Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, people rarely worked from home at Oxfam Australia. Melbourne-based staff worked on desktop computers, used landline telephony and usually had meetings in person.
Eighteen months later, 70% of staff have said they prefer a roughly equal split between home and office time, and Oxfam are now in a great place to facilitate this.
As the pandemic hit
Staff went from being in the office almost 100% of the time, to working entirely at home within a week. The organisation found they were well-set-up in some ways but not others. They had invested in Microsoft Office 365, so people were used to shared documents and Outlook. They also had some great cloud-based software in place, including file storage via Box, and Salesforce as their CRM.
However, there were several hurdles to jump. With only a small pool of older laptops available, the organisation was reliant on people having a device at home they could use. The small number who didn’t were able to draw upon the pool.
Another issue was telephony.
“As we went into lockdown, our phone system became obsolete and people needed to get used to using Teams every day”, Khoi Cao-Lam, Director of Capability and Impact at Oxfam Australia says.
Project management and workshop collaboration software was not in place and there were some systems that could not be easily accessed from home including the intranet and the payroll system, which needed a VPN. The VPN was unreliable at times and not accessible to Mac users.
Changes made over the course of the year
Oxfam introduced Trello as a work and project management tool and Miro to enable remote collaboration for workshops. Staff were not forced to use these, but there was wide adoption, especially of Trello. Training was offered via informal “lunch and learns” as well as facilitators taking the time to show their colleagues at the start of meetings.
“We learnt we had to show people first and make sure they knew how to use it. We had to meet people where they were in terms of using new tools,” Khoi says.
Staff were adaptable and got used to using Teams for meetings with little difficulty and individuals who needed to use the payroll systems found work arounds while the IT team worked on it.
There have been unexpected benefits too. Staff who are based interstate felt more included in meetings and processes and the ability to work from home offered significant flexibility for people with caring and responsibilities. People being empowered to do their work without having to be seen to be in the office has engendered a culture of trust, too.
The organisation has invested brand new Lenovo laptops and headsets for every staff member.
Interestingly, staff have not missed their landline telephony, with people happily swapping personal mobile numbers if they wanted to speak on the phone, even though the organisation has now provisioned internet-based “soft-phone” connections for those who need them.
Printing has rarely been an issue, with staff transitioning to a mostly paperless workspace more easily than anticipated.
There has been no mandate from management that staff must or mustn’t work from home although a small number of fundraising staff work from the office when it is safe to do so because of the nature of their work requires it. As people began to trickle back into the office from February 2021, managers have been flexible, allowing people to choose when they come in and do what they feel comfortable with.
While they won’t ask people to commit to particular days, leaders are encouraging teams to aim for coming into the office on the same day at least one day a week. Thursdays are turning out to be popular, with a really energetic vibe developing in the office on that day.
Khoi says “We won’t go full Twitter, we know that people still value aspects of face-to-face collaboration.”
Office culture has changed and will never be 100% onsite again at Oxfam. Knowing this has allowed the organisation to explore options for a smaller property, reducing overheads. Because there won't be a desk for every person, staff will no longer have allocated workstations, which will be new for many. Oxfam is leveraging the learnings of other organisations whose employees have been hot-desking for a while to make sure this is set up in the best possible way. For example, they will allocate a locker to every person to store their laptops and possessions overnight, and are investigating “micro-customisation” so that people can easily personalise their space and make it feel like theirs for the day.
Oxfam is lucky enough to be able to factor hybrid working into the design of their new space. This includes ensuring meeting rooms are equipped with the right technology and creating “neighbourhoods” where teams with similar functions or regular collaboration will be encouraged to sit together when they come into the office.
Team culture and ways of working
Most staff agree that some meetings and interactions are better in person and that some physical face-to-face time is better than none to connect and build relationships. To help with new ways of working, some teams have undertaken a “social contract” or refreshed an existing one. This helps to establish what to expect of each other and how to work together to continue to meet their goals in a hybrid working environment.
Facilitating hybrid meetings
One of the most challenging aspects of hybrid working for most organisations is how to make meetings truly equal for those working at home as for those in the office.
The first principle Oxfam is experimenting with is that if one person is remote, everything's remote. In practice, this means that meeting participants in the office are physically present in the same meeting room but still on Teams on their laptop, with cameras on so that everyone can see each other’s faces equally.
To address sound issues, each attendee in the office turns off their microphone and switches the audio in Teams to connect to one speaker and microphone unit, which they have put in meeting rooms.
Doing it this way means people can still thrive in the energy that being physically in the same room brings, whilst ensuring those at home feel equally included.
Challenges still to solve
There is still some work to do with home office ergonomics. Making sure people are set up well to work healthily at their desks long-term is a work in progress.
Advice for other not-for-profits who would like to implement hybrid working
- Provide people with the right tools. You need Office 365 or an equivalent suite of remotely accessible productivity software, and everyone needs a suitable device, ideally portable, and a headset.
- Trust that employees won’t slack off. Most people are more productive when they work at home.
- There still needs to be some physical face-to-face time, but encourage some of this to be unstructured time where people can chat and develop relationships without formal meetings.
- You can help people in small ways by understanding some of the barriers for individuals, for example many people working at home would rather not show their houses in the background, so provide customised backgrounds for them to use. That can help with privacy as well as a sense of fun.
See our guide on how to set up for success with hybrid working.