Seven Key Strategies for Working from Home Successfully

Third Sector Coach, Rob Legge, asked leaders from within the sector for their best tips and they responded with the enthusiasm of new converts. In this blog Rob shares the actions being taken by twenty-seven leaders to ensure they are successful remote workers.

There has been a big jump in the number of charity staff working from home during the pandemic. Prior to lockdown just a trickle of charity staff would work remotely. COVID-19 has changed this and most people (who are not furloughed) are finding out how best to do it.

1. How can we keep focused and productive at home?

It is not easy moving from an office base to home working. Many people miss the banter, the chance to informally bounce ideas and share concerns with colleagues. Others struggle with concentration at home.

“Routine, routine, routine” wrote Matt Forsyth, Operations Director for Sport4life. He should know as he is not only a senior manager, responsible for converting all Sport4life face to face services into remote formats, he is also a single parent dealing with home schooling. He said you should make your routine productive, varied, and challenging, and stick to it.

Helen Cobain, Communications Coordinator for BVSC, wrote that her top tip was to develop a structured working day, one that fits around your personal preferences and responsibilities. She tries to work standard hours each day and, for her, that is 8am to 4pm. As she is most productive in the morning, she tries to resist opening her inbox until 9.30 so she can get on with the important tasks on her to-do list during this quiet time.

Others have emphasised that they work best when they have a start and an end to the workday rather than doing a bit of work, mixed with family time or leisure time. Emma Spenser, from Wellbeing Works Associates, recommends always having a cut off time for when you plan to finish work and make sure you stick to it.

Conversely, Leeya Balbuena, Senior Operations Manager for Coventry and Warwickshire MIND (CWMIND), recognises she sometimes works beyond the usual hours. With children to home school she finds that quality work often must take place early or late in the day. She also knows she works best first thing in the morning and, like Helen, tries to make sure that it is the most productive part of her working day.

Several contributors have talked about being dressed for work. Sue Round, Deputy CEO of the Springfield Project wrote that for her “it is essential, it helps me to maintain my standards.” Others say it is OK to work in PJs and prefer to have the flexibility to mix it up during the week.

Sam Booth, a national manager for the Scouts wrote; “I dress for work every day, smart casual, that way the brain knows it is in work mode and when I am home relaxing in my jeans or shorts it can switch off.” Leeya Balbuena insists that every day she dresses comfortably and presentably so that she is always ready for that unexpected video call.

Others, like Colin Strevens from the financial sector, offers a compromise, as he dresses in t-shirt and shorts with a work shirt on the back of his chair, ready for video meetings.

Along with missing the structure found in the office, some people felt the lack of a commute to and from work. It gave them the time to get into work mode or to decompress back into family life. Adam Cross, Vice Principal at a 6th Form College in the city, has set himself “travel time” when he will go for a walk or do some exercises for the same amount of time he would usually be travelling.

Kate Morgan from CVT said that the regular commute gave her some private space. She says “working from home means you can jump out of bed and start work and at the end of the day finish work and go straight into mum duties.” She needs a regular walk or run to keep her on an even keel.

“I quickly realised that working from my lounge wasn’t for me” wrote Yvonne Langham, Senior Operations manager for Rape and Sexual Violence Project (RSVP). It meant she did not switch off, constantly checking her laptop encroached into her own personal time. The need to have a designated space for office work seems incredibly important. If you are lucky enough to have a spare bedroom or study that’s great, but lots of us have had to be creative to make the workplace at home possible, which we will explore later.

The use of video calls for internal and external meetings has been a great aid to productivity. Kate Morgan, from CVT, ruefully points out that an internal meeting was better attended via Zoom than it has been in person at any time during the last three years.

A neat tip that works for the Scouts is to start meetings at 10 past the hour and still finish on the hour. This gives everyone time for a comfort break or a cuppa. Sam Booth wrote that “most of the staff try to adopt this and it’s made an enormous difference to how less rushed meetings feel.” Others have learnt to make sure there is a physical break between video calls so that they can get out of the office environment for a few minutes.

