virtual approach and to begin troubleshooting some of the technical details, a pilot was planned preceding the launch. The pilot was held over three weeks during the Canadian summer months, which in retrospect may not have been the optimal period to carry out such work. Not only are the summer months a time for holidays in Canada, but that particular summer also happened to coincide with a very busy period for the organization who was hosting a number of in-person meetings and events in the fall.
For other organizations who may be considering a move towards a hybrid or virtual model, ICAD stresses the importance of allowing sufficient time for a pilot. This process can offer some very important insights and an opportunity for staff members to become comfortable with the new work model. Given the availability of open-source software, it is possible to organize a pilot without having to invest significant resources into new infrastructure. ICAD recommends a minimum period of three to six weeks for a pilot, which offers enough time to begin measuring the ebbs and flows of virtual work, as well as some of the stress points that may be brought about in this type of environment.
Because ICAD is a small organization (there were three full-time staff employed at the time of the pilot, and a part-time employee who was already working remotely), the pilot was done with each individual staff member, who worked away from the office for a week at a time, one after the other. For a larger organization, it may be worth considering different variations. For example, one could try having all the managers and/or the support staff work virtually simultaneously, thus providing a more balanced image of some of the challenges that may arise in a virtual model (and to begin identifying some of the strategies to help mitigate them).
The pilot having offered some key insights into possible challenges and elements to consider, ICAD was able to further refine its launch process, which included the development of a very detailed workback schedule. All of its elements were clearly communicated with staff and board members, so that everyone knew exactly what to expect, and when.
To ensure a seamless transition with partners and collaborators, ICAD also crafted a precise communication strategy. Key amongst the stakeholders to consider were the consortium members and funders, who were presented with a detailed cost analysis of the savings that would be incurred with a move towards the virtual model, and a demonstration of how these funds could be reinvested into programs. Ultimately, everyone was supportive of the move, and interested to learn some of the lessons acquired in the process.
Though ICAD didn’t have the funds available to hire a transition consultant to help plan its move towards a virtual model, it was understood that to ensure a seamless transition, everything would have to be mapped out carefully, including all the technical requirements. ICAD had been working with the same IT consultants for several years, and they turned to these precious collaborators to help them sort out the technical requirements of the process. Even with years of collaboration under their belt, however, ICAD had to ensure that everyone understood what was being said, in that while “they’re brilliant people, as are we, we don’t always talk the same language.”
ICAD maintained extremely close communication with its IT consultants throughout the process, to ensure that potential problems had been anticipated and that everyone felt comfortable with the technology. Even with the most precise plans laid out, however, one usually expects that things will go wrong when technology is involved, and in some cases during ICAD’s transition, they did. Notably, the move away from a commercial office space to domestic residences brought on a number of very practical challenges, including insufficient power in electrical outlets and limited connectivity for a server based in a concrete condominium structure.
The pilot process therefore proved key in that it offered an opportunity to uncover some of these potential problems and to develop alternatives and backup plans. For ICAD, a move to a cloud-based server offered a very useful strategy, in that it would guarantee steady connectivity, regardless of what was happening at any staff member’s given home.
Ultimately, while there will likely be glitches along the way, the key is to ensure that these don’t manifest themselves outside of the organization, and that work and communication processes are not interrupted. Piloting the process, developing a variety of backup plans and keeping in constant and close communication with IT supports are essential elements in ensuring a smooth transition to a virtual office.
This approach of “over-planning” and constant communication is one that benefits from being expanded past the piloting and launch process into all spheres of virtual work. Another key lesson learned is that in the virtual office, it is important to have, at all times, a clear plan of what objectives are, who is responsible for carrying out which tasks, and by when. In a context where you rely very heavily on the written word, it is also key that nothing be taken for granted – for example, you want to keep everyone in the loop by copying all concerned staff members and collaborators at all times.
ICAD has also turned to various technologies and tools to facilitate this process. They have become enthusiastic users of Google docs, a collaborative tool that allows everyone to access and edit the same version of a document at any given moment. A deliverables list shared via Google drive allows all staff members to be kept up to date on who is responsible for what and what has been/has yet to be accomplished, while an individual tab set up for each team meeting chronicles progress and milestones reached.
The team has discovered the many functions of Skype beyond one-on-one video or phone calls, including the possibility of screen sharing and group meetings. They are always looking for new open-source tools to complement their work, some of which they keep, others not. One staff member is particularly keen on all things technology, so this person usually looks after researching tools and trainings fellow staff members to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with the technology. With a plethora of tools available, it also makes it easier to develop backup plans, in that if Skype happens to be malfunctioning on a given day, there are other platforms that can be used to achieve the same outcome.
In a context where you rely very heavily on the written word, it is also key that nothing be taken for granted…
More recently, ICAD has added Slack to its armamentarium, and it has been using this collaborative tool to facilitate some of its project-based work. For example, most of the work carried out in the development of this Lessons Learned resource was done over Slack. ICAD also had a very positive experience using the tool with a partner organization when planning the Canada pavilion at the AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban. Slack allows for the centralization of all team communications in one spot (and outside of email), including the sharing of tools and resources, direct communication one-on-one and as a large group, and a search tool that can allow users to retrace any keyword or idea. Everything is dated and captured chronologically, which can also be a very interesting feature when it comes to tracking project progression and key milestones.
Change is important, but it can also be scary and uncomfortable. As part of its transition process into the virtual office model, ICAD had spent a lot of time working with its staff to anticipate and mitigate some of the more human and emotional ramifications of working from home (including distractions, isolation, feeling out of the loop). The planning process included time for the team as a whole, and individual staff members, to have frank discussions about what they feared about the transition, what they felt might be a problem, and strategies to address these if and when they arose.
A feedback loop was also built into the process itself, with a review of the virtual model slated annually. Throughout the year, staff members are encouraged to share their struggles and successes with the virtual model at the weekly team meetings and in the one-on-one meetings held between the Executive Director and the individual staff members. While the team is geographically dispersed, they get together in person at least once a year and they try to utilize other opportunities such as events and conferences to meet.
They communicate, they have fun and they try to use the tools that are available to them to their full potential.And while they now work virtually, the staff of ICAD still ends up doing a lot of “face time.” They make ample use of video-based tools, as the visual component adds an element that is missing from phone or email exchanges. Sometimes, they work side by side on Skype. They experiment with emojis, they send each other funny pictures and they have even had ”virtual drinks” together after work, in cyberspace. They communicate, they have fun and they try to use the tools that are available to them to their full potential.
Although working virtually isn’t for everyone and it can make the delicate art of balancing work and personal life both easier and/or more challenging at times, the ICAD team has transitioned into a virtual work model smoothly and creatively, welcoming new members along the way. They have been able to reinvest the money saved into programs (such as the creation of this web resource), while continuing to explore the important question of what makes a person happy and fulfilled at work.
One measure of success on ICAD’s transition to a virtual model is that the majority of people they work with outside of the organization aren’t aware that ICAD went virtual.