Managing a Remote Workforce

Managing a Virtual Workforce: Why Nonprofits Should Overcome the Hesitation to Have Remote Employees

Remote employees offer nonprofits a number of advantages. Management of remote staff involves building trust and establishing effective remote work policies.

artistic rendering of four people on a video conference on a laptop screen

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many nonprofits into a remote working arrangement, whether they were ready for it or not. Now, as many nonprofits consider “return to the office” policies, it’s a good time to reconsider the advantages of remote work.

Remote Work Can Improve Recruitment and Lower Overhead

When nonprofits open a position to a remote candidate, not only does it expand the pool of candidates geographically, but it also includes the growing number of workers who are only interested in remote work. Data further suggests that remote workers stay in their jobs longer, reducing the cost of turnover.

Remote work also creates more employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities who might otherwise face barriers getting to work or accessing buildings.

It doesn’t just benefit employees, either. Remote work can offer cost benefits to nonprofits, as well.

While a nonprofit may not be able to offer compensation commensurate with for-profit companies, offering remote work can make the position more competitive. More remote workers can also reduce the need for office space, which can also be a cost savings for your nonprofit.

Does Remote Work Help the Environment? Maybe

Many nonprofits look to remote work to try to reduce their carbon footprint. At the height of the pandemic restrictions, smog-free city skylines seemed to promise a future with less pollution. And while the elimination of a gas-powered commute is helpful, the promised environmental benefits of remote work can be complex.

Working at home often means lighting and heating or cooling each employee’s residence — instead of a shared workspace where that energy is used more efficiently.

If the same amount of shared office space is still being used in addition to home offices, the overall energy expenditure may be increased. Each situation is different, but offering information or even incentives for improving residential energy efficiency may help increase the environmental gains when people are working at home.

Finally, remote workers who replace a daily commute with more frequent business travel may negate the environmental impact of a reduced or eliminated commute.

“But Are They Working?” Concerns About Productivity and Remote Work

One of the common concerns raised about having remote employees is: “If they aren’t in the office, how will I know this employee is really working?”

Baseline management of all employees, regardless of where they work, should mean knowing whether an employee is productive. That’s part of what managers are paid to do.

If you have managers that don’t know whether their direct reports are on task, that’s a management problem, not a remote work problem.

So, what nonprofit leaders should be asking is: “If an employee isn’t working, why wouldn’t their manager know?”

The most important thing to remember is this: If the employee has been completely unreachable during the day, then two people are failing at their jobs — and the bigger problem is the manager.

Part of a manager’s job is knowing what their employees are working on. If one of their direct reports spends a week binge-watching “Bridgerton” instead of doing work, that should be immediately apparent to their manager.

When employees claim to be working when they are not, it’s a very serious breach of duty and should be treated as a disciplinary issue. It should be documented immediately following the nonprofit’s policies on corrective action.

The employee may also need to take additional steps to help rebuild trust with their manager, such as emailing a daily report on their work, checking in at the start or end of each workday, and more frequent one-on-one supervisory meetings.

Nonprofit leaders can help by providing training on how to manage performance in an objective manner.

Studies show that most employees are more productive when working remotely than in the office. Of course, today, most employees are remote because they want to be. Any employee will, if given the choice, opt for the work arrangement that will be best suited for their work style.

Trust is the Glue: How Nonprofit Managers Need to Change for Remote Work

Managers need a different set of skills to manage remote workers. They must be more intentional about engaging with employees, setting up systems for the work, and, most importantly, building trust.

Trust is “the glue that binds remote teams together” according to Professor Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School. Professor Neeley, one of the leading experts in remote work, explains that there are two types of trust that are necessary for remote work to be successful.

The first type of trust, according to Professor Neeley, is cognitive trust — based on the belief that “others are dependable, reliable, and have a competency to achieve the goals that we’re trying to achieve as a team.” This is built more through collaboration on work, is easier to develop, and is less affected by the remote environment.

The second kind of trust — emotional or psychological trust — represents employees’ belief that their management cares about them on a personal and individual level. This type of trust is easier to build in person because of the increased casual contacts that occur in a shared workspace.

There are also more opportunities for the social connections that develop emotional trust, such as taking a new colleague out to lunch, sharing a cup of coffee in the break room, and casual social conversations in the halls.

A lack of observable cues that we rely on to establish relationships in person is absent in the remote environment. When we lose the subtleties of these in-person interactions, the tools that we have in their stead are more blunt.

For example, if someone is frustrated after an in-person meeting, it’s easy to catch up with them in a hallway or take a minute to ask if there is something going on.

With remote work, that same action requires more deliberate steps. It feels more serious for a manager to pick up the phone, call someone, and ask if they are okay than it does to stop them casually in a hallway.

Transparency about work within a department or team can help build emotional trust. In a direct-reporting relationship, performance feedback must be given more intentionally and regularly.

Best Practices for Establishing a Remote Work Policy

  • Have a clear policy on remote work, including expectations for the work location, the work environment, and the need for privacy and safe office furniture and equipment. The work environment should be as free from distractions as the office. Remote and hybrid employees should sign personalized plans describing their work arrangements to ensure everyone is in agreement about these details.
  • Set aside time in meetings for casual conversation to develop that emotional trust and rapport within the team. This doesn’t mean pressuring employees to disclose personal information. These conversations can be entirely about work — what challenges the employees are facing, sharing common frustrations, and recent “wins.” It’s also a great opportunity to connect to our greatest advantage as nonprofit employers — our mission. The “building trust” part of your meetings is a great time to find ways to increase all employees’ engagement.
  • Good management is not the same as surveillance. Trying to use remote monitoring programs to “catch” employees not only doesn’t work well — employee monitoring software can be easy to beat and tend to only work for employees who spend all day doing the same repetitive tasks. Most importantly, it undermines the trust that is so important to build with all employees.
  • Remote employees are expected to have a home base, so that payroll deductions, taxes, and other employment law compliance are handled correctly based on where the employee is working. Establish clearly with your employees that you agree on a place (or places) of work, but that it doesn’t mean working anywhere. Consult state laws to determine what responsibilities the employer has. Consult a human resource professional or attorney to ensure your nonprofit is in compliance.


Incorporating remote work offers nonprofits an expanded pool of talent and increased employee satisfaction. A reduced need for physical office space can mean lower overhead in your budget.

Leveraging the advantages of remote work requires nonprofit managers to be intentional about building trust with employees who they aren’t seeing in person. When deployed carefully, remote work offers significant flexibility and cost-savings for nonprofits.