Whether a nonprofit decides to bring staff back into the office or keep them fully remote (or create a hybrid of the two) is a highly personal decision, both on the part of the organization and the individuals themselves. Let’s take a look at what goes into this kind of decision considering the unique factors that nonprofits must weigh:
Office Staff vs Field Staff
Nonprofit organizations typically employ two kinds of employees – office staff and field staff. For instance, a community wellness organization will have back-office staff working in areas like accounting, records, compliance, financial aid, and program management as well as staff out in the field working face-to-face with the people they serve in areas like family support, community advocacy, fundraising, and donor management.
At many nonprofit organizations office staff is still largely remote because their roles are not directly tied to community engagement. Field staff, on the other hand, ranges the gamut. Some were never actually able to go remote due to the nature of their work while others may have gone remote when the pandemic hit and then went back to in-person once they were vaccinated. Still others were somewhere in between – adopting a consistent hybrid work structure or going back to in-person while decreased COVID rates allowed it with stints of remote work during surges in positivity rates. Nonprofits represent a vast array of missions and their approach to work these days is just as varied.
Factors to Consider
So, should staff that is still remote come back to the office? When trying to decide whether to bring staff in again nonprofit leadership and their boards should consider the following factors:
Obviously, things like state laws and local ordinances must be strictly followed but keeping up with them can be challenging. Leadership should stay abreast of the most recent requirements to ensure you compliant. It will then be up to you to determine which recommendations to follow to best protect your staff, your mission, and the members of the community that you serve.
Regardless of where employees are working, you will need to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect sensitive material, financial data, and confidential information. Any employees handling or transmitting data must take the proper precautions to ensure that they are not opening the organization up to a possible security breach. Nonprofits should implement a cyber security policy that protects the organization, its employees, and the people it serves from security threats whether their employees are working in-office or remotely, but especially in hybrid situations where the employee is moving between IT security systems.
With over a million deaths so far from COVID, the cost of life has been staggering. While returning to the office may be more costly in the way of office rent and utilities, the cost to your staff’s wellbeing and livelihood should not be overlooked either. If you are serving a vulnerable population or employing high-risk employees, these are additional factors to take into consideration. This is the main reason why nonprofits serving elderly, ill, low-income, and BIPOC communities have overwhelmingly chosen to require vaccination among their employees.
Remember, deciding whether to bring staff back into the office or allow them to continue working remotely should not be a decision made solely by leadership. The employees themselves should have a say because they are their best advocates. Your staff will understand their own health constraints and risk tolerance to be able to communicate regarding their own needs. They also have the best insight into how effective they can be in remote versus on-site working situations. If you trust them to deliver your mission, you should trust them to help determine the best way to do that. If you find that you do not trust them to give honest and helpful feedback on this subject, that is a bigger issue than your “return to office” strategy.
Ultimately, it is crucial to balance employee preferences with organizational needs. Individuals may feel that they are more productive working from home, but if the organizational culture depends on teamwork and collaborative decision making, it may make sense to opt for more time in the office than working remotely.
Planning to Return to the Office
If you decide to bring your employees back into the office, plan to:
Remember, most office staff have been working from home for over two years now, which means that returning to the office again may be a jarring experience. Planning for apprehension around this change is going to be your best safeguard against tension around the decision. Allow staff to openly communicate their concerns and give feedback along the way. Then listen and adapt as you go.
If you bring staff back incrementally, you will get the chance to test out returning to the office on a smaller group and make the necessary changes as you go to tweak the experience before your entire organization comes back. Typically, starting with more senior-level staff sets the tone by demonstrating that the organization stands behind this transition. It also shows that your leadership is not asking something of their direct reports that they are not willing to do themselves, which is a great relationship management tool.
However, planning to bring staff back in waves should be approached with sensitivity around equity topics. An incremental return should take into consideration who is being brought back, when they are being brought back, and how much time they are expected to spend in the office. In an interview on nonprofits returning to work Michelle Jackson, the Executive Director of the Human Services Council, expresses her opinion on this topic in saying,
We should all stay home, if we can. That is a luxury that many nonprofit organizations and frontline workers don't have. So, an organization can rotate their staff or only have essential frontline staff in the office. They should be really examining the equity or the diversity of their workers. Who are those workers? Who has to be in the office? What are they paid? And are you able to create a system where you're spreading around who needs to be in the office and compensating the people who do need to be in the office fairly? ...I think taking a look at the equity of your organization and what you're asking of different staff is hugely important. The best thing any organization can do for their culture is to be paying attention to that and trying to make it as equitable as possible.
Determine what the daily, weekly, and monthly deliverables are for each position. Then ask, “Can those deliverables be accomplished while working remotely or do those they require face-to-face collaboration?” If being face-to-face is essential, figure out how you will bring the employees responsible for those deliverables together for at least part of their worktime.
Lastly, plan to re-plan. Returning to the office is likely not going to be a one-time decision. Intermittent surges in COVID cases, even now, make the decision to return to work a fluid one. If you bring employees back into the office just know that you may need to switch back to remote work in the near future if the positivity rates climb again, necessitating amended guidance from state and local health authorities. Understand how you will handle and communicate these kinds of changes to keep everyone informed.
If you need a nonprofit consulting firm to assist you with interim leadership or board advisory, please reach out to us. We have the kind of experienced nonprofit leaders that your organization can count on to achieve its vision!
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