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Should your charity return to the office?

Office space

When restrictions lifted a couple of months ago, it was no longer the government’s message that we all ‘stay at home’. In fact, Rishi Sunak even inferred that those workers who remained remote could see damage to their careers.

That’s worrying, and we don’t yet know if it what he was suggesting is garbage.

So many charities will have benefitted from the directive to work from home—if they were able to pause/end their office rental costs, of course—as this outgoing can be a huge drain on the finances of a charitable organisation. The vast majority of charity management and admin work can be done remotely—and even some delivery—so it’s a no-brainer that working from home suits many people employed in the third sector.

Though remote working was initially a temporary shift brought about by the pandemic, it seems that this flexibility is set to overhaul how the third sector works on a day-to-day basis.

Before the pandemic, according to Charity Digital, ‘more than two thirds of British workers had never worked from home’. Before Covid, bosses in all sectors commonly carried fears that homeworking would result in less work being done, and it would lead to a drop in the productivity levels of their workers. However, once the concept was forced upon us, studies have shown this is not the case at all—during lockdown, productivity overall actually rose by 13%. Less time and stress spent getting to work and amid office politics also had a beneficial effect on those working remotely, and the ability to choose which hours in a day were given over to work proved more conducive to employees’ work/life balances.

It must have been a shock to many charity workers, therefore, that their job was not just something that could be done from home when the chips were down, but that, in reality, there was never any need to be in an office at all, with all the technologies that exist.

Using hot-desking solutions or hire-by-the-hour meeting rooms when teams/beneficiaries do need to get together in person could save charities a huge amount, compared to the rates and rent of an entire building. It’s also convenient, with much less time spent commuting, which is probably the reason why only 7% of charities are planning/have gone back to their old ways of working.

Downsides of homeworking involve feelings of detachment from the team and organisation. Meetings, though largely quicker and more precise, can lose gravitas and interaction from all parties when relayed over a screen. There also may be a grain of truth in Sunak’s claim, that homeworking could impact careers; it’s difficult to demonstrate strategic thinking, innovation and leadership skills from home and when the whole team is working disparately, which tend to be factors that underpin promotions.

There’s been a huge surge in digital fundraising over the last year. This was because charities had no choice but to try and raise money online, but now that offline events can go ahead, there’s no real rush to replicate what was there before. Digital fundraising events can be more niche, and whilst they may only attract small audiences in comparison to a big gala or charity ball, anyone can tune in from anywhere in the world. They also involve very little cost to arrange and deliver. There are so many possibilities surrounding fundraising online, some of which are still being realised.

Despite all the benefits, however, and though the overwhelming majority of charity employees realise the positives of remote working, some third sector bosses are still hesitant to permanently embrace full-time work from home or hybrid solutions. Ed Zitron of The Atlantic has a theory about this. He says, ‘Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.’

Though not an issue in small charities, in larger organisations, he may have hit the nail on the head. Not every household name charity brand is run as efficiently as it could and there are some roles that add little value to the overall value and output of the organisation. We’ve spoken about the responsibilities that lay at charity CEOs’ feet, and also how crucial frontline charity workers are…however, there can be many ‘rungs on the ladder’ in-between these two ends of the spectrum.

Management can still effectively lead remotely; however, it requires a completely different approach to managing people in person. If managers were already failing, however, leading a homeworking team may bring these shortcomings to the surface…it’s therefore little wonder why a small proportion of bosses aren’t keen on the idea, long-term.

Every single charity penny spent on outgoings cannot be wasted. If there’s little benefit to bringing your workforce back, then don’t. Instead, look to the overall structure of the organisation and ensure that every person in every position is worth their corresponding expenditure. In 2021, after the global ‘working from home’ experiment, we’ve proved that, in many cases, bricks and mortar office buildings are a waste of money. However, this may not be the only area in which your charity is spending money unnecessarily…