ACE considers healthy organizational culture to be a critical aspect of successful and effective charities. When we evaluate charities each year, this consideration informs our assessment of whether a charity has a healthy culture and a sustainable structure. In the past, we have written about the importance of healthy organizational culture and our methods for identifying charities with healthy cultures; we also posted a roundtable with advice for promoting healthy cultures.
In this part of the series, we ask advocates and experts at partially and fully distributed organizations to discuss the pros and cons of remote work and to offer their advice for fostering engagement among remote team members.
The following people contributed to this post:
- Stephanie Frankle, Culture and Engagement Specialist at The Humane League
- Julia Wise, Community Liaison at Centre for Effective Altruism
- Antonia Vitale, International Director of Operations at Animal Equality
- Baxter Bullock, Executive Director at Rethink Charity
- Leah Edgerton, Executive Director at Animal Charity Evaluators (previously Strategy and Internationalization Manager at ProVeg International)
We think that each of our contributors brings a unique perspective to the topic of remote organizational culture. For example, Frankle has been part of The Humane League (THL) for five and a half years and has supported and maintained THL’s fully-remote culture as they have grown in size from a staff of ten to about one hundred. Wise’s work is informed by her background in social work; she is now part of a small remote Community Health team as a point person for the effective altruism (EA) community where she helps local and online groups support their members. Vitale supports employees and coordinates culture across Animal Equality’s unique organizational structure with networked offices and several remote employees in seven countries. Bullock directs Rethink Charity’s fully-remote team based in Vancouver; he has also managed his team while working remotely from Colombia. Finally, ACE’s own Executive Director Leah Edgerton shares her perspective from working at ProVeg where she ran a partially-remote team from the Berlin office, as well as her current experience managing ACE’s entirely remote team.
Please feel free to discuss our contributors’ thoughts—and to share your own—in the comments!
Culture and Engagement Specialist, The Humane League
Stephanie Frankle is the Culture and Engagement Specialist of The Humane League. Frankle has been at The Humane League for five and a half years now and has helped THL’s culture adjust to the growth of their fully-remote team from ten to almost one hundred staff members. She started in direct outreach doing grassroots organizing for two and a half years before she began overseeing THL’s campus outreach program. She then created her new role of Culture and Engagement Specialist by proposing it to her manager and writing her own job description.
Create opportunities for engagement among team members
We carve out space for and encourage people to utilize opportunities for non-work related engagement with their coworkers. We started having optional all-staff icebreakers 15 minutes before our monthly all-staff call starts. We do that on a smaller scale during every team meeting; just starting the call by engaging with each other and chatting about peoples’ lives outside of work.
We also have an initiative called “TeaHL Time,” like tea time. That’s a standing call we offer three times a week where you don’t have to RSVP ahead of time; you can just jump on and it’s an open space for people to come and chat about whatever is going on in their lives. We also have a just-for-fun Slack channel, a self-care Slack channel, and other channels that are meant for people to share things like a cute cat video, an awesome article they just read, or a podcast recommendation—different stuff that would naturally occur in an office.
Plan bonding activities during retreats
When we are all together in person, that gives us a much better sense of our progress. We just had our all-staff retreat, and we offered different optional activities every night so we could see if people want to hang out and get to know each other. About a third of staff were “culture ambassadors”—people who help organize optional activities like runs or hikes in the morning. They also serve as point people to answer questions from other staff and to keep an eye out for new staff who might not know where to sit at lunch, that sort of thing. To me, these are all signs of a healthy culture—people wanting to contribute, stepping up, doing all these optional initiatives to foster connections that aren’t part of their jobs.
Flexibility, autonomy, and spaces for interaction are key
The main benefits of working remotely, for me, are flexibility and autonomy. If you need to take an hour to go to therapy, or you’re feeling really unproductive one afternoon and you just need to take a nap, go for a walk, or disengage, it’s really easy to do that. Having that kind of flexibility built in also gives people a chance to spend more time with their companion animals and their families. I find I have a lot more energy to go out and be social after work because I’m home alone all day. I think it’s empowering to feel trusted that no one’s looking over my shoulder. I can schedule my own time and get my work done. Obviously, saving time on commuting is a big benefit too.
That being said, working remotely across a bunch of countries with a lot of time zone changes can be challenging, especially for scheduling. It can be difficult to give everyone the feeling of being in the same room. Another challenge is not having natural interactions. We have to spend more effort to prioritize creating spaces for people to get to know each other and build that trust among all of us. Isolation and loneliness can also be a challenge for people, especially people who are not in a city with other Humane League staff or people who don’t feel as much connection and sense of community.