Sue Round also says that remote working plays havoc on her normally sharp memory, and finds that she must take extensive notes during a call to keep track of who has agreed to what.

The need to have a to-do list and to set goals is expressed by many including Olivia Barker-White, who heads up Kids Club Kampala, and Brendan Griffin, from the Lisieux Trust. Emma Sharman, a freelance marketeer supporting small social enterprises talks about putting on the blinkers and ignoring the housework.

Charlotte Eddisford the Director for CHAS Bristol says, “it is vital that I am extremely organised, more so than being in the office.” Several people surprised themselves in this remote work world by returning to pens and notebooks to keep on top of task management. Natalie Harris, from RSVP, mentioned she had a different to-do list for mornings and afternoons to help keep her on task. Steven Hill, CEO of CW MIND, admitted that he needs to set himself tasks to do each day and tick them off when he completes them.

Others have found that breaking big tasks down into smaller chunks has helped overcome procrastination. The use of the Pomodoro technique has been cited as a saving grace by more than one when I asked for their top tips for remote working. This is where you focus on one important task for twenty-five minutes and then take a five-minute break.

Self-discipline and good time management is at the heart of successful remote working. Jenny Jones, Regional manager for Right at Home, a care provider, is so focused on her work that her advice is to let phones ring through to voicemail if you are in the middle of some work. She recommends limiting video meetings to sixty minutes as they can be exhausting, and she suggests you shouldn’t feel pressurised into showing your face at every meeting. One Director of a small charity has her ‘out of office’ on permanently, saying she will get back to them within 24 hours. This helps her manage her emails rather than feeling the pressure to immediately respond.

2. How do we keep sane during this crazy time?

Charity sector leaders and workers are under intense pressure to continue to supply services and raise funds during this time. Working remotely has added to this pressure and many more conversations are being initiated about mental health at work.

Helen recommends regular coffee breaks and to finish the day with a walk. Adam Cross admitted that, at first, he felt guilty about time away from his desk, but now he tries to schedule breaks to coincide with free time with his young family, which has been a bonus they have all enjoyed.

Many have been proactive in trying to create “water cooler chat.” Sam Booth says when she puts the kettle on, she phones a colleague for a two-minute social. Social Media and the news get a bit of kicking when it comes to discussing stress management. Many contributors to this blog say the constant negativity just heightened their anxiety, and many have talked about rationing exposure to social media. One said, “I don’t watch the news – I ask friends if there are any major government updates and then check the BBC website.”

Outside of work charity leaders they have been active in keeping some life/work balance, through taking up new hobbies, such as baking, or resurrected “long forgotten hobbies” which has helped “through some difficult days.”

Emails have also needed careful management. Rachel Smith, from Envision, decided to block work emails from her phone, to stop work seeping into family time. Many suggest not only switching their laptops off at the end of the day but putting them out of sight.

A daily team chat is seen as a big support to everyone if they are having a off day. Jenny Jones has set up a skype chat group to reflect her office layout. She has a desk next to “Bob” in finance and opposite “Gemma” in HR. They are not in the same team but would have a few comments and a bit of social chit-chat during the day so skype is a way of giving some of that office familiarity back.

Kate Morgan, from CVT, misses the regular commute as this gave her some private space. She says “working from home means you can jump out of bed and start work and at the end of the day finish work and go straight into mum duties.” She sings the praises of a regular walk or run to keep her on an even keel.  Exercise has become more important with Joe Wicks having a shout out several times, but the main theme was simply walking or cycling on a regular basis. No wild changes to lifestyle were recommended as they are difficult to sustain. Zoe Hutchinson, an Operations Manager at CWMIND, talks of putting on her trainers and “walking as far as she needs to before returning home.” Most respondents claim to build in some physical activity into their daily routines and for bonus points they try to do it outside.

