As COVID-19 is spreading more and more widely and seems to have reached all corners of the world now, an increasing number of countries are in lock-down or in some kind of self-quarantine. Workplaces are deserted, of government institutions, companies and not-for-profits alike, as staff is working remote. We are in a situation that many of us find completely novel, alien and scary.

Sure, working from home had become pretty common in some environments these past years. But working from home one day per week is not quite the same as doing it all week long, week after week. And having a few employees doing this is not the same as being responsible for a whole remote workforce, either.

I have gained quite some experience in remote working, because for most of my career I have worked with partners that were based abroad. I have had to look for and use (safe) tools for communication and collaboration for more than 25 years by now.

Tools

The first thing people are concerned about are the software tools needed. There are so many, and it seems hard to pick the right one. The past week I have seen many discussions where people asked their network for tips for the best tool for video conferencing, live streaming, lecturing, etc. Most people asked for suggestions for free or cheap tools.

No tool is 100% free

I have nothing against free tools; I use a lot of free tools myself. The key is, that you should be aware that you pay for every tool in one way or another. Either by money, or by data. Data about yourself, your network, or your work. You may not be doing anything secret and yet you might not like all information about you, your network and your work to be public. This you should keep in mind when making a choice.

Location

Another thing to keep in mind is the location of the storage. Where does the tool store your data? What jurisdiction applies? Some people are concerned about having data stored in a US location, given the legal framework that then governs who might gain access to your data at some point (after a request). Several US-based companies have dedicated servers in the EU for EU-based clients. That way they can ensure that data on those servers are managed according to GDPR. If you have concerns about the rules, checks and balances that manage access to your data, then you should check the location of the servers that store your data.

TechSoup

Many software or tech companies have announced that some of their services or products will be free of charge or available at very much reduced rates for not-for-profits and teachers during the coming weeks (or months). TechSoup collects much of that information on its website here.

TechSoup supports nonprofits, charities, and libraries by providing access to and discounts on software, hardware, and services from major brands. With TechSoup help you can use paid software solutions at much reduced prices. For instance, Microsoft 365, Quickbooks Online for accounting, Docusign for online invoicing… And much, much more.

What I use

I have been using different tools over the past years. These are some of the tools I use a lot:

For calls
  • Skype, WhatsApp, or Signal, with Signal being the most secure tool where you can also send messages that self-destruct after a certain period of time.
  • Jitsi for secure video conferencing. A very easy web-based tool. (I have not used the app yet).
For interactive webinars/collaborative sessions
  • AdobeConnect. This is my all-time favorite for online sessions with its whiteboard, break-out groups, polls, chats, joint video watching and more. However, not everyone finds it user-friendly. And it is not cheap.
  • I have used Zoom as participant and that was very easy and accessible. There is a free version of this which would probably be a good fit for most of your daily needs.
For a shared folder structure
  • Tresorit (very secure but expensive, even with the 50% off for NGOs), NextCloud (less expensive, but it has conversion issues with Microsoft files as it is open source based), and Dropbox (the least expensive, less secure).
For real time collaboration on documents
  • GoogleDoc. This is a free document editor (also for slides, excels, surveys) which allows real time collaboration in the same document without version issues. It also allows commenting. This is my favorite but due to security concerns I could not use as much as I would have liked to. GoogleDocs are part of Google Drive. Google Drive also allows shared folder structures.
For discussing, collaboration, shared documents
  • In Slack you can be part of different teams, with different channels (around different topics, lessons, targets, events, etc.). You are not automatically part of all channels of your team (I find that a plus).
  • Office 365. This Microsoft tool with all Office tools and Sharepoint for file-sharing now includes Yammer, a powerful tool for discussing and collaborating on files. I have loved Yammer since I first used it in 2011. This tool has most of the above but is not cheap. But it is part of TechSoup’s offer. And Microsoft has announced a special arrangement for NGOs during the COVID-19 crisis for its Teams software, which encompasses Office 365.

