5 tips for running a development organization remotely

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A range of mobile apps that can help online work. Photo by: Charles Deluvio from Unsplash

GLASGOW, Scotland — With the continued spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks, many development professionals have suddenly found themselves working from home, and entire organizations have had to adapt quickly in how they communicate and operate.

“If you are … trying to do things that require lots of interaction and discussion, email or chat are not appropriate channels.”

— Aerie Changala, chief program officer, Nuru International

But some development employers have long supported remote working and are already familiar with the challenges — and benefits — of managing teams and projects from afar.

Devex finds out what advice these organizations have for others in the sector:

1. Communication is key

Communication is the primary challenge for any organization, said Aerie Changala, chief program officer at Nuru International, a social venture that supports projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria but operates remotely. The main thing is to encourage staff to use video or voice conferencing tools, such as Skype, and to avoid email chains, where the difficulty of reading tone can lead to misunderstandings, he suggested.

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“If you are launching a new idea, trying to brainstorm, trying to do things that require lots of interaction and discussion, email or chat are not appropriate channels,” he said. At Nuru, conversation topics are ranked by the likelihood of misunderstandings, and deliberate decisions are made on how to communicate those that are more complicated, Changala said, noting that some discussions do require in-person meetings, if possible.

Another challenge is the side conversations that tend to happen when some staff are working from the same location and others telecommute. It is easy for remote staff to be left out during these calls, said Jack Norman, director of talent management at Catholic Relief Services, which has both teleworking positions and work-from-home days for staff at some of its offices. When half of the team is working remotely, those in the office are encouraged to join calls from seperate rooms, as this puts everyone in the same position, he said.

At Nuru, meetings and team calls are rescheduled if someone is sick or unable to attend. “We really have leaned towards either everyone is there or everyone is not,” Changala said.

2. Hiring and onboarding: Know the challenges

When conducting interviews for new hires remotely, use platforms that enable video calls — that face-to-face interaction with candidates, even if it is through a screen, is important, suggested Emily McLaughlin, human resources director at Nuru. When possible, hold final interviews in person to allow the candidate to connect with some of the team.

A lack of remote work experience is never a deal breaker when selecting candidates, she continued, but the first interview is a good time to have a conversation about the associated challenges, such as how the candidate would manage their own time and ask for help when they need it.

Onboarding is just as important — perhaps even more so — for staff who will be working remotely.

“We have basically a virtual onboarding”, Norman said, “so that if someone isn't coming into our headquarters and won't be working out of there, they still have this similar experience of being onboarded with a cohort of peers.”

3. Trust in your employees

Employers considering remote options are often nervous that their employees aren’t going to put in enough hours — but in reality, it’s typically more challenging to get remote staff to stop working, McLaughlin suggested. “We hire individuals that are super motivated,” she said, “and when you are walking around with your laptop and you can answer any email or work on any project, it’s hard [to stop].”

Encourage staff members to keep their calendars up to date with the hours they work, but push the leadership team to set an example by sharing their schedules, taking time for recuperation and not responding to emails on vacation days, McLaughlin said.

Patrice Davison, international development fellow at CRS, recently returned to the U.S. from the Philippines, where she had the option to work from home some days, in part to avoid the crowded commute in Manila.

“A lot of it comes down to the trust … and the relationship that my supervisor and I have with each other,” Davison said. Clear communication and regular check-ins have made for a smooth transition as Davison quickly left her post and resumed working from a different continent.

4. Build culture

Creating a work culture can be one of the biggest challenges for remote teams and organizations. People can end up working in silos, McLaughlin said, and it can be hard to build trust and interpersonal relationships when there aren’t those day-to-day interactions with the people sitting next to you. Managers should make time for “casual conversations” during weekly calls.

It is “not just jumping straight into your agenda but asking them how they are, what they did that weekend, and building that rapport [that] doesn’t come naturally to everyone,” McLaughlin said.

She recommended using Slack channels or similar platforms where staff can share non-work-related articles and photos. This replicates the “watercooler chat” and “creates a kind of light atmosphere to our internal communication,” McLaughlin said. Annual staff retreats are also an important part of building organizational culture at Nuru.

With all its staff now working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CRS is also trying to maintain a sense of community through regular updates and videos from the CEO, internal seminars on well-being, and virtual coffee breaks that allow teams to check in with each other on a more personal level. It is important to stay in contact when working remotely, so don’t be afraid to send a message to your co-workers or ask how they are doing outside of work, Davison said.

5. Ensure staff have the equipment they need

Broken technology or a lack of necessary equipment can be a huge challenge for those working remotely, McLaughlin said. Have systems in place so that staff know whom they can reach out to for things such as laptop repairs or ordering a new charger.

Unreliable internet connections and electricity are also making it difficult for some staff to work from home right now, Norman said. The information technology department at CRS is working to ensure everyone has at least some connection. And the organization is experimenting to figure out which platforms align with local bandwidths — some teams are using Facebook for virtual meetings, for example, because that’s what works best in their region, Davison said. In times such as these, there needs to be that flexibility, she said.

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.