Family members have been both a challenge (keeping teenagers occupied and not at each other’s throats) and a blessing (magic moments listening to children chatter on a sunny walk). Zoe Hutchinson talks about taking a thirty-minute lunch break with her children, something she could only dream about before lockdown.

Routine is one of the ways to keep sane and one of the contributors has gained pleasure from preparing a work lunch the night before. She claims this keeps her out of the biscuit tin! Lunch is an important part of creating some balance and more of you advocating a stop for lunch to talk to family or friends or leisure reading. Taking a proper break is something most of us didn’t do in the past as we grabbed a sandwich in the car or between meetings.

A few have talked about meditation, with morning mindfulness exercises getting a nod, as does YouTube Yoga classes. One person talked about phoning a friend at midday and they pray together. She says “we have become very Anglican…. but we are both finding the challenge worthwhile and motivational.”

Natalie Harris, from RSVP, suggests watching techniques for grounding yourself.

Leeya Balbuena sums up most of the tips when she says, “I remember who I am away from work and I keep up with the things I enjoy. I connect spiritually, exercise daily, connect with family and friends regularly but also say when I’ve had enough and can’t give anymore.”

Emma Marks shared some wisdom when she said “be realistic with what you can achieve. This may be different to before but recognise it’s still valuable.”

Charlie Eddisford mentioned that since working from home she had found her stress levels rising with fewer opportunities to off-load. She suggests the first step to managing her mental health is to recognise what is going on. For her the first signs are pains in her shoulders. She now acknowledges this and takes time to exercise rather than trying to push through it.

Tom Clarke-Forrest, the CEO of Sport4life, looks at the issue strategically for his organisation and developed a weekly measure for all staff. He calls it the stress cup and the question, “Out of ten how full is your stress cup?” is asked every week of all staff. The scores are reviewed by the senior team, compared against the trend and then acted upon.

3. Family is now a part of the working environment for many of you

Family has been a big new factor in the challenges of remote working. Lots of my correspondents have found that, not only are they grappling with a new way of working, but also competing for space and attention with children who need to be home-schooled. Partners who also have to work at home or have been furloughed add to this complex mix.

Some have talked about the tension of partners who work different time schedules and approaches. One anonymous person, “Can’t wait for him to go back to the office because his 10am start and loud phone calls as he walks through the house are annoying and disruptive.” However, others talk of the pleasure of working closely with partners, equitably sharing home and childcare tasks as well as the opportunity to go for family walks or bike rides when the weather is good.

Supporting school children is a big responsibility for many remote workers. One talked about having a morning briefing with the family so that they would know when she couldn’t be disturbed and to also arrange mealtimes and family breaks.

Young children come up a lot, particularly how they can disrupt a video meeting. At first people were uptight about their surprise appearances but as time has gone on, parents have relaxed and it has given a new, positive dimension to their work. Colin Strevens noted “H (my two-year-old) has been on a number of video calls and that has actually been quite entertaining, and in many ways can help cut through the formalities of a meeting and help show another side of my life to clients.”

Communication is key to success and a reduction of stress. Adam Cross, in the education sector, says, “Communicating my schedule with my family the night before has worked really well. This means they have prior notice of any big meetings I may have and can plan their time accordingly.”

“I walk each day with as many of the family I can gather up” wrote a fundraiser working from home. “It is good for me and the family, and we can sort out the problems of the day on the walk.”

Others, particularly mums, feel that they are struggling to manage home-working, home-schooling and home! One single mum spoke of getting up at 4am to do housework and administration tasks before her son wakes for breakfast. Many talked of splitting the work day around the children’s needs and ensuring employers are supportive of this flexible working.

