By Kirk Jewell, Consulting Vice President
After more than a year of virtual fundraising “galas,” awkward Zoom homecoming reunions, and figuring out how to bring in money for the athletic program without any fans allowed at games, many advancement teams have started to take the first steps toward getting “back to normal.” Actually, a more accurate statement would be that many advancement teams are trying to figure out if “normal” even exists anymore. Work culture expert Brigid Schulte calls this a “very fragile gelatinous moment” for the future of work. “This really is a critical moment,” she says. “What comes in the next three to six months could be the start of defining what happens over the next ten or twenty years, or the next generation.”
Like it or Not, Remote Work is Likely Here to Stay
Whatever work looks like in the near future, one thing we can be pretty sure will be a part of the new normal is remote work. Pew Research reports that 54% of people who worked remotely during the pandemic (which includes most advancement professionals) would like to work remotely after it is over. Many other surveys put that percentage even higher, especially when the option of a home/office hybrid schedule (such as 2 days at home, 3 in the office) is thrown into the mix. In fact, the new national ad campaign of one of the top online job search companies features a woman, holding her child on her lap, beginning her job search by typing in the word “flexibility.” Like it or not, one thing is for sure: the pandemic changed remote work from pipe dream to deal-breaker for many professionals.
Like that job seeker in the TV commercial, for many current advancement team members, flexibility in workspace and work schedule will be a determining factor, maybe even the determining factor, as to whether they continue to work for your organization now that the pandemic is (hopefully) waning. Texas A&M associate professor of management Anthony Klotz recently made news with his Tweet that, “The great resignation is coming.” The hard truth is that if your advancement office won’t allow remote or hybrid work, you must understand that other employers likely will. Can you afford to lose top talent because you prefer that your grant writer types her proposals in her cubicle rather than on her back patio?
If the very thought of this gives you anxiety, you can take a deep breath and be encouraged by the fact that most advancement offices are more prepared for the changes in work culture than a lot of industries. The truth is that if your organization issues laptops and smartphones to your staff, then you have already communicated to them (knowingly or unknowingly) that remote work, in some form or fashion, is okay, and maybe even expected some of the time. Also, for years, most shops have had regional development officers who live far from headquarters or campus, raising support hundreds of miles away. They can be a great resource to help understand the advantages and disadvantages of this model. In addition, a large number of advancement teams have a history of utilizing remote data analysts, prospect researchers, graphic designers, etc. They too can give valuable perspectives on how this works (or doesn’t).
Consider Forming a Work-Model Task Force
If your advancement office is contemplating remote and/or hybrid work options on a long-term, post-COVID basis, leadership may be wise to form a task force to assist HR and leadership in managing the transition. Make sure IT is well represented, as they will be heavily impacted. This group can be tasked with drafting a policy that lays out which positions are eligible for remote work based on criteria such as job responsibilities, contact with the public, and equipment needs. They can also draft the remote/hybrid work agreement that employees would be required to sign that covers topics such as:
- Whether there are certain days and times during which the employee must be working
- Expectations of participation in virtual and (if applicable) in-person meetings/events
- Clearly defined metrics utilized for performance evaluation
- Dress code for virtual meetings
- Whether a designated workspace is required
- How remote employees are to handle IT issues
- How new employees, who are hired as remote workers, will be oriented and trained
- Whether employees in positions that are deemed remote-eligible are required to work remotely or can work onsite if they wish
- The process that must be followed to request permission to work remotely (or onsite)
A sticky issue that will certainly arise is whether there are legitimate reasons some team members can be denied the opportunity to work remotely even though they would prefer to do so and are in a position that is remote eligible. If the answer is yes, then it is incredibly important that the reasons this could happen and who makes the ultimate decision are discussed by the task force, HR, and leadership, thoroughly vetted by the legal team, clearly documented, communicated with great transparency to the staff, and then applied consistently in all situations.
Justified reasons employees could be prevented from working remotely may include how long the employee has been with the organization, how long they have been in their position, and if their past performance (as thoroughly documented in official supervisor evaluations) has resulted in their being on a prescribed performance improvement plan. This may result in some difficult decisions being made. After all, if you have team members who you know are not self-motivated, don’t manage their time well, and need constant oversight, the best question to ask may not be, “Can I trust this person to work remotely?” but rather “Why does this person still work here?” The task force can be an invaluable resource to HR and leadership in asking and answering the myriad of vexing questions advancement offices are currently facing.
Be Aware (and Beware) of Face Time Bias
If, after gathering information and feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders, your advancement office chooses to allow remote and/or hybrid work arrangements, it is imperative that you be aware of the danger of “face time bias,” which is the assumption that the people who come into the office are more dedicated and hardworking than those working remotely. Journalist Joanne Lipman wrote recently in Time Magazine of her fear that, “office culture could devolve into a class system, with on-site employees favored over remote workers.” If remote teammates are continually passed over for raises and promotions in favor of those who work in the office, not only does this show a lack of integrity on part of leadership but it will also result in your organization losing these valuable team members when they leave for employers that truly value their contributions.