Promote a culture of care
Putting our staff’s well-being first is the most important thing that we can do because we want people who are in it for the long haul—we don’t want to just burn through activists. Our leadership really prioritize that. One reason for our good reputation is our ability to get the job done while also having a lot of fun together. Even though our mission is very focused on helping animals, we are a supportive people-first organization. We care about each other and about the organization; I think that our culture of care is really the heart of it.
Community Liaison, Centre for Effective Altruism
Julia Wise is the Community Liaison at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) and works remotely from Boston, Massachusetts. Julia is also the President of Giving What We Can and the author of the blog Giving Gladly. Wise’s training is in sociology and social work, and she previously spent three years as a mental health worker.
In-person retreats help build meaningful and strong connections
Retreats are an important opportunity for remote teams to sync up with each other in a way that doesn’t really happen over calls. At CEA, we have retreats three or four times a year. We’ve experimented with different balances of project focus time, strategy focus time, and social time. On these retreats, we try to have four or five days of work meetings with breaks scheduled in for self-guided time where you’re free to catch up on email, call home, or anything else. We take one full afternoon for going out and doing something together. During the evenings, we usually do something together like walk around the city or have dinner out. Retreats certainly can be costly, and it is leadership’s decision as far as how much to budget, but I think it’s been important to plan retreats into the budget. They allow teams to get a chance to sync up with each other in a way that doesn’t really happen over calls.
Manage time zones and isolation, find sources of motivation, and take advantage of temporal and geographic flexibility
The timezone spread is a big challenge in terms of both scheduling meetings and getting people to answer in a timely manner. I think feeling motivated while working remotely can also be challenging. My husband, for example, knows that remote work is not for him. He’s done brief periods of it, but he hates it. He feels deeply motivated by being around other people who are working on something related, even if it’s not the exact same thing, whereas it’s fine for me as long as I feel in the loop.
As for the benefits of remote work, it’s nice to have the flexibility to go out and water the garden as a break between work tasks. As a parent of young children, I found it great to be able to walk upstairs and visit them any time I want. Another benefit is the ability to hire staff who wouldn’t necessarily move to a central location. Speaking for CEA, we want to be in touch with a whole community, one that branches out beyond the bounds of a single city, so it’s helpful that we have staff in many different places so we can be in closer contact with the communities there.
International Director of Operations at Animal Equality
Antonia Vitale is the International Director of Operations of Animal Equality. Previously, Vitale worked in marketing and advertising as the Head of Employee Experience at Archrival, before which she was the Head of People and Culture at Wolff Olins.
Foster engagement during video calls and in-person visits
In the U.S., we’re about to launch a bi-monthly video conference we’re calling “watercooler chats,” which is an open forum where anyone can hop into a video conference room and chat with one another about whatever they’d like. This ensures that remote staff have that same time and ability to connect. To foster connection among all of our offices around the world, we have all-staff calls once per quarter and an annual in-person staff retreat. These times make it possible for us to showcase our shared values and communicate them to staff. We also have team office meetings, usually once a week to once a month. In the U.S., where half of our staff is remote, everyone joins that meeting via Zoom. We also have a staff newsletter that features one employee Q&A monthly.
Take advantage of the remote talent pool and in-person connections
For us, the biggest pro of remote working is that it allows us to expand our talent pool and hire the best people for the job, no matter where they are located geographically. Personally, I find that I am way more efficient working from home because I don’t have any of the distractions that I have in the office.
There are a lot of costs involved in maintaining an office. Sometimes I wonder how we can justify spending money on an office, but then when I’m there, I see people working together or having lunch together, and I get it. I think that working in an office alongside one another really does foster a connection that’s harder to achieve remotely. Working in the same physical space makes it easier to clear up any miscommunications, and I also think that people can peripherally pick up information that they wouldn’t otherwise pick up. You might overhear people talking about something and be able to contribute to that conversation. That just doesn’t happen when you work remotely.
In my specific position, it’s so important that employees know and trust me. Going to the office and working alongside employees is when the magic happens—it allows employees to put a face to the name. Once I’ve made that connection with employees, they are so much more likely to reach out and come to me than they would be if they hadn’t met me in person.
Executive Director of Operations, Rethink Charity
Baxter Bullock is the Executive Director of Rethink Charity, where the entire team is fully remote. He is the Co-Founder of RC Forward and Students for High Impact Charity. Before working at Rethink Charity, Baxter served as the Programs Director for the Charity Science Foundation. He was also a high school math teacher for four years.
Experiment to find what works best for you
A benefit of working remotely is being able to tailor your work environment to what suits you best. If you want to work in sweatpants, if you want to work at a cafe and be around people, or if you’d rather not be around people, then you can make this decision when you work remotely. There’s no right way to work remotely; there’s just what works for each individual person.
One challenge I’ve faced is having to go out of my way to create systems by which people can have constant interactions that would come far more organically if we were all in the same office. For example, we’ve had to create social channels that are not work-related. We encourage frivolity, social interactions, and less severe, more fun work-related interactions.
