Navigating a New Virtual World

Navigating a New Virtual World

Women Working on a Laptop
Erin Thomas

Due to sudden unforeseen circumstances, virtual offices have quickly become the new norm. The current pandemic has caused us to rethink how we work and communicate, and organizations are navigating similar challenges around this. These challenges include how to continue serving grantees, partners and beneficiaries while transitioning organizational operations to virtual systems, all in a way that is efficient and supportive of employees. This transition can be overwhelming if done all at once. Luckily, there are many resources and tools we can use to make this process a little less daunting.

Over the past few years, Philanthropy Northwest has been testing different platforms and building infrastructure to support more and more virtual work. While we don’t yet have it completely figured out, we have learned some valuable tips and opportunities that may help you navigate this new era. 

Develop a Policy

If you don’t have an existing policy for remote work, now is the time to create one. A good policy will provide structure for your organization and your employees around this new way of working, and it will allow for iteration as your organization evolves. Clarity is key when socializing a new method of operating, but it’s also important to have a willingness to experiment and evaluate. Remember, policies aren’t meant to replace good judgment and discernment, rather, they should provide clear enough guidance so that people can use their own best judgment and discernment. Don’t be afraid to get something on paper now and live into it for three to six months before evaluating its success.

"Remember, policies aren’t meant to replace good judgment and discernment, rather, they should provide clear enough guidance so that people can use their own best judgment and discernment."

Some big questions to ask when developing a policy that fits the unique qualities of your organization may be:

  • What are your biggest fears about moving to a virtual workplace?
  • What does virtual work make possible for your organization?
  • What is most important about your organizational culture?
  • Do you currently have infrastructure in place to support remote work? If not, what might you need to invest in?

Answering these questions will help you build effective strategies and show you how to socialize them in your organization.

Communication and Collaboration

Good and effective communication is critical in a virtual environment. Developing ground rules and setting clear expectations with your team is a good idea (and it builds buy-in early on) on how and when the team should communicate. For example, have clear guidelines on what communication channels should be used for specific activities, i.e., when to email, send a group chat or have a video call.

At Philanthropy Northwest, some of our guidelines include:

  • If you need feedback from all staff, you should send an email.
  • If you’re giving someone constructive feedback, you should have a video call.
  • If you’re asking a quick question about a project, you should use the chat function.

Additionally, you might consider guidance around the language people use in their communications to convey their needs, such as if an action is required or if it’s just an FYI. It’s easy to misinterpret written communication, especially when people have different communication styles. Consider practices that mitigate this by prefacing communication, such as:

  • “I received your email and need a little time to think through this. I’ll get back to you in a day or so.”
  • “I’m in a hurry now so I can’t fully answer, but here’s my quick thinking…”
  • “I would prefer to talk through this via video chat. Can we get a time on the calendar later today or tomorrow?”

This may sound meticulous, but in my experience, this clarity and guidance goes a long way to alleviate potential miscommunications, frustration and blockages. Also, there’s already a large amount of ambiguity in our work addressing and treating social and environmental issues, so if we can cut out unnecessary ambiguity for our employees – I’m all in.

Lastly, and most importantly, remind yourself and your staff that there’s another human on the receiving end of all communications, and this human has filters, feelings and emotions. Digital communication gone rogue can lead to unproductive and toxic conflict in the workplace. Using organizational guidance, and individual judgment and discernment regarding when you should use a video chat for a conversation, or when to include some contextual language in your email is essential.

If not managed well, working virtually can negatively impact collaboration. At Philanthropy Northwest, we’re finding that we’re collaborating now more than ever since we can’t rely on simply walking into each other’s office or running into someone in the hallway. A few ways we’re doing this is by:

  • Conducting brief project-specific stand-ups, sometimes using SCRUM methodology, to identify work that is or isn’t getting done, challenges or barriers that in the way, and solutions and next steps.
  • Identifying cross-enterprise task forces to work on enterprise initiatives or special projects.
  • Using various enterprise-wide technical platforms to collaborate.
  • Building-in processes for collaboration during project, team and enterprise meetings.

Digital Systems and Tools

Choosing the right digital platforms and tools that meet the needs of your work is essential. The marketplace is saturated with products for everything, and many are tried-and-true for various sizes and types of business. Below are four major classifications of tools you might consider.

1. Virtual meeting platforms
Meetings done well can lead to productivity, engagement and motivation, therefore having a remote platform that allows everyone to video in is critical. We use Ring Central, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, depending on the meeting and the needs. We have also started teaching our employees effective virtual meeting etiquette, such as: using headphones; muting when not speaking; using helpful body language to signal to the facilitator and to each other (like thumbs up or down); using the chat feature (and having a co-facilitator monitor this for questions and comments); and using the breakout chat rooms for small group dialogue. We also take some time during enterprise-wide meetings to connect and have fun with icebreakers and appreciations.


2. Chat tools
These can be used for instant chatting for project-based communication or lighthearted “water cooler” communications. We use Microsoft Teams, which allows us to have various channels to categorize our communication, such as Attendance, General, Covid-19 Response, Non-work chatter, etc. We also use the direct message function and the video call function.

3. Collaboration platforms
These platforms can support collaboration by showing work in progress. Some of our teams use Asana, Trello and Slack to manage project pipelines, workflows, progress reports and related communications.

4. Documentation tools
These are tools that allow you to document important information like HR policies and personnel documentation, such as Zenefits; employee and contractor timekeeping, such as Pay Northwest, ADP and 10,000 Feet; customer intelligence and management, such as Salesforce; knowledge management, such as Microsoft SharePoint and collaboration with external stakeholders, such as Google Docs.

Picking the platforms that work best for your organization is just as important as socializing them so that staff engages with them. You can do this by hosting trainings, Q&A sessions, creating user manuals, identifying superuser groups and more.

Organizational Culture

Just because your organization is virtual does not mean your organizational culture will erode. The key to sustaining the culture you desire is intention. With intention, you can create and sustain your culture – and maybe even create a better one. We have four cultural aspirations here at Philanthropy Northwest: Learning, Performance, DEI and Fun/Joy. Sustaining these cultural aspirations requires consistent work and evaluation, which can surely be done via remote structures and activities. To this end, here are some ways we’re supporting our culture with remote activities:

  • Enterprise-wide virtual learning opportunities (Learning)
  • Virtual lunch hangouts, competitions and other fun activities (Fun/Joy)
  • Posting prompts on the group chat to spur water cooler conversations (with liberal usage of gifs and emojis, of course) (Fun/Joy)
  • Arranging video meetings whenever possible (Performance)
  • Asking for feedback often and with authentic curiosity (Learning/DEI/Performance)
  • Having an interconnected and functioning ecosystem of communication platforms and behaviors (All)

Looking to the Future

The current state of the world is uncertain, and I think we can all agree that this is a scary time. People are dealing with the loss of lives, jobs, income, businesses, retirement savings and the list goes on. In the short term, we’re all just doing our best to stay healthy, care for our kids, keep the lights on and the bills paid in our organizations and support our communities who are most vulnerable. While we don’t yet know how this all will impact us in the long run, and we’re still in response mode, we also might start imagining what we’re currently learning and how leveraging this learning may make the future brighter. Let’s ask ourselves: how can our current situation change us and our organizations for the better?

If you have ideas on how we can leverage our learning into the future or tips and advice for the network, please share!