May 10, 2013

Moving to the Cloud: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I had decided in early 2011 that moving our small company from a physical office space to the cloud would be good for our business in a variety of ways: allow us to employ and contract with top-of-the-line workers and take advantage of cutting edge technologies for both internal and external communications and operations. And because I travel so much (my husband is a composer, so we’re always going hither and yon for performances, residencies, etc.) and had learned how to work efficiently from almost anywhere, it seemed like a smart move. Making the decision was fairly easy, the reasons straight-forward, but implementing it proved to be a combination of amazingly simple to disturbingly complex.

Let me share with you what I now refer to as the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Bad and the Ugly

One of tasks that I thought would be very difficult was to dismantle the office. Not just packing up and leaving, but deciding what went where. Where did the legal files go, who kept the accounting files, where should historic information about our Members and other clients be stored? Could people just walk out with equipment, or how did we log and track who had what? Somehow this sorted itself out quickly. Did we make any mistakes? Yes, we did. For example, the current accounting went with our new bookkeeper, but as time went on it was apparent that we also needed to reference the ‘historic’ accounting, which had gone into storage. This miscalculation caused us a number of headaches as well as expense as we tried to do our first year end taxes without easy access to previous years’ information. Big lesson learned. Keep all of your accounting together.

The Bad – that Wound Up OK

I also underestimated the amount of emotional distress this move would cause staff. Several staff adapted to the new regime so quickly it was impressive. Others couldn’t quite figure out how to work from home and tried to recreate an office structure (and that never worked). And yet others decided that working from home wasn’t their cup of tea, and left the company. It was a bit rocky those first few months for a number of staff, but I didn’t do much hand-holding. I expected them to deliver their work on deadline, adhering to the same high quality standards we always had. I actually think, in the long run, this was a good way to handle it.

There are new expenses incurred by creating a virtual office environment, as well as challenges on how transactions are processed, customer service is delivered, and work flow is expedited. Granted, there are also fewer expenses such as rent and office liability. Do they even out? Probably, as far as out of pocket expenses go.

The Good (or Fantastic, really):

But the real difference was the amount of work that was getting done. It was almost shocking how much faster we worked. Projects that would have taken weeks or months were taking days. This actually threw me off my own work schedule. I was no longer handing a project off to a staff person, and then able to turn my attention to something else for a few weeks. The project was back on my desk(top!) shortly thereafter.

Why? Because each staff person was now their own boss, in a real, physical sense. And somehow that allowed them to manage their time better. And, of course, instead of having a ‘meeting’ we were using G-Chat and had assignments divvied up, issues addressed, and decisions made within 10 or 15 minutes instead of two hours.

The Regrets:

If I could go back and change a few things I would definitely give more weight to training existing staff on how to embrace the technologies we adopted, and new employees on their job duties. There wasn’t an equitable training schedule implemented before we went remote, which resulted in some staff getting short changed when it came to how to use new systems and how to work from home. Once you close the physical office, and your staff is scattered from Spain to Oregon, Minnesota to Alaska, you find yourself answering “one off” questions, which can gobble a lot of time.

The Tools:

In order to successfully manage a virtual business and move our work into the “cloud,” we had to identify and adopt a number of new technologies. We settled on:

  • G-Mail/ G-Chat / Google docs
  • Logmein (for remote access to computers we moved out of the office that had historic information on them, and to allow for easy access to your desktop if you were traveling)
  • Skype (for meetings with staff, client calls)
  • Salesforce (to manage all of our Members and other clients)
  • QuickBooks OnLine
  • RingCentral (for the phone system)

In addition to these technologies to facilitate internal communications and mangement, we also use ReadyTalk, Survey Monkey, and Presentation PRO for external communications and customer services.

The most difficult tech decision was determining the right phone system. We analyzed a number of systems, and landed on RingCentral, which has worked well for us. It is an internet based system, and allows us to transfer calls between different geographic locations easily.

The backbone of our virtual office is Google Chat, which allows everyone to ‘come into the office’ when they log on in the mornings, provide everyone with custom messages on things like “Break” or “Lunch” or “Doctor’s appointment”. As CEO, I can talk with any of my staff at any time, and if the conversation needs to include other staff, you just invite them to the chat. It is that easy. The main problem we had harkens back to not training folks properly on how to use G-Chat, especially the importance of keeping G-Chat current. That has been the most difficult piece. Just getting people to always post their comings and goings!

And a word of caution: One shouldn’t underestimate the time to implement technologies such as Ring Central. There are so many variables in each person’s house with phone and internet connections that it takes time for even seasoned staff to determine how to make sure things are configured so that call quality is good.
The other time-consuming migration was from QuickBooks to QuickBooks Online. It caused a number of headaches, particularly at year end. So I strongly suggest if you are moving accounting technologies you give yourself plenty of lee way, and spend an inordinate amount of time checking and double checking how things are coded and logged.

The Outcome:

But after all is said and done, I have to say I am thrilled with the outcome. I enjoy working remotely, and I like to see my staff stretching themselves and learning to work both efficiently and effectively from wherever they are and in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. We are getting more done, we are better at what we do, and we have each come to recognize the importance of our individual contribution to our small company.

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Cynthia M. Adams
Cynthia Adams has been a fundraiser for over 40 years, mainly in Alaska, working directly for nonprofits and as a fundraising consultant. Her life’s work has been to help create opportunities for all nonprofit organizations to access the wealth of grant opportunities across the U.S. and throughout the world. GrantStation was conceived from this basic philosophy, and though it is a small company, Ms. Adams says it operates much more like a nonprofit organization, serving its thousands of Members with resources to help make their work easier.