Welcome remote workers! We are glad you’re here. The space may be unfamiliar, but it doesn’t need to be scary. We have all had our fill of scary and a changing work environment does not need to be on that list. At Zuri Group, we are comfortable with work-from-home arrangements; we do this every day. However, for many, this arrangement will be a first and the catalyst is certainly a first for all of us.

We have seen great content in the past week on how to transition work online, making sure people can stay productive sane. This is essential as we sort and balance our daily lives. Check out Science Magazine’s piece on how to make the daily transition.

What Zuri has become particularly adept at isn’t just team members working from home. We prize our culture. Leadership in distributed working arrangements is essential. So is communication. These are critical components to maintaining a healthy culture at your organization, but can be different without the anchor of a physical office. And this post gives your team direction, distilled from a decade of effective remote office management.

So how can leaders best support their remote teams? Here are some of the ways Zuri Group has promoted a vibrant and healthy culture.

Assume the best in communication

When you receive that terse email or IM, be generous in interpolating the sender’s meaning. The biggest challenge in remote relationships is effective communication. If your team is used to interacting in person, they should not underestimate the amount of information that was exchanged non-verbally. Email, IM, and even video conference can be enormously effective, but we know these are not direct substitutes for face-to-face. Staff should accept this and be generous with any hiccups.

We have all received an email or text, usually written in haste, that seemed to have “tone.” This will happen. Jokes will fall flat, content will not be perfectly worded, and understanding will be assumed.

Everyone should practice reading between the lines and giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt. If a communication feels wrong, take a breath and ask for clarification before moving forward. More often than not, the sender is completely unaware that their message could be misinterpreted.

Look for ways to live your values

Clearly stating values that people can share and demonstrating commitment to those values breeds trust. Zuri Group has an initiative to break down our values in each employee’s job description and annual goals. This ensures that staff understand how the company values relate to their role and ensures that we have actionable steps to achieve success together. And, values can’t simply be “get your work done” level thinking. Consider this:

Useful organizational values come in the form of tradeoffs: giving up one nice thing in order to get some other nice thing. Wishy-washy values like “respect your co-workers” aren’t really values, because nobody would ever pick a value like “don’t respect your co-workers.” Respecting your co-workers is just basic civility…. A real value is something like “tell the truth, even when it hurts.” Or “deliver the software on schedule, even if there are bugs.” In both cases, one can legitimately imagine valuing the opposite. Source: Avery Pennarun

For example, because we support the nonprofit sector, we live our values each year by doing a team-wide community service project during our annual retreat. What can your team do “together”? Maybe now is a great time for a “thank you”/”how are you” call campaign for your donors and volunteers where everyone on the team picks up a phone. Whatever you do, make sure that the values depicted aren’t simply platitudes and basic civility.

It’s all about trust

Treat people like grown-ups and they will act like grown-ups. With kiddos out of school and medical and other demands taking precedent in many team members’ day-to-day for the next few months, caring when people work will not accomplish the culture your team needs. Instead, once the necessary coverage for clients/constituents is addressed, make certain your team knows that they can flex time, work late or early, and otherwise get work done at all hours. To see trust expand across your organization, focus on what team members are accomplishing.

…And yes, verify

The caveat to the “trust” piece is that team members have sequential relationships to others’ roles. To achieve the culture you need right now, you need to establish clear understanding of what is being delivered and by whom. Focus on metrics that matter. “Time in chair” is not a useful measure of productivity but is still used surprisingly often.  Instead, “delivery of expected results so that others may continue to do their work” or “my work was accepted and helpful to the ‘client’” are better metrics. This means work needs clearly identified outcomes so that team members can illustrate progress toward those goals. Realistic estimates of the time needed for tasks is equally vital here, and Zuri’s management team spends significant time and energy in understanding how “real” plans, projections, and specifications for work are.

Time is relative but finite

At Zuri, we are not exactly a 9-5 culture. For starters, we have team members in multiple time zones. More to the point, though, we know that doctor’s visits and grocery shopping may be best handled midday somedays, and other days you’ll (now) have to work on math with the kiddos. The message for an effective culture is that, “first, we trust you to work when you can” and, “second, don’t forget that that you can run out of time”. For instance, we expect team members to track their time each day, but we really focus on weekly results, as once week 1 is past, packing in an extra 20-30 hours of work in week 2 becomes unsustainable. All of this is to say that really good work-from-home culture needs to look out for excessive procrastination.

Focus on long-term relationships

Zuri Group has always prioritized long-term relationships with clients over one-off, short-term projects. We want to be the trusted advisor who can help make decisions in an organization’s best interest, for the long-term benefit of their mission. During this COVID-19 crisis, we are reaching out to each client and sharing ideas on how we will continue to support their needs. Now, more than ever, web-/mobile-accessible, powerful advancement technology is critical for advancement teams to function remotely and for constituents and donors to continue to be connected to our causes. Therefore, careful attention to the long-run benefits of your system implementation is crucial to success. For Zuri, that has meant adopting a CRM for client management in the same ways that out clients adopt a CRM for their constituents.

There is one other way we focus on long-term relationships: we value our team members. Once a week, we gather for a 45-minute team call so that we can share successes and learn about each other. We allow each other to see our calendars. We are transparent in our discussions and allow dissent and discussion. The long-term relationships that will likely mean the most to Zuri Group are the ones inside of our team, and this is why our culture is so important to us. Hopefully, some of these ideas can be applied to your team, too.

Next Steps

Culture cannot be contrived. Authenticity is the bedrock of a great team. For your teams just getting used to the idea of mandated work-from-home arrangements, this will take time. So, consider these five steps to get started:

  1. Immediately conduct a transparent culture conversation.
  2. Establish a weekly (and maybe more often) video conferencing with the whole team.
  3. Ensure every team member has clear marching orders, including expectations for completing work and understanding of the connectivity of that work to the rest of the team.
  4. Be direct in your communications and curtail any gossip or potential misunderstandings.
  5. Create a per-person compact given their new situation, so that perhaps fewer hours, different workload or other considerations can make each team members’ transition more smooth.
  6. Encourage positivity and creativity through call-anytime practices and other approaches that inspire the team to look to the future.

The next few months will be weird. Simply “getting though this” will not be enough for most organizations’ long-term health. You should act now—today—to reestablish the culture your organization needs to thrive given the circumstances. And, if you need advice, encouragement, or ideas, Zuri Group knows just the people to help!

Chris Cannon is President of Strategic Services at Zuri Group. His areas of expertise include fundraising strategy and systems, staff and resource management, database management, business intelligence and data reporting, database conversion projects, gift and data processing, and technology needs.

Stephanie is Vice President of Zuri Group. Her role encompasses staff and client satisfaction, organizational development, and supporting clients’ missions through innovative solutions and excellence. She believes good project management can save the world.


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