One charity manager said, “I touch base with the family several times per day, check everyone is getting on OK, and we always stop what we’re doing to come together for lunch.” She goes on to say, “It is important that children don’t feel they play second fiddle (in comparison) to work, especially over something that’s important to them.”
A charity CEO said, “I learnt that my 14-year-old needed a surprising amount of support to manage the volume of work he was being sent by school. I amended my work schedule to fit around times when I needed to be available to him.”

4. A New Way of Leading

The pandemic has seen a fantastic leadership response in the charity sector, and it is worth noting the often small, simple actions that make a difference.

Caroline Mackie, CEO of Citizens Advice Solihull, said, when talking about motivating staff, “The best way is being honest, sharing what we know, the plans we have to move forward and get staff to contribute.” It is so easy for leaders to go into a bunker to try to think things through first. This pandemic has shown how successful leaders are sharing their ideas, getting others to contribute, and developing strategies collaboratively and at speed.

The CEO of a children’s charity, Sarah Robbins says she goes into the office once a week to keep in touch with those still on site. She creates regular video updates and uses shots of the office building as well as interviews with staff to keep everyone engaged.

Another CEO, Steven Hill commented, “We (the team) have become closer, due to having to find new ways of working and communication.” He shared how his meeting schedule of a regular all-staff meeting, in addition to the service managers’ meetings and his own direct reports has ensured all are working for each other and feel supported.

5. Keeping Strong During Times of Uncertainty

Motivation, during the pandemic, has been severely tested for all in the sector. My work, coaching furloughed charity staff reveals a massive drop in confidence. For those continuing to work; their work-load has often increased. This is on top of an urgent need to develop new skills, combined with finding different ways of working with colleagues.

The strongest response in relation to what keep leaders motivated, referenced the charity’s reason for existence and the heroic work staff and volunteers continued to do in the pandemic. I think about, “The impact of COVID-19 has had on our young people” says Matt Forsyth from Sport4life.

Aliya Mohamed, the CEO of Race Equality First response to the question “How do you keep motivated?” was succinct. “By seeing the results of our amazing hardworking staff team.”

Elaine Nicholson, the founder of Action for Asperger’s, said, “Simple! The world’s autistic community and their families need us.”

Sam Booth from the Scouts added, “When I am having a down day, I use social media to see what our amazing volunteers are doing.”

A close second for bolstering motivation was adherence to a personal routine. Carol Benson, a senior manager at MIND, talks about having a regular morning run, others a walk, or some personal reading.

Sarah admits motivation levels can vary and she struggled, particularly in the first couple of weeks. She finds planning the next day’s work motivates her, as does a telephone call with one of her colleagues early in the day.

Charlie shared her struggles with motivation. “It has been nothing less than a battle to maintain well-being with all the added pressures and workload. This has taken acceptance that some days I will not succeed or be my best self.”

Kate, admits “I think we all have had off days where the whole lockdown situation can feel overwhelming.”

Steven says, “It is important for me to celebrate the small wins and keep saying thank you to all our staff.” He goes on to talk about the satisfaction of ticking off items on his to-do list. Keeping in contact with his Chair of Trustees has been essential and motivational.

Brendan keeps himself motivated with goals and an action plan for the next 3 months.

Dan O’Driscoll, a freelance expert in volunteering, sings the praises of having a simple plan and creating a sense of achievement when we are struggling. He adds that looking after his own well-being and mental health has been a motivator. Despite all the worries globally and personally, “Still doing the things that bring me joy has been a great help.”
Colin commented that a mix of “personal pride and fear of losing his job is keeping me pretty motivated at the moment.”

Rachel puts it down to coffee and upbeat music and being honest with her team when she is not feeling it.

Yvonne says, “The key to maintaining motivation for her is to keep home and work life as separate as possible and to remember we are doing our best in difficult circumstances.”
Pauline, from YMCA Birmingham, reflected that hope and faith through her religion keeps her motivated.

Sue has an eclectic motivational mix of garden birdsong, prayer, and her office cat to keep her going.

