Managing Staff Who Are Working from Home

When asked, “Where do you get important work done?”, the majority of workers, including fundraisers, say they get it done at home. “Anywhere but in the office” is their common retort. The office is where the grant proposal can’t be written, the fundholder report can’t be drafted, and the case for the next appeal can’t be developed. That’s because, at the office, creative thought is constantly being interrupted and precious time is being diverted into activities that do not help raise more money. Now home is the office. Managers who recognize that a different approach is called for will guide their team through this crisis.

With little more than a glance, managers know if their staff arrive at work on time and put in a full eight hours (at least). But who knows what their workers are up to now? They could be lounging on their balconies drinking coffee; perusing recipes for tonight’s dinner, or doing the laundry – in other words, not working! When staff are not always in sight, when they may or may not have their noses to the grindstone every minute, it’s easy for the supervisor instinct in managers to take over. It’s tempting to check in more often, hold more meetings, and breathe down workers’ virtual necks. But that serves only to monopolize managers’ time and make staff resentful. Managers see stepping up the oversight as responsible; staff who are working remotely see it as distrust.

Management versus Supervision

I came to appreciate how different managing is from supervising when my firm conducted research on whether the rapid rate of turnover among professional fundraisers could be mitigated. We found that it could. We also found that how staff were managed was key to whether they stayed longer and raised more money or left prematurely. To put it simply, our research found that monitoring what staff do (supervising) is inferior to inspiring staff to reach ambitious goals (managing).

We asked hundreds of fundraisers to tell us about the best boss they ever had. This excerpt from one survey respondent’s story sums up what we found:

The best thing I can say about my all-around wonderful boss was that he trusted me. As a result, he always expected the best from me, not the worst, and that attitude made me want to excel, both for my not-for-profit and for him. “Your success is my success,” he would often say.

His analysis and budgeting skills were second-to-none, so our fundraising goals were always built on real data, supported by experience and economic trends. Goals were ambitious, but I and my colleagues knew we could reach them with our boss’ guidance and support. It was an extraordinary environment in which to work and I loved getting up each morning, knowing that I was going to this great job.

Free Up Your Staff’s Time

Producing high quality work requires uninterrupted time for creative thinking. Meetings are the primary time suck with 36% of professional fundraisers’ work week spent preparing for, attending and summarizing meetings[1]. When it comes to the allocation of major gifts officers’ time, 48% is spent on tasks not related to moving donor relationships forward[2], and the biggest culprit is meetings. No wonder staff can’t get anything accomplished at the office; that’s the place they go to talk about work, not to actually get it done.

The shift from office to home gives managers an excellent opportunity to create a new environment in which staff have more time to accomplish important work. Cutting back on less productive meetings is a great start. These include meetings held to report on what was done last week, meetings with too many items on the agenda, meetings held in the morning when elevated brain power should be used for raising money, and meetings that all staff are expected to attend. (A one-hour meeting of a 10-member Development team swallows up ten hours of precious work time, not one.)

Give Staff What Only Their Manager Can Provide

Managers are responsible for ensuring that staff complete work on schedule and at the highest level of quality. A productive alternative to overseeing how staff spend their time is managing by objectives. This means defining goals that staff are expected to reach in terms of improved donor renewal and higher average gift value. Then, it means challenging the team to achieve those numbers by bringing their creative best to their jobs. When managing from a distance, breaking down goals into monthly and even weekly deliverables will give managers confidence that the end goal will be reached on time.

Your Staff’s Home Office Is Still Their Home

If goals are set based on real data and meetings are reduced, managers will give their staff the best gift of all – time to think. And, they will reduce their own level of stress that comes from having to manage the team from a distance. Now instead of making sure that employees are glued to their home office desks, managers might find themselves rejoicing whenever someone wanders into the back yard or washes the dishes during business hours. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a good idea in the office. Solutions always appear and ideas are forged when I’m doing anything but work. So, now that the conditions for top-flight performance have been established, managers get to reap the best reward of all – watching their team excel.

In the end, a worker’s home is still her home. Managers enter that private space with every email, phone call and virtual meeting. Home used to be where staff went to recharge or get away from it all after having a bad day. Now work and home are all blending together.

Empathetic managers understand that and end their contact at 5:00. And, every now and then, they take the time to thank their staff for stepping up and managing their own time and for their ingenuity and sheer guts in the face of an unprecedented emergency.

[1] Donor-Centered Leadership, Penelope Burk, Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., Chicago, IL, 2013

[2] ibid

Showing 4 comments
  • Jon Kraus

    I think many of the benefits of working from home – less distraction, more creativity, enhanced productivity – are true during normal times, but these are not normal times. While it’s true that many of the distractions of the office are absent right now, for a large portion of the workforce, these are now replaced with having to balance child care, home schooling and one or more full-time jobs. They may also be primary caregivers for ailing family members. There is a very real dichotomy among fundraisers right now: those who have more time for creativity, donor outreach, catching up on portfolio work, etc…and those who are just trying to get through each day. As managers we need to acknowledge and honor the various realities of our staff members and, as your article points out, above all trust them that they are doing good work during a very challenging time.

  • Shannon Foucault

    I have to agree with Jon. While normally I make a game plan with my team and then set them free to work on it, I have found that this situation is very different. Trust is still paramount, but they also need more emotional support and to feel more connected to our organization and to one another. I’ve seen them be more responsive to group projects than they are usually. The rest is leading by example – focusing foremost on self-care, taking breaks, restricting work hours, and being responsive to their inquiries so they can continue to move forward projects and feel productive. Nearly all of our plans for this half of the year have been cancelled, and that takes a toll on their sense of still contributing. I’m actually back to requesting work reports at the end of the week so they will take time to think about what they’ve accomplished, not something I would normally do but it seems to be having a positive effect on their sense of value. We are all still adjusting, so some of this made fade back to “normal”, but this is what works currently.

  • MIke Bacon

    I continue to thank my managers and tell them how much they are appreciated. Figured out an easy win yesterday when I sent a dozen warm cookies from a local bakery to each one with a note letting them know how grateful I am to have them on my team. Four of them sent photos of the cookies and their kids smiling faces. The other two called or emailed. The more we can remind people that we value them, the better.

  • Aoife Toomey

    I liked most of this but think team meetings (with a proper, constructive agenda) are important right now to help people feel connected and maintain team cohesion.

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