The Future of the Nonprofit Office: Working from Home v2.0

Submitted by Brett on Tue, 10/05/2010 - 8:57am

By Grant Howe, VP Research and Development, Sage Nonprofit Solutions

What will the nonprofit office of the future look like? Probably like your own home. Corporations and nonprofits alike are rapidly embracing the practice of letting employees work remotely. Many organizations are enjoying lower overhead, higher productivity, and happier employees by providing the option to work from home (WFH).

That said, the transformation to an office-less society is not complete. We have challenges to overcome, including interpersonal and management issues around working remotely. There are also cultural, social, and interpersonal challenges that will go along with this transition.

Let's take a look at where the technology to make this all happen is going -- and where it's coming up short. 

Have you hugged your servers lately?

Love your in-house servers today, because there's a good chance they won't exist in the workplace of tomorrow. If you don't have an office, you won't have a closet to stick the servers in. It also doesn't make sense to maintain an expensive network and infrastructure when you have no (or few) on-premise employees.

A growing trend among organizations is to get out of the business of owning servers entirely. Instead, they're either renting them from a managed service provider or moving to Software as a Service (SaaS) for common applications.

Another emerging trend is cloud-based computing, which enables organizations to pay only for processor cycles, memory, and storage as it's used. In this model, your organization will have no idea where the hardware actually providing your services is located -- and, better yet, you won't care.

Look for Amazon, Rackspace, Google, and Microsoft to continue spending a lot of time and effort in this area, liberating us from our hardware prisons. 

Look what I can do with my phone!

Advances in mobile technology are significantly changing how we live and work. The average smartphone outperforms the laptop computer of the previous decade. Emerging tablet computing devices, such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy, promise the benefit of mobile access with a larger form factor than a phone screen, making it much easier to do work in the field.

It's true: the employees of tomorrow may not have laptops or PCs. The new realm of net-enabled personal communications devices will cut down on the need for many employees to have an expensive-to-maintain PC or laptop. We'll expect to use our iPhones to transact business from our living rooms.

Organizations will upgrade and switch to product versions/services that allow for seamless mobile access. The switch is almost complete for email, and is underway for most enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) systems. 

We Need to Have a Meeting!

All functional and productive organizations share certain characteristics. The people in these organizations know how to communicate and collaborate, and much of this interaction is conducted face-to-face. How will we maintain this success when we're no longer sitting in the same place?

High-bandwidth availability is already crossing this chasm and beginning to provide rich communication mediums. Here are a few examples:

  • The "FaceTime" feature of the new iPhone 4.0 represents a significant leap in interpersonal communications. FaceTime allows two iPhone -- and soon, next-generation iPad and iPod Touch -- users to have a streaming video and audio conversation while both are connected to a wireless network. (FYI: it doesn't work over 3G.)
  • Applications that allow the sharing of whiteboards and presentations are already available. Look for mobile providers to combine these ideas to enable a virtual meeting environment with video, audio, whiteboard, and presentations from multiple attendees. All of this will be done on your mobile Internet appliance from Starbuck's or Panera Bread.
  • Through their use of "Second Life," TechSoup has been at the forefront of virtual meeting and collaboration environments for several years. Second Life is an online, virtual world where you can customize your online personality (i.e. avatar), interact with others, and even conduct business transactions. TechSoup utilizes the Second Life environment for meetings and has created the Non-Profit Commons area for use by all nonprofits. Streaming audio/video and PowerPoint presentations can even be shown in the virtual environment. 

The death of management by walking around.

Many managers rely on face-to-face communications and observations of their employees to get clues about performance, productivity, etc. Management by walking around is a proven and effective technique, but it relies on employees being physically located together with the manager. This simply won't work for WFH 2.0.

We'll have to move to alternate methods of communication and examine results versus attendance. If we expect productivity and results, we need to measure them. These measurements will form the basis of employee reviews.

Sales and Customer Support had to address the issue of productivity and results a long time ago. Managers in those organizations did observational "ride alongs", or recordings of calls and meetings with customers. They critiqued the employee's performance and offered coaching to recognize good performance and areas for improvement. The collaboration tools of tomorrow will need to offer us this same capability.

Ultimately, this is an area where technology will fail us if we rely on it. We need to alter our behaviors to rely on an earned trust relationship between a manager and an employee, as well as emphasize and reward results rather than attendance. 

You "tweeted" on my LinkedIn!

As the popularity and use of social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter continue to grow at staggering rates, we can expect these tools to become more and more a part of everyday business for employees. Your office will extend into this channel, and you'll need tools for you and your employees to manage this extension of your organization's online presence.

All of these conduits were built with individual users in mind, so they lack built-in tools for organizational use, but here are a few external tools that can help.

  • Xobni is a third-party Microsoft Outlook plug-in that, in addition to helping you search and sort your email, aggregates the social media activity of your contacts into a quick-click interface. Using Xobni with Outlook, you can easily look at what your employees and co-workers are posting and tweeting.
  • HootSuite and Tweetdeck are organizational tools that help users manage their social media channels. Among the benefits are the ability to schedule posts in the future and customizable feeds that let you track what people are saying about your organization.

What do you think?

The technical evolution of WFH 2.0 is dependent on which technologies are heavily adopted and integrated into our everyday lives. Technology applications that are easy to use and deliver immediate and tangible value will be front-runners.

I want to hear from you. What do you think will be the next big thing in WFH 2.0? 

Grant Howe brings more than 16 years of experience to his role as VP of research & development for Sage North America's Nonprofit Solutions business, based in Austin, Texas. Sage currently helps more than 32,000 unique not-for-profit organizations in the U.S. and Canada increase efficiency and more easily manage their operations through the use of technology. Howe has presented at the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) since 2009. He earned a master's degree in Software Engineering from Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., and a bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oswego. 

You can follow Grant on Twitter: @geekbyte