State Policy Network
How to thrive in a virtual work environment: A guide for nonprofit think tanks

By Teresa Brown, Vice President of Leadership Development at SPN

As we all face the implications of the widening COVID-19 crisis, more organizations are exploring the idea of remote work. This can be an unsettling notion for many leaders and staff. But it can also be a great opportunity to ensure that your organization is able to continue pursuing your goals despite external challenges.

For over two decades, SPN has operated primarily as a virtual organization, experimenting with various tools and strategies for effective virtual work. In the process, we’ve learned a few things about what works (and what doesn’t!). So, in the coming days, we’ll be sharing with the Network some of our lessons learned and resources we’ve gathered. [Update: In the SPN Professional Development Resource collection, you can find sections on Building & Developing a Virtual Team and Thriving in a Virtual Office. Staff at state-based organizations are also invited to join the SPN Professional Development Facebook Group.]

If your organization is considering tele-commuting for your staff and you have questions or concerns, please feel free to post questions to the Virtual Office Group or reach out to me directly (

To get the conversation going, here are a few tips I always share with new members joining our team, with a few additional thoughts added for managers preparing to have staff working remotely for the first time:

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. It’s easy to take for granted the incidental sharing of information that occurs when you and your team are all in one place. When you move to a virtual environment, everyone must get much more deliberate about considering who needs to know what. If you’re a manager, make sure you’re scheduling regular time to catch-up with members of your team. Quick 15-minute Zoom (or Facetime) calls will help you keep your finger on your team’s pulse, especially during a period of transition and uncertainty.

Take advantage of all the tools available. There are a wide range of tools out there designed specifically to help teams stay well-connected and coordinated in your efforts, even when you’re spread out across the country. SPN currently uses Basecamp as a communications and coordination hub for our teams. We also frequently use Zoom video calls and conferencing to help bridge the divide that can develop when you rely solely on phone or written communication. (Basecamp put out a great Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication, which can be helpful in thinking about how to keep your team connected without bogging everyone down in calls and emails.)

Create a designated space to work. While it’s not uncommon for an SPN staffer to grab their laptop and sit on the couch or on the porch during a video call (flexibility is one of the great features of working from home!), it is important to have a base to work from. Even if it’s just a folding table in the corner of your bedroom, you need somewhere to keep all your materials organized and easily accessible. Having a designated space also makes it easier to walk away from your work at the end of the day. (SPN’s Meredith Turney has a great blog post on setting up your remote work space.)

Establish a workday routine. At SPN we allow staff flexibility to schedule their workday to best match their work style and family life, with an understanding that technology allows people to stay in touch during standard work hours even when they’re not physically at their desk. Even if your organization wants to have a firm policy about when an employee needs to be at their desk during the workday, a couple of things to keep in mind:

1.) Many people get back as much as 2-3 hours in their day when they’re not having to commute to and “get ready” for a day at the office. That could offer some great flex time organizations and staff can take good advantage of in numerous ways.

2.) When you’re physically at an office your day is naturally broken up, with people popping by your desk to talk or meetings you must physically get up to attend. When you’re working from home, you will need to be more deliberate about building breaks into your day, when you get up and walk away from your computer screen for even just a few minutes. (Virtual walking meetings are a favorite of SPN staff!)

Clear expectations. As a manager it is essential that your virtual employees always have a clear understanding of the scope of their work, responsibilities, and decisions rights. Outcomes, deadlines, and owners must be firmly established and articulated for all projects. (Tools like Basecamp can be very helpful here.) Related to the topic above, make sure everyone in the organization is clear on expectations about work hours and availability for staff working remotely, understanding that there is no right or wrong answer, it’s about what best positions your team to meet its goals. As a remote staffer, don’t be shy about clarifying expectations or responsibilities with your manager. This is crucial when you’re transitioning to a virtual environment or starting a new project.

Get your technology right. For virtual employees, make sure you are setting yourself up for success with the right tools: dependable internet and phone service, a good webcam and microphone, a reliable printer/scanner, and a headset are a must. For managers preparing to shift to a virtual set-up, make sure you have tech support options sorted out for your team. (Here’s a full list of recommendations on tech related items for going virtual.)

Finally, be prepared to remain flexible. When you work from home there are always going to be challenges that pop up: the internet goes down, a conference call drops, or a Zoom call freezes up. How you respond is almost always more important than the glitch itself. So, hold on to your sense of humor and refrain from calling attention to the hiccup. And remember it’s not forever— soon you’ll be back in the warm confines of your organizational office. (Although I’m going to bet that some of you decide virtual work is a great permanent answer for your organizations!)

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Organization: State Policy Network