Approach

Looking at what tools you need to replace face-to-face work is an important step. Key to finding the best tool is however to define your approach. How will you transform your face-to-face event into an online one that is equally effective?

Maybe your class can listen to you in your classroom for 45 minutes straight. This is much less easy for your online group to do, given all the distractions on the screen alone. Keep in mind that you cannot as easily spot the one person almost toppling over with sleep and cannot subtly tut-tut them back to life online as you can in the classroom. You need to find other ways to gauge the group’s energy and to engage with that.

Doing something online that you used to do offline thus requires a whole new approach. You need to think about this, before you pick a tool. Because you need to know exactly what you will need to be doing to keep the group together or to keep the audience enthralled and active. Only then will you know what kind of tool you are looking for. Or what mix of tools can suit your purpose.

Be prepared to be looking for more playfulness than you might think you need. Be prepared also to be more up close & personal with your groups. They may see part of your home, maybe catch a (pet) family member on screen. They may see you being insecure trying out something new. You, too, may get to see more of who your team is or who your students are. This can be vulnerable, for them and for you. But especially in a crisis situation, like we have on our hands now, when you cannot be physically near, it can be very helpful to cultivate this kind of closeness.

Culture

This is the heart of the matter. Going online requires tools, yes. And this requires some knowledge and a well-thought-through plan of what is needed and how to do it. But mostly, all of this requires a new mindset.

At the moment, many people feel online is less than offline. That it cannot be as rich or as good or as effective as offline. That it is a solution to an emergency, that should be dropped as soon as the crisis has abated.

This mindset will make anything they do unsatisfactory in their own view. That may impact the quality of what they do. And it may impact the users of what they make, who may be infected to feel disappointed, too. And it will impact how they feel about themselves and about what they have spent their time on during the day.

If your team goes remote, especially in a situation like the one we are in now, this requires very careful management from your side. You need to make sure that your people are doing fine.

This is not only about having the equipment and software tools to work effectively. And not only about the skills or support to use these tools properly. It is also about feeling confident about this. Up to the task. Knowing what is expected of them and knowing they can deliver that. This includes being sure that mistakes are OK, and that they can set their own boundaries where they feel this is needed at the time. For instance, some people do not feel comfortable seeing themselves on camera or knowing their home will be visible through video images. Make space for such concerns to be voiced. Give space to your team members to set their own boundaries, instead of enforcing a joint approach that will make some feel uncomfortable.

Check in with your team members regularly. Do not only ask about how the work is going and if they like that video tool as much as you do. Ask them how they are. Are they nervous about their loved ones? Do they have parents or children they cannot now care for the way they feel they should? Do they feel isolated at home? Is it uncomfortable being home all day with their partner? Can they manage care for their children who are home from school? Make sure you know what is on their minds and listen.

You likely cannot solve all their concerns for them, and you also should not feel a need to solve issues that are their responsibility to carry. But you might help out in some way, if nothing else just by listening and making them feel heard.

Make sure you create a balanced mix of joint calls, to keep the team going as a team, as well as individual calls. Find back-channels for your team to use, for informal chatting. Maybe set up joint coffee moments? Or have a joint workout for those who like that idea?

Make sure you see what your people are doing and acknowledge them for it. Also make sure you see what people are not doing and find out what is the matter.

In that sense, being responsible for a remote team is much the same as being responsible for an offline team. It is all about looking carefully at your team and about caring for your individual team members. If you truly care, your team will feel that while working remote, too.

Resources

Beth Kanter and a bunch of others have been collecting (and still are collecting) links for not-for-profits related to COVID-19: what is it, what does it mean for your fundraising work, for your relations with donors, for how you can do the work, etc. You can find the GoogleDoc here.

LinkedIn has announced that its remote working courses are free of charge for now, see here.

I share links and information I find on my Facebook page. Feel free to share your tips there, too!