Going virtual: not-for-profit eliminates physical location, saving money while maintaining efficiency

Is it possible to save money and still be efficient when your non-profit abandons its bricks-and-mortar for a virtual office?

Absolutely. For a true success story, just look to the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD).

Moving to a virtual model

Due to new funding restrictions and directions in the non-profit sector brought on after the financial crisis of 2007-09, ICAD faced a challenge known to many similar organizations: it still had just as much work to accomplish, but fewer resources available to do so.

As a result, ICAD considered innovative ways to save money.

The organization had an office space in the middle of downtown Ottawa, “which was more than what we needed for our small team of three on-site full-time and one part-time staff,” says Shayna Buhler, Senior Program Officer for ICAD.

The team considered a number of options, including moving to a smaller office and office-sharing with similar organizations. However, ICAD does not offer front-line services: a reality that led to the conclusion that a physical venue was not necessary to maintain ICAD’s operations.

After considering ICAD’s needs and available resources, and doing risk analysis and budget forecasting, it was eventually decided that an entirely virtual model held the most promise.

Following a short pilot and a carefully planned and executed transition process, ICAD launched its virtual office on October 1, 2014.

Adjustment period

Almost three years later, the ICAD team continues to work as a solid unit.

“It is a bit of an adjustment, going from working in an office with your colleagues to working in your old guest bedroom,” says Kate Alexander, Public Engagement and Membership Officer for ICAD. “But the virtual model is great for different situations like parenting, or if you have a partner who does a lot of shift work. This model can accommodate whatever lifestyle or situation you have. And if staff members are able to make it work, people will be happier.”

Since ICAD moved to a virtual office, Kate has also had the opportunity to return to her hometown in the Niagara Region.

“Being here is not only great for me but really beneficial to the organization because Niagara is very close to Toronto, where we have lots of coalition members,” says Kate. “I’m able to attend functions and events in Toronto often — so ICAD can have a presence and support members more closely. It’s nice to have further reach this way, being a bit more spread out across the province.”

Despite the distance from her colleagues, Kate says technology has helped keep the lines of communication open.

“We use Skype and conferencing tools to keep that visual connection with each other,” she says. “In fact, when we met up in person for the first time — it had been several weeks — since I’d moved to Niagara, it took us half an hour to realize that we hadn’t hugged like people normally would if they hadn’t seen each other in a while! You could say that shows that the virtual office works for us.”

As for tracking work hours, the team still applies a base work day as if they were in a physical office. “We’re all online around 8:30 every morning, and we say good morning and goodbye to each other as if we were all together,” says Shayna. “Chatting online helps with the perception that we’re all still in the office together.”

In fact, ICAD still ends up doing a lot of “face time” with each other. Sometimes, they work side-by-side on Skype. And they’ve even had “virtual drinks” together after work, in cyberspace.

Cost savings and learnings

Eliminating the physical location has helped ICAD realize and reinvest cost savings into its programming.

“It’s a significant amount and it’s always nice to be able to put money back into our programs and services,” says Shayna. “Especially in non-profit, there’s always concern about money going into administrative costs. ICAD still helps cover the overhead associated with staff working from home — such as internet access, VoIP, and ensuring we have enough data. This helps cover the extra costs of having to work all day from your own place.”

Moreover, with almost three years of virtual work under its belt, ICAD has learned some key lessons on what it takes to make the virtual office space work.

“Going totally virtual may not work for an organization that offers front-line services, because service users often prefer a physical location,” says Shayna.

Trust can also be a big issue. “We were a small and very well-connected team to begin with, so there was already a lot of trust and communication when we went virtual. That might be harder to establish in the virtual office fora bigger organization,” says Kate. “There would probably have to be some different policies in place for a larger team to make it work.”

Despite the challenges for larger organizations, Shayna and Kate also emphasize that a “virtual” or “flexible” office can mean many things.

“An organization with a larger staff or front-line services might not want to go entirely virtual, but they can apply hybrid models like sharing office space with other organizations, or using a hub-type office where employees can work on occasion,” says Shayna. Each of these were options that ICAD considered before deciding on an entirely virtual office model.

Plan, test, pilot the technology

To ensure the virtual approach works, Kate and Shayna recommend a solid planning, testing and piloting process.

They also encourage organizations to create good working relationships with IT consultants. “After all, they’re the ones who make it all happen,” says Kate. “Plus, they will help work out all the ebbs and flows in terms of all the technology working. That can take time, so teamwork and patience is also really important.”

ICAD worked closely with its IT consultants throughout the move to virtual, to be ready for potential problems and ensure everyone felt comfortable with the technology. Moving to a cloud-based server helped guarantee steady connectivity within each employee’s home.

The pilot process was key in uncovering some potential problems, and for developing alternatives and backup plans if technology were to malfunction. ICAD’s pilot was three weeks; however, “for larger organizations, you’d probably want to do a longer pilot and implementation — somewhere around three to six weeks,” says Kate.

A seamless transition

Interestingly, the majority of people working outside the organization weren’t even aware that ICAD went virtual!

As such, it appears the ICAD team has successfully transitioned into a virtual work model — and reaped the benefits of this innovative approach as a result.

This nonprofit HR innovation story series is made possible thanks to a partnership between Community Foundations of Canada, HRcouncil.ca and family foundation Ignite NPS. Together we are supporting Canada’s nonprofit sector by highlighting stories of HR innovation and promising practices taking place in community organizations across the country.

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