I recently contributed to a Third Sector piece by the brilliant Zoe Amar: ‘What does the charity workplace of the future look like?’. It was nice to have the chance to reflect on the subject, and how digital and tech can play a part.
A while before that I had read The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman – Strategies for Impact without Burnout. As with all books co-authored by Beth Kanter, it was great and I recommend you read it – this one offered lots of real-life examples and practical advice on how to change your workplace culture and introduce new ways of working to reduce stress and get a better work-life balance. As the authors pointed out, burnout at work is often a risk at charities and other non-profits, where resources can be limited and people’s commitment to a cause often translates into overwork and less focus on looking after themselves.
New workspaces and approaches to work
I read it while the charity I worked for at the time, Diabetes UK, was working through some culture change of its own and looking for a new central office in London when our old lease expired. We took the opportunity to assess how we used the existing spaces and facilities, and survey all staff to ask what worked and what could be better. We found that up to 40% of desks weren’t in use at any one time but we always lacked meeting rooms and spaces for collaborative working, and one big flexible space that could accommodate all staff at once.
We designed the layout of our new office so we could introduce ‘activity-based working’ (a bit like the Lego Group in their London office) – essentially hotdesking with fewer desks but with:
- a bigger range of shared working spaces such as booths or large tables for working together or informal meetings
- small rooms for 1-1s, quiet work or calls
- a media room with ISDN line
- a prayer room
- a dedicated digital testing room kitted out for in-house user testing, that doubled up as a spare meeting room
- and a big ‘town hall’ space alongside a kitchen and dining space, as part of a ground floor that contained more traditional, but flexible, meeting rooms.
… supported by tech
All desks and rooms let you plug a laptop into the network and all desks had a keyboard and adjustable monitor so you didn’t have to hunch over a laptop all day.
This was made possible by most staff having laptops and lockers so they could not only hotdesk but also take their laptops to shared working areas and meetings if needed.
Some teams such as Finance had fixed PCs and desks, but no-one had their own private office. Instead teams were given dedicated ‘neighbourhoods’ on specific floors – so that you’d have an idea where to find someone from that team, but really you could sit anywhere – and even people in fixed areas would find different colleagues joining them each day. We also used Lync/Skype for Business, which let us say where we were in the building and instant message each other. (We had previously also used Skype to work with an agency and supporters to plan co-created video content, which wouldn’t have been possible without digital tools that helped us collaborate across the four nations of the UK.)
There were simple rules such as: not ‘camping’ at desks but also not expecting people to up sticks every time they went to get a drink or pop out for lunch; leaving rooms and spaces as you would hope to find them, etc. These rules were expected to evolve as we all got used to using the spaces.
To help with internal comms and collaboration it’s helpful to use digital platforms – but watch out for ‘platform fatigue’ if you have these on top of existing platforms for things such as logging work requests, processing payments, or managing annual leave, etc.
For internal comms we already used Yammer, including our corporate partner Tesco in the network – but enthusiasm had dwindled a bit by the time of the move, so the change helped to rekindle that a bit, eg with groups set up to share good finds for food and drink in the new area and other local knowledge.
We also continued to use Podio for project teams and for ongoing groups, such as analytics users and decentralised staff editing the website or using the charity’s social media accounts.
One good thing about the different platforms we tried is that they’re generally free for charities so it’s quite risk-free to try them and just as possible for small charities/small budgets as for bigger ones.
Changes translating into saving time or money, increased efficiency and impact
Overall, from my experience at Diabetes UK, I’d say the changes helped us work more efficiently. Project or campaign teams became just as important as your traditional ‘home’ teams. Having the flexible spaces meant it was easier to work on cross-team projects and campaigns. And quicker, informal meetings were easier because you didn’t have to book a room, you could usually just find a space. It also meant that eg on busy media days or campaign launch days, the relevant teams such as media, social media and marketing could sit together, and discuss, decide and respond more quickly.
I was in the biggest dept, Engagement & Fundraising, and we had never been on one floor together before – but in the new office that was possible and it was a nice feeling – no-one was out on a limb but you could easily retreat to a quieter space if you needed to.
Laptops also made it easier to work flexibly and securely from home or at external meetings or events.
It wasn’t perfect, we often had hitches with getting screens to work and link up with laptops in meeting rooms but all things considered, the transition happened smoothly, helped both by good digital and IT infrastructure but also the cultural changes brought about by our collective work on brand repositioning, a committee to help plan and govern the move (with several reps from every dept) and the ‘lift’ we got from a well-considered working environment.
