Guest blog written by Lindsey Marchessault
In the last few weeks, many organizations around the world have had to pivot sharply to remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This shift can be a daunting transition. However, there are many strategies and tactics that can help teams to maintain effectiveness, productivity, and a sense of normalcy during this challenging time.
At the Open Contracting Partnership, I’ve managed a global remote team since 2015 and I’ve worked from home since 2017. We have staff in Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Nigeria, Ukraine, the UK, and the US. In addition, our wider Helpdesk team (composed of staff and contractors) sits in New Zealand, Paraguay, and the UK.
My organization supports governments, civil society and business to improve public contracting outcomes around the world. This work involves advocacy, technical assistance, and learning activities. Ultimately, our goal is to empower our partners to implement transformational reforms.
Traditionally, our activities have involved a combination of remote and in-person support. For example, in 2019, we remotely supported 112 partners from 44 countries. We also undertook 46 ‘high-intensity’ engagements (involving significant staff time and/or resources) involving both remote and in-person support. Finally, we delivered 34 training events in 29 countries, most of which were in-person. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we envision conducting most (if not all) of our support and training activities remotely.
So, how do we as an organization manage all of this remote work effectively?
Clear Strategic Targets
The most critical element is to have a clear organizational strategy. This strategy should be codified in clear organizational targets with regular reporting and reflection calls on progress towards the targets. We do this reporting and reflection quarterly. Organizational targets, however, are not enough. We found that clearly defined individual work plans and targets are required to help each team member prioritize their tasks and take responsibility for their own workloads.
When you manage a remote team, it’s important to maintain the types of interactions you would have in a typical office setting. That’s why every Monday morning we have a virtual team meeting that is accompanied by a shared google document. In advance of the meeting, each team member documents the tasks they completed in the previous week and lists their tasks for the week ahead. During the meeting, the management team will also share important updates that are relevant for the whole team. Furthermore, each team member has the opportunity to ask questions to management or other team members, make requests for other team members, and to offer assistance for tasks outside their domain of responsibility.
In addition to these full team meetings, smaller teams within the organization will meet on a regular schedule to cowork and coordinate on tasks. The senior management team meets virtually every Wednesday to make important decisions, share key updates, and reflect on our organization’s progress and performance. Each manager also holds individual biweekly virtual meetings with each of our direct reports. These check-ins are opportunities to discuss work-life balance, assess progress on specific tasks, and strategize to overcome challenges.
In an ever-evolving global field that cuts across public financial management, tech, and advocacy, knowledge management is vital to keep us on track and to help us capture lessons learned from our engagements. We use a customer relationship management system (CRM) to manage the support requests from our 100+ partners from different jurisdictions around the world. With the CRM, we can assign issues to each other and add team members as ‘watchers’ so that they receive updates about the issue even if they are not responsible. We also use Google Drive to file our key shared documents, such as our organizational policies, the process documentation for our regular tasks, and detailed descriptions for each engagement, training, research project that we undertake.
Finally, for our technical work on the Open Contracting Data Standard and related software, we use Github (a platform for open source development) to document and work collaboratively on tasks and issues.
When you work as a remote team, it’s important to establish clear lines of decision-making and identify mechanisms for relevant staff to be informed of key decisions, especially relating to budgeting, expenditures, travel, and communication. Over the years, we found that it is extremely beneficial to have a shared document available to all team members that documents explicitly who is authorized to make types of decisions under different scenarios, and who needs to be informed. This approach mitigates uncertainties or blurred lines that can cause stress or affect our work.
To ensure that decision-making is prioritized, we also encourage staff to write concise emails inspired by the advice from this Harvard Business Review article. This way colleagues and managers understand when they are being asked for a decision, for input, or are simply being informed of an important decision.
When issues are too complex to solve through emails, decision calls are scheduled with the relevant team members.
Collaboration and Team Bonding
One thing I miss is being able to go for coffee with colleagues. Coffee breaks are nice for unstructured conversation about our work. To make up for these coffee runs, I sometimes schedule ‘virtual coffees’ or short Google Hangout chats with colleagues when time and workload allows. And to keep as much personal connection as possible, we use a Whatsapp group to share photos and other more ‘fun’ content.
Our organization does meet in person at least once a year for a team retreat. This in-person meeting provides an opportunity to reflect on the implementation of our strategy, agree priorities for the year ahead, and bond as a team. Our team retreat this year was supposed to be in New Orleans this last past week. However, we canceled it in response to the emerging Covid-19 guidance.
Instead, we held a virtual team retreat (using Google Meet and Google Documents). While it was not quite the same as an in person retreat, we managed well since we are accustomed to virtual interaction. Due to time differences, we scheduled only 1.5 to 3 hours per day for the retreat and managed to get through most of the objectives. Our team building exercises also had to adapt. For example, instead of using sticky notes to document progress and priorities on a world map, we used the Conceptboard tool to replicate this task virtually. We are still discovering the many great virtual tools available to enhance our remote work and engagement.
Balancing Work & Childcare
Most schools and daycares have closed due to Covid-19. Having young children at home and working from home presents an additional challenge. During these times, it’s important to work with staff to identify how they will adjust working hours and manage their work and home responsibilities. Ultimately, it comes down to having a bit more patience and flexibility.
The Road Ahead
The breadth and pace of Covid-19 is unprecedented. In this time of social distancing, working remotely is necessary to halt the spread of this outbreak. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t be productive. With the right targets, approach, and adaptability (including toddlers on laps during video calls), your organization can stay on track and keep performing to the best of its abilities.