6. Communication is the Secret Source for Success

Engagement is at the heart of successful remote leadership. Communication has become more purposeful and considered. Good interaction has underpinned productive routines, keeping a balanced work/home life and has been the key mechanism for leadership and a driving force of motivation.

Emma said, “Communication is the key. We try to keep connected and ensure that our teams always know how to communicate with each other.”

Dan says, “Even if you don’t have anything to say, it’s imperative that you tell your people that you don’t have an update. You don’t want to create a vacuum where you are not communicating at all.”

Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become part of our everyday language but some managers and staff felt they went a bit zoom mad at the start of the lockdown and “This resulted in too many calls and not enough time to actually get stuff done.” said Rachel. CW MIND started with daily briefings and discussion to keep morale up and managers informed. They have now settled into a weekly routine.

Kate says she has found staying connected extremely easy using Microsoft Teams, “We have a chat group that is, “Open all day for quick comments or questions which replicates the office environment.” Adam says, “Teams is software he thought only belonged in sci-fi movies, it is that good.”

Zoe echoed Kate by quickly setting up a chat forum to keep morale high and to encourage social chat. They had a daily riddle, a joke, a fun question, a quote and a productivity tool, as well as two songs. She says this generates all sorts of conversations and activities with staff.
Facebook has come into its own as a way of updating and engaging with many clients, ranging from those with complex needs, to Focus Birmingham’s use with visually impaired service users.

WhatsApp has got an honourable mention as an easy way to share quick information or flag up any important emails, as well as strengthening social bonds in teams. Sam said, “We share how big our lettuces are growing and we have a sunflower competition that is strangely competitive.”

Increasingly, managers are using technology to encourage communication across teams and Melanie Gallivan, the HR manager of YMCA Birmingham, says, “I’ve encouraged my team to catch up without me being involved or leading the meeting.”

Many leaders do a weekly update to keep staff in the loop to minimise any feelings of isolation. Sarah also has a specific communication style for different types of messages and for different staff. She says, “It is important to schedule regular catch ups, and I make additional contacts with those colleagues that live alone.”

Brian underlines the benefit of making communications regular and his advice is that, when it is for information try to group it together into a “digest” format so that you do not clutter people’s in boxes.

Matt has taken a recent development in his charity, the Huddle; a weekly all team meeting, to share progress, into the virtual world with great success.

One contributor pointed out the many productive benefits of virtual face-to-face meetings. “We save on commuting time and I’ve found that virtual meetings tend to run on time, be more focused, and don’t tend to waffle on with small talk in a way face to face meetings do.”
Several leaders have moved away from just using video meetings and Sue says that when she is making a welfare call to staff, both parties prefer a phone call to chat about challenges. Leeya even talks about sending cards and letters by mail to staff as a powerful message of care and support.

Carol shared a good tip about remote visual meetings. Facial responses and language can be amplified when you are on camera, particularly when taking centre stage. She reminds us to keep a positive face when on camera. Jenny, from Right to Home, also explains why we often feel exhausted after a remote visual meeting. She says that our brains do not handle reading people via a screen very well. It tries to compensate for the lack of body language by concentrating harder on the limited facial expressions and vocal cues at its disposal and it is mentally tiring.

Olivia from Kids club Kampala said, “Taking breaks is so important. I have found I sometimes get tired and down being on screen all day, so I have started scheduling some calls on the phone which I can do while sitting in the garden or having a walk around the block which does wonders for my mood.”

Being honest and straight forward was Brendan’s tip and it is OK to not have all the answers as a leader. Staff will make up all sorts of scenarios if they think you are hiding something.

Messages to other stake holders are currently especially important. Trustees have been updated and engaged, a challenge for some senior staff has been the lack of technology available to some trustees so one communication route doesn’t work for all.

Elaine commented that stakeholders often do not have as good a grasp of the details as leaders would want them to. Her tip was to never assume they “know” the “charity” and take every opportunity to remind them and help them to know more.

