Working from home as part of a global, distributed team

Lessons from the charity Animals Asia

 

Animals Asia campaigns for an end to animal cruelty. Based in Hong Kong,

the charity has offices in several other countries, as well as remote staff

in the US, Europe and beyond.

We talked with Bianca Fischer, the charity’s Global Director of Fundraising,

about working from home while also managing a global, distributed team.

Hi Bianca. Do you work remotely yourself? Are your colleagues mainly remote, office-based, or a mix?

I’m 100% remote, working from an office in my garden, although I travel to Asia twice a year to meet with the programme teams and management at our headquarters in Hong Kong. 

Our organisation has a really good mix of remote and office-based staff. We have small offices globally, but around 55% of our Fundraising and Communications teams are home-based. I look after six different country markets and five specialist fundraising teams — including our communications, marketing and database teams, many of whom work from home.

Bianca Fischer

Global Director of Fundraising, Animals Asia

What’s your work set-up like? Do you prefer to work from home, a coworking space or a coffee shop? Do you ever work in your organisation’s main office?

I love working from home, as I find that I’m busier and more productive. And let’s not forget — no dreadful commute!  I also visit our headquarters twice yearly. There is always space for me to sit down and be a part of the team while I’m there, and it’s great to be able to connect with colleagues in person.

When you applied for your current role, was being able to work remotely a key factor?

This role was originally office-based, located in Hong Kong. However, due to personal circumstances, when I moved back to the UK it became a home-based role.

Is this the first remote job you’ve had? If so, how did you find the transition to remote working? Did anything help to make this easier for you?

I had worked part-time from home before, but it’s different being based at home full time. You have to work harder at maintaining relationships — I find myself on Skype around seven hours a day at times! Your team can’t just knock on your office door, but they can drop in on Skype, and that is what I encourage them to do. So I actually find myself speaking to more people than I would in an office situation.  

You have to be someone who can manage yourself and be driven by the role or a cause, not by having a manager standing over you. There is also a strong element of trust when you manage remote teams. Having a morning routine and clear boundaries about when work ends and home life begins is also key, or you find work spilling over into your personal time, and your work-life balance goes out the window!

What do you think are the positives and negatives of working remotely, and with remote colleagues?

The positives are that you really hone your ability to make the most of tools such as Skype, and you become really good at reading people’s voices not body language. You also get to maximise your work day — I find I do less water-cooler talk, and more business. You are also less involved in any office gossip and negativity, as you are detached from it. And the lack of commute is also a definite plus!

Negatives could be the need to be clear where work stops and home begins. When you can see your laptop nearby, there can be a temptation to constantly jump into your emails. So, setting boundaries for yourself is key. You also have to be more aware of your email style, as people can’t balance that with meeting you in person. I can’t say it ever gets lonely — I wish I could sometimes! — but we have such a thriving Skype culture that it’s never not ringing. 

Working remotely means you get to maximise your work day — I find I do less water-cooler talk, and more business. The lack of commute is also a definite plus!

What sort of impact has working remotely had on your career, and on your work-life balance?

I’d say that working from home has not really had an impact on my career either way. Although, I do think you have to work much harder at keeping and growing your networks — if you put effort into that, there won’t be a negative impact on your career from working this way.

I do have a good work-life balance — but I don’t necessarily put that down to home working, it’s something that has always been important to me. In order to give 100% to the place I work, I need to be functioning at 100%, and I can’t do that without a little down-time.

How does your remote team organise itself — how do you stay in touch and on the same page? 

We use tools like Skype for day-to-day catch-ups, and we also use Webex for larger team meetings. Visibility is key, so all our work, plans, processes etc are all on a central drive for everyone to see. That way, we can dip in anytime to see what someone is working on or what’s happening in the next quarter.

We have monthly team calls, and alongside this we also have additional reporting meetings. I have one-to-one catch-ups each month with my direct reports. I also encourage an open door policy, so people can drop in (virtually!) if they need anything, as this avoids people being left out of the loop. Lastly, we have annual planning meetings, where we come together to plan the year ahead; these are essential for morale, planning and understanding where we are heading!

If most of your team works remotely, has building trust been an issue? How have you and your team overcome this?

It’s definitely harder to build and maintain relationships, compared with being in an office and seeing someone every day. We have overcome this by scheduling regular catch-ups, and having a drop-in culture on Skype — and I have found that putting your camera on when talking to people really helps!

How do you and your colleagues handle setting goals, managing hours, and staying on track?

We are very structured in our way of working in terms of understanding our goals and activity. We have a strategy, and coming from that is a yearly work plan, which outlines who is doing what and when. That way, no matter where you are based, you have an overview of what’s going on in other teams, and globally. These plans are then talked through globally each quarter and individually each month to ensure we are staying on track

I do find myself ‘softening’ the way I write my emails. Because so much communication is done this way, and you don’t have the face-to-face context to balance out the overall tone, a softer approach is key to avoiding misunderstanding or giving offence. 

How have you adapted your management style, to manage other remote team members? 

You have to make yourself more available than you would in an office. In an office you could close your door and people would know not to disturb you, but when you are working remotely that’s harder. So, as a manager, I find myself on Skype a few hours each day. But that’s what builds the relationships, and so I would not have it any other way.

I do find myself ‘softening’ the way I write my emails. Because so much communication is done this way, and you don’t have the face-to-face context to balance out the overall tone, a softer approach is key to avoiding misunderstanding or giving offence.

Building a distributed organisation

Why did Animals Asia decide to embrace remote working?

We realised quickly that forcing people to be in an office or a particular location was narrowing our ability to find top talent. We decided to open most of our roles up to being home-based so we could attract a wider group of skilled applicants. With today’s tools and technology, there is no reason for most workers to be office based.  

If there are roles that are not remote — which are the roles that you think are hardest to carry out remotely, and why?

I’d say admin roles are harder. Although we can do these remotely, setting up a full admin operation from home is trickier, due to the volume of equipment and resources that are needed for the role.

[Working remotely] can only benefit the charity sector, as there are talented people who are not based in hubs like London. Opening up to home-based working would allow that talent to be drawn into the sector.

 

We realised quickly that forcing people to be in an office or a particular location was narrowing our ability to find top talent. We decided to open most of our roles up to being home-based so we could attract a wider group of skilled applicants. With today’s tools and technology, there is no reason for most workers to be office based.

What happens when you hit a snag? What are the most challenging things to handle remotely?

The most challenging thing is when you are dealing with a large issue or disagreement, that’s when getting around a table for a few hours would do the trick. We always find solutions, such as getting together for a remote meeting — that way, things can still be resolved, but there is just a level of difficulty that comes with not being able to get together in person.

In your opinion, does working from home offer any particular benefits — or raise any particular problems — for the charity and non-profit sector?

It can only benefit the sector, as there are talented people who are not based in hubs like London. Opening up to home-based working would allow that talent to be drawn into the sector.

Thank you to Bianca Fischer, Global Director of Fundraising. Find out more about the work of Animals Asia here, and see current remote vacancies here.

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