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COVID-19: How Nonprofits Can Establish Effective Telecommuting Practices

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In a matter of a few weeks, people around the world have become intimately familiar with terms that were previously the domain of specialists such as infectious disease epidemiologists and public health officials. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread to North America and beyond, terms like social distancing and flattening the curve are pointing to the importance of why we must act now as a global community to limit the spread of this dangerous virus.

Flattening the curve by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris

As part of these efforts, many workplaces are either encouraging or mandating that employees work from home in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus as well as to protect those who are most vulnerable to contagion––immunocompromised people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, elderly citizens, and those working high-contact jobs, to name a few. Nonprofits whose regular work includes decentralized organizing or digital outreach likely already have systems in place to facilitate remote project management and online collaboration.

For many other organizations, however, the swift move to remote work may present a steep learning curve––one likely to include doubts about the best tools to use in support of a digital transition and questions about how to set up new team-wide systems. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “the coronavirus outbreak has triggered an anxious trial run for remote work at a grand scale. What we learn in the next few months could help shape a future of work that might have been inevitable, with or without a once-in-a-century public-health crisis.”

Here at TechSoup Canada, we’ve put together a preliminary round up of recommendations and resources to help support the nonprofit sector during this important transition.

Working From Home: The Basics

  • Establish a Routine: As many freelancers and remote workers will tell you, the first step in successfully working from home is to have a solid routine. A good rule of thumb is to follow a similar schedule as you would if you were commuting to the office: wake up at a consistent time, get dressed, and make yourself a cup of coffee or tea before logging in. These steps will help you make a mental separation between work and personal time, and may boost your productivity as well
    Pro Tip: If you are worried about potential distractions, apps like Freedom can help you set up a timer to block access to your social media accounts from all devices.

  • Set Up a Dedicated Workspace: Similar to the reasons above, having a dedicated work area will help you get into ‘work mode’ more quickly and help limit distractions. If you were not already set up with a home office or work desk at home, think about carving out some space in other parts of your house… but remember to be intentional about turning them back to their original purpose at the end of the day so work doesn’t follow you around after hours. (If you are now working from home alongside a partner or roommate, creating an imaginary coworker may also be a helpful strategy! :)

  • Make Yourself Comfortable: Just as important is doing your best to ensure that you are working comfortably and protecting your health by having good ergonomics set in place. If you’re looking for advice on how to optimize your workspace, Wall Street Journal offers advice from ergonomics experts, while LifeHacker compiled a handy list for DIY solutions on the same subject. 
    Pro Tip: If you do not have an ergonomic desk or chair at home, plan to take more physical breaks to stretch and move around. The Mayo Clinic has a series of “Deskercise” videos on YouTube that target different parts of the body such as torso and neck.

  • Assess Your Home Equipment: If your nonprofit does not provide you with a work laptop or desktop, check in with your employer to confirm that they allow you to connect to organizational resources using personal computers. Make sure to also take some time to see if you have other items that make remote work run more smoothly, such a working mouse, keyboard, microphone, and camera. Some also prefer to use noise cancelling headphones if there are kids in the house or if the area they live in is particularly noisy. (Fear not! If you do not have such headphones, Krisp app gives Apple users 240 minutes of free noise reduction per week, and 60 minutes to all other users.)
    Pro Tip: You may also be able to borrow equipment from your employer and bring it home–don’t be afraid to ask!

  • Check Your Wifi Connection: There has been some speculation lately about the ability of internet networks to tolerate the surge of videoconferencing that practices like social isolation inevitably will unleash. While so far the system seems to be holding up well enough, there are a few things you can do at home to strengthen your own connection. As ABC News points out, “if you’ve had the same router for more than five years, now may be a good time to upgrade… With newer, multi-band routers you can segment your wireless network into two networks: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.” 
    Pro Tip: You can also check with your Internet Service Provider to know your plan’s upload and download speeds––these will become important if you plan on connecting with your team through videoconference, file sharing, or other bandwidth-heavy tasks. You could also temporarily turn off wifi access to other equipment in the house to help your wifi run faster during work hours.

  • Have Healthy Boundaries: FastCompany recently reminded us that “a risk with remote work is that people start spending too much time online without natural transitions throughout the day, working unhealthily long hours.” For this reason, it’s important to set the example for other coworkers by keeping balanced hours and letting others know when you’re logging off at the end of the day––do this especially if you’re in a leadership position. 

Are you new to telecommuting and would like more tips? These veterans from Hubspot have lots more to share! See: How to Work From Home: 20 Tips From People Who Do It Successfully

Illustration by Mona Chalabi

Working From Home: The Tools 

Mobile devices and cloud services make transitioning to telecommuting a relatively easy process for most. If you are a TechSoup Canada member, you may already be familiar with a number of services from our catalogue, but here is a quick refresher:

  • For video calls and teleconferencing, CallBridge and Zoom both work on mobile and desktop, have high definition video and audio quality, and allow screen sharing.
  • For online security, our catalogue offers many versions of Bitdefender for antivirus screening and business security, as well as Norton subscriptions for small businesses that protect computers, tablets, and smartphones against the latest online threats. Okta helps nonprofits manage identity across all platforms, from single sign-on (SSO) to more identity and access management solutions.
    Pro Tip: Make sure all devices on your home network––including the ones you use for work––have the latest software updates, these are important because they contain critical security patches.
  • For work management and team coordination, Asana helps nonprofits update, manage, and standardize work tasks across all of their teams both on mobile and web. (Their article ‘5 Ways to Work from Anywhere’ doubles as a mini-tutorial on how to make the most of the platform.) Microsoft Office 365 and NonProfit Cloud subscriptions also allow you to enhance work productivity and team collaboration with tools such as Word, Excel, Skype, PowerPoint and more.
    Pro Tip: To learn more about how to move your work to the cloud, check out this helpful article from our friends at TechSoup US, “What You Need to Know About Office 365 Nonprofit from Microsoft”, or browse through their helpful tutorials and e-books. If your nonprofit is using Office 365, be sure to read Microsoft’s update on COVID-19 and how they are committed to ensuring a smooth telecommuting experience.

There are a number of other tools that make telecommuting more connected and efficient:

Working From Home: The Resources

Lastly, there are a number of resources and tutorials that have sprung up in recent days to help nonprofits quickly adapt to the reality of social distancing and remote work.

Social Care in Times of Social Distancing

The COVID-19 situation is evolving quickly and there are still many unknowns. One thing is for sure, though:

This is a time when solidarity and community care will be more important than ever.

This is especially true for nonprofits, as many of us serve populations that were already vulnerable or will be more vulnerable to coronavirus exposure. It can be overwhelming to think of the scope of needs and actions required at this moment, so we want to leave you with some encouraging resources to help us all remember that even in the midst of social distancing we can build strong communities and care for one another:

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What steps are you taking to prepare for coronavirus at home and in your community? Have you and your colleagues found strategies that are helping you work from home and stay connected? Leave a note in the comments to share with other TechSoup readers!