Can You Schedule Serendipity and Friendship?
In addition to being intentional about avoiding face time bias, advancement offices will also want to find ways to generate the ideas that used to come from serendipitous encounters around the office. After hours or days of trying to figure out a novel solution to a problem, sometimes what finally flips on the light bulb of inspiration is a cross-departmental chat between two coworkers while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. These moments can still happen in a hybrid work schedule, but it’s challenging to find them in fully remote work environments. Scheduled virtual brainstorming sessions can pay dividends, but it’s hard to plan in advance when lightning will strike.
Yet one more wrinkle in the fabric of the remote work conversation is that there may actually be a reverse “great resignation” coming after workplaces go remote or hybrid. While those who want to work remotely are getting all the press right now, there are still a lot of workers who enjoy their jobs mostly because of the in-person office culture and comradery they’ve experienced for years. Are the wishes of those who want to work remotely of more value than the wishes of those who want the Halloween parties, March Madness bracket challenges, and Thirsty Thursday happy hours after work? How long will these employees be willing to show up to work everyday in a nearly empty building? Will advancement offices end up losing these teammates to employers that resisted the push to go remote? Are you darned if you do (go remote) and darned if you don’t? Would a well-designed hybrid model be a compromise that keeps both sides happy enough to stay?
It also bears considering that, while it may have been possible for your staff to keep up their connections with each other during the pandemic (even without running into each other at the copy machine), most of those relationships were built before COVID, when they worked together in-person. If advancement offices embrace remote/hybrid work arrangements, they must be intentional about how they are going to foster relationships between teammates who are new to the organization and have not had the advantage of years to build friendships through chats in the breakroom and office holiday parties. Periodic in-person retreats or teambuilding days may be able to help remote coworkers bond. Thought also needs to be given to mentorship. How will mentor-mentee relationships be set up in remote/hybrid work models?
One idea that is gaining steam among some companies that have switched to a hybrid or mostly remote work model is changing how office space is utilized rather than getting rid of it altogether or just letting offices and cubicles sit empty. If team members (some or all) are doing their individual work at home, then the role that must be played by the office changes to that of a communal, collaborative space meant for group projects, brainstorming, and teambuilding. Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics predicts that, “Instead of offices that have typically had 80 percent personal space and 20 percent shared space, 80 percent of the space going forward will be collaborative, while only 20 percent will be earmarked for people’s own use.” Ali Rayl, VP for Customer Experience at Slack, explains, “We’re starting to think about the office as a tool in our toolkit for getting certain kinds of work done. Folks come into the office a couple times a week. They have plans with colleagues to get together and brainstorm and plan collaboration in person.”
No Matter What, Frontline Fundraising Will Still Require the Personal Touch
Fundraising is inherently relational. While some individual donors may have found that virtual visits work best for them, many donors will certainly still want in-person interaction, whether meeting at their favorite restaurant for dinner and drinks, visiting campus to watch the football game in the advancement office’s luxury suite, or playing a round at the annual alumni golf scramble. Likewise, some corporations and foundations may decide that virtual meetings with grantees are a good way to save time and money, but many will still value their opportunities to visit your institution and your willingness to visit theirs.
Although some long-distance trips may end up being replaced by virtual meetings, the major gift officers on advancement teams will likely see the least amount of difference in the work model of all departments because their work had a significant remote component before anyone had ever heard of COVID. After all, most advancement leaders don’t want their DO’s spending too much time in the office anyway, but rather to be out meeting with donors and prospects. The main question for DO’s in regard to the remote/hybrid work conversation is whether they will still be expected to work from the office on days when they don’t have visits and to show up physically in the conference room for regular development updates and strategy meetings.
Whatever We Decide, We Must Stay Mission Focused and Donor Centered
As everyone tries to navigate this “very fragile gelatinous moment,” those in the advancement profession, especially those in positions of leadership, must remember that being mission-focused and donor-centered is far more important than being either trendy or traditional. Advancement teams exist to support and grow the impact and reach of their respective institutions through inviting others to partner with them in striving to achieve the mission of the university, hospital, or nonprofit that they serve. Can your advancement team pursue its mission in donor-centered ways through a remote or hybrid work model? Each organization will need to decide that for itself. If the answer is no, then the decision is easy; don’t do it. But if the answer is at least a qualified yes, all advancement leaders should be willing to genuinely listen to what their teams are asking for and, with open minds and open hearts, do their best to devise workplace and work schedule models that set up their advancement offices to be even more successful after the pandemic than they were before.
All my best,
Consulting Vice President