We got to vote on naming the meeting rooms and town hall space (maturely avoiding any Boaty McBoatface outcomes) and the wallspace and storage doors were designed for us to pin up our latest work, including personas and work in progress on our brand, new website, etc.
We had introduced a degree of Agile within our Digital work and the new spaces made it easier to bring agencies and other suppliers in for collaborative working all under one roof, and for us to involve colleagues and supporters in user testing. And an agile approach started to seep out to other teams – it made me smile when our membership review project took the form of a ‘sprint’, unprompted by the Digital team!
The ground floor spaces also let us host more events – our own events and training for staff, volunteers, groups and supporters, as well as carrying out user research and opening up to external events such as NFP Tweetup and Barcamp NFP – as it was all self-contained and accessible. As well as saving time and money on having to find and pay for venue hire, it also felt more inclusive – our Chief Exec envisioned it as more of a hub for the diabetes community, and having our own venue felt we could play a more valuable part in that community, helping to bring more people together.
I found that having one big main kitchen helped you to see more of your colleagues and also sometimes have serendipitous conversations that helped you in your work. It certainly made Diabetes UK feel like more of a social organisation and one that valued its staff and supporters, and made up for the upheaval that moving to a new location inevitably brings.
And having a dedicated digital testing room meant we could do more user testing, without having to always spend out on agency support, and allowing us to make a lot more ongoing refinements to benefit our users.
The future of the charity workplace
At my new employer Maggie’s we have teams based at cancer support centres and offices across the UK, and lots of staff who work across wide regions to deliver our programme of support and raise the funds that make it possible. In our centres we really focus on the connections we make between people, and giving people face-to-face support based on their individual needs.
It’s a very exciting time for us as we have recognised the need to make better use of digital to help us do our work. We want to do this in a way that fits in with the very human and personal approach we have to everything we do. We are looking at improving everyone’s digital skills and the IT infrastructure that underpins this, based on team and individual needs as defined by a recent charity-wide review, including face-to-face interviews and a survey.
There’s sometimes a concern that remote or digital working can be a bit faceless or isolating for staff, and it is still vital to have that personal contact – but for Maggie’s it will also be a way of better connecting our staff. We want to improve internal comms and cross-team working, helped by digital tools, whether that’s Yammer, Slack, Podio or perhaps a platform such as Facebook Workplace that combines features of both. We have quite small teams but increasingly more ‘virtual’ and project teams, that allow us to focus on certain areas such as Content that don’t have their own central team – and we need good digital tools such as Google Docs and Sheets to help us do that.
We also want to help people to use digital and social media to support them in their work and build networks of awareness and support – helping us reach new people, be more accessible, amplify the charity’s messages, increase the scale of support we can offer, and complement the help we give people in centres.
I think offering flexibility, remote working and a nicer working environment can help you to attract and keep staff and make them feel more valued. The right set-up is vital, and digital is a big facilitator, but it has to go hand in hand with culture change, and with a way of planning and implementing the change that involves all staff, rather than having it ‘done to’ them. At Diabetes UK it felt like the improved workplace really helped us to work more efficiently, saving time and money, and to include and support more of our volunteers, supporters, beneficiaries and the wider diabetes community. Flexible working for childcare or study also meant staff could find the right working pattern to do their best work without the stress of juggling impossible scheduling conflicts. I was allowed to do a regular flexible work week to allow for a weekly afternoon of childcare and if anything this made me more efficient and certainly more loyal to my employer.
[In August I came across this interesting piece found via Adam Grant: https://www.sciencealert.com/this-4-day-work-week-experiment-went-so-well-company-keeping-it-perpetual-guardian-engagement-balance]
In charities, especially in health charities, it would be good to see more of a shift towards practising what we preach, helping staff and volunteers stay healthy and feel valued, reducing stress and avoiding burnout. For example, at Maggie’s it’s not just in our centres that we have a kitchen table at the heart of our spaces – we have them in both of our offices too and everyone’s encouraged to have lunch there together rather than grabbing a sandwich at your desk. It definitely helps you feel more together as a charity and gives you a chance to catch up with everyone and recharge a bit before getting back on with work.
Obviously all of this will depend on your charity’s size, what it does, and the ability (and will) to try new things – reading Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s brilliant book ‘The Happy Healthy Nonprofit’ is a good place to start, as it offers examples and guidance to suit charities of different sizes, types, stages and cultures, as well as giving tips for individuals to help them to make positive changes of their own.