7. What is it like working from home and what equipment do we need?

It is an approximate 50/50 split between those who have a room in their houses that they can call an office and those that share spaces.

Sue says a few months back she was able to convert their third bedroom into an office at home. She has a good supportive chair, and a large desk and is surprisingly happy (for an extrovert) to be working home alone.

Brian got to the heart of the issue. “Try to have a space that is just for work. It will help you draw a line between work and leisure time. That is particularly important since, during lockdown, the usual demarcations (like journeys to and from the office) aren’t there.”

Emma concurs with Brian’s comments, “Try to stay in a designated place for working so that you always associate that part of your home as the workspace.”

Zoe recommends if you don’t have an office to try out different spaces in the home and “ideally find a quiet space with no through traffic…and close the door.” Adam lives with his wife and three home schooled children, so to find the quietist space he has, “Mastered the art of hot desking around the house.” His tip is to make sure that you stay organised enough so that you can pick up and go somewhere else if space is at a premium.

Carolyn, like many others said, “I don’t have a designated work space or office at home, but I change where I work from in the house to give me different environment where I can get the light and fresh air.”

Elaine emphasises the basics, “Make sure your workspace has a good internet connection, and if not, do something about it, like purchasing a better broadband or getting extenders.” I was having problems with Zoom calls. I contacted my internet provider, Sky. They tested the speed, upgraded the broadband, and gave me a new TV package AND reduced my monthly bill!

The essentials, such as enough plug sockets or extension leads should not be forgotten, says Natalie.

Sam advises, “don’t forget to do your workstation assessment; it is really important that you are comfortable and don’t damage your back or neck by working in a poor position.”
Tom recommends getting a second screen to make going in and out of different programmes so much easier. Charlie agrees about the second screen; easy to plug into your laptop with an adapter.

Others recognise that they do not have a quiet space and resort to taking part in Zoom meetings from their parked car. As Zoe says, “There are no rules.”

Colin’s tip for video meetings is to sort your background out so you are not distracting your colleagues or clients from the discussion. He wrote, “I make sure the paintings and photos on the wall are straight and the scene behind me looks inviting.”

A lot of the contributors to this blog use headphones. Elaine recommends to all her clients a high spec Bose set of headphones, others suggest having a range of headphones to give variety and comfort. And still others are happy with none. One of the benefits mentioned of having earphones is that it helps blot out the sounds of others in the house and so minimises distractions.

Leeya finds the combination of desktop, laptop and smart phone have proved useful when remote working with video meetings on the laptop, documents reviewed on the PC and notes taken on her phone.

Needing to work at home at the same time as partners causes some challenges, and negotiations for the best office space can be tricky. Their tips, are more in desperation, such as moving to the car for periods of the day. Some have agreed different schedules with one of them starting early and the other late, so having some quiet time during the workday.
Brendan cautions us not to expect to have everything we have in the office and be kind to ourselves. He says, “Just get the basics right… including paper.” Although others said in the struggle to get printer ink, they realised they don’t need to print as much as I tend to at work, so saving trees.

A Few Final Thoughts

Remote working has been a shock to many, and they have scrambled as best they can to make it work for themselves, their organisation, and their families. Much has been learnt about what is possible in this brief time period.

The charity leaders’ tips suggest that there are no absolutes in working from home. For some developing resilience, patience, and being pragmatic in finding solutions can help turn a difficult situation into a tolerable one.

For others, this enforced change has been a revelation. That they can work productively day in and day out without the need for a long and expensive commute or the constant interaction from office colleagues shows to them a new way of working.

I would like to thank all my clients and associates who gave their time to provide these ideas. Their generosity is typical of the sector and gives me hope for the future, despite the obvious health and economic challenges ahead.

Happy remote working, wherever you are!

Rob Legge

Would you like to join Rob for a half day session exploring how to get the best out of working at home? The session takes place on 10 September on Zoom. Find out more: