How Nonprofits Can Lead Virtual Teams Through a Crisis

To mitigate COVID-19-related disruption, many nonprofit organizations rapidly invested in and deployed technology solutions such as collaboration tools and cloud computing. While this enabled employees to continue their mission-driven work and programs remotely, it wasn’t a silver bullet.
 
To foster a strong workplace culture and continue maximizing impact, nonprofit leaders must be mindful of the myriad challenges their employees continue to face during the pandemic. Whether they already had best practices in place or are implementing remote work policies for the first time, nonprofit leaders should establish processes that not only promote efficiency and consistent communication but also ensure that remote staff feel safe, supported and valued as part of the organization’s shared mission.
 
Below are considerations that should be on nonprofit leaders’ checklists to help manage a remote workforce through these challenging times.
 
Acknowledging and supporting employees’ needs

The health and safety of all employees is paramount. Thus, when faced with a crisis, nonprofits must ensure that employees are safe and secure as they adjust to their new conditions.
 
Providing information about available healthcare resources, including those related to stress and anxiety, can help. Many people face ongoing concerns about their own welfare, as well as that of their families and loved ones. Remote workers may also face additional challenges at home, whether from a lack of childcare due to school and daycare closures, or in looking after older family members who may be at greater risk of illness.
 
After confirming that baseline needs for health and safety are met, leadership can foster a sense of community for staff—albeit remotely—and take steps to let employees know they are appreciated and valued. In these challenging times, extra encouragement goes a long way.
 
Supervising effectively in a remote environment

When supervising virtual teams, it’s important to reinforce best practices for remote working, especially as new work processes and communication methods are implemented. While employees should be reminded that, in general, all standard workplace policies and expectations remain in place, it’s critical to note that adaptability and consistent communication are crucial to the success of any virtual team—perhaps now more than ever.
 
The following tips can help supervisors support teams in a virtual environment.
  • Provide individual support: Supervisors should lead their virtual teams by example, as their actions set the standard. Those in management positions with direct reports should make themselves available to supervisees—including offering 1:1 check-in meetings—and aim to over-communicate rather than under-communicate to maintain connections.
  • Manage changes strategically: Multi-tasking, distractions and working longer hours are common pitfalls for remote workers. Managers can help team members adapt to the changes and provide the structure needed to get work done, while also creating the space for a work/life balance. This can include:
    • Helping employees set a schedule with consistent work routines and establish boundaries.
    • Encouraging employees to create a dedicated workspace to limit distractions and improve productivity.
    • Sending agendas for meetings to avoid miscommunication.
    • Being visual with video to remain present and connected.
    • Trusting employees and avoiding the urge to micromanage.
As the people of a nonprofit are its most mission-critical resource, effective leadership cannot be neglected, especially in a crisis. In addition to possessing strong supervisory skills, the most successful nonprofit leaders—no matter the size of their organizations—remain strong, empathetic and transparent in their communications and interactions with employees.
 
Assessing your contingency plans

It’s critical for organizations to have contingency plans. When thinking about the future, nonprofit leaders should prepare for various scenarios and consider what the organization will do in the medium and long-term for each.
 
Given that remote and hybrid work models may remain in place for some time to come, nonprofits should consider the following when evaluating their contingency plans:
  • Have we leveraged all technology solutions necessary to keep programs running, or are there gaps? Have these solutions introduced any cybersecurity issues?
  • What data around workflow and efficiencies can we leverage to inform longer-term policies and needs?
  • How can we maintain or reinvent our culture during organization-wide remote work?
  • How can we maintain the current workforce?
  • How can we better train frontline supervisors to manage in a virtual environment?
In the absence of in-person interactions between co-workers, what can business leaders do to continue improving collaboration and innovation across teams, departments and functions?
 
To ensure they don’t stray from their mission or culture when implementing contingency plans or during times of uncertainty, nonprofits should conduct an internal audit of progress they’ve made toward their goals and how they’ve evolved over time. This can help organizations stay true to themselves and their employees as well as those they serve. 
 
Over the past year, nonprofits have worked wonders for their communities and employees during an unprecedentedly uncertain time. The lessons they’ve learned about communication—from ensuring clear direction from leaders to establishing consistent, transparent meetings and processes—will be key to their success as we enter a new normal, no matter the challenges to come.
 
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