Another con is time zone issues. Currently, we have an employee in New Zealand, employees in North America, and employees in Europe, so we only have one time that works for everyone to meet simultaneously. Anything to the left or right of that just wouldn’t work, so we’ve had some issues there.
Obviously, I would love to have retreats and do team-building stuff. We’ll actually get closer to that than we ever have at EA Global next month, where about 75% of the team will be attending.1 We’re also doing an entire day-long retreat before the conference, and we’ll have dinner and some team-building exercises, like a ropes course, or an escape room, or something along those lines. We’ll be making up for lost time and not being able to do that more regularly.
What works for some doesn’t work for all
I’ve had some mental health struggles as a result of remote working; it’s been a learning process for me individually and as a manager of an organization. We shouldn’t ignore the cons simply because the pros are really good. Even in the past few months, I’ve made changes that have brought me closer to my optimal experience. Obviously, what works for most people won’t work for all people, but at least there are some guidelines. For example, if you don’t have that separation between your personal and professional life, spend four hours a day at a cafe or join a coworking space. Helping people recognize the options available to them can be helpful. I think remote working has the flexibility to work for everyone, but not enough people know how to do it right.
Executive Director, Animal Charity Evaluators (previously Strategy and Internationalization Manager, ProVeg International)
Leah Edgerton has been the Executive Director of Animal Charity Evaluators since February of 2019. Before entering this role, Edgerton was the Strategy and Internationalization Manager at ProVeg International, where she developed and managed ProVeg’s China Program. Previously, from 2015–2017, Edgerton was part of ACE’s communications team—first as a Communications Intern and then as Digital Media Manager.
Plan activities outside of work to foster engagement
At both ACE and ProVeg, we have some activities unrelated to work that are arranged outside of work hours. For instance, people may get together to talk about sports or fitness training, language-learning hobbies, favorite board games, or recipes. At ACE, we have it online on Slack whereas at ProVeg, we sometimes had it in-person. For instance, there was a running group and another group that met to exchange homemade spreads.
Both ACE and ProVeg have deliberate, in-person meetings twice a year. At ACE those are the bi-annual retreats. At ProVeg, we had a summer party and a holiday party, which brought all the international employees together. I think those are really nice times to have some structured work-related discussions, like bigger picture strategic discussions. It also allows different departments to facilitate in-person meetings that are the most important for growing group engagement. On top of that, we make sure to leave a lot of time unstructured for people to connect on a more personal level. It’s important to make sure that whatever activities are planned are respectful of people’s different preferences as to how much separation they want to have between their work and personal lives.
Take advantage of the unique value of in-person retreats
Retreats are an important aspect of remote teams. From what I’ve heard from my team at ACE and from what I’ve heard from the internationally dispersed employees at ProVeg, their feelings of connectedness and their employee satisfaction are at their very highest immediately after a retreat. These are very important occasions for us to get together and see each other as whole people rather than just faces on a screen, to boost team morale, and to encourage more serendipitous creative encounters.
Make space for casual communication
One challenge of remote work is maintaining very deliberate pathways of communication since you can’t have casual exchanges in person. That requires better project management and a better internal communication system. We have all-staff meetings where we discuss what projects we’re working on so that everybody has a weekly snapshot of what’s going on. Another thing that can sometimes be difficult to pull off in a remote team is creating space for casual encounters that lead to serendipitous creative ideas. At ACE, we try to create some of those situations deliberately, such as starting department meetings with ice-breaker questions, our weekly “happy hours” where staff can chat about whatever they want, and our monthly Codenames (an interactive board game) game meeting. Obviously, the retreats are an important place for that type of connection to take place as well.
Another challenge of remote teams is that things can be easily misinterpreted in written online communication. So we place extra emphasis on making sure that our communication is deliberately respectful and less prone to misinterpretation as it might otherwise be.
Remote work can lead to a more equitable and inclusive workplace
In terms of benefits, remote organizations tend to have lower operating costs, especially saving on renting or leasing office space. Working remotely can also be much less distracting than working in an office space where there are lots of sources of potential interruptions and disruptions. This aspect of remote work offers better opportunities for uninterrupted deep work.
Remote teams also offer a huge advantage in that the geographical area you can hire from is massively increased. A lot of people have constraints on geographical location because of where their partner works, where their family lives, or where they’d simply prefer to live. So with a remote team, there’s a much wider net in terms of who can apply for our jobs.
That also applies to people’s differing needs. People who have different physical or mental abilities or who have dependents at home who require care might be able to succeed better working remotely, rather than in an office. It allows us to be a bit more flexible and offer the possibility for people to fit this job into their lives however they see fit. In this way, I think remote working can lead to a more equitable and inclusive workplace.