There’s more to well-being than free coffee: Building a healthy remote organisation

Anneke Victorica

At The Engine Room, we are an entirely remote team. We get together on occasion to co-work, strategise and attend events, but the majority of the time we’re connecting from hundreds (or thousands!) of miles away.

For those of us who have worked in The Engine Room – or another remote workplace – for a long time, navigating a remote workplace has become second nature. All that individual adaptation, though, isn’t enough to ensure well-being. Instead, maintaining positive engagement with our work and each other requires intentional effort. Since we can’t see our team in-person that often, we design unique ways to check in on and promote each others’ well-being. Three important parts of these efforts are: creating organisational values that build well-being, recruiting people who embody these values to join us, and supporting these people through thoughtful policies and practices.

Well-being as a political act

Before we dive into of how we build well-being at The Engine Room, we want to talk about why we care about it so deeply. In part, it is something we do because we value kindness, and want to show kindness to one another. We have also recognised that the better care we provide for our team, the more able they are to carry out high-quality work in support of our partners. By ensuring that the team are motivated and supported, we enable them to support our civil society partners to use tech and data in a strategic way.

This careful building of well-being is also in-line with our own mission of bringing intentionality and strategic thinking to our work with partners. This time, it’s bringing intentionality to institution-building, and we’ve been lucky to enjoy core support from funders who have helped us build the foundations of our organisation.

Ultimately, caring about our team’s wellbeing is a political act, and one we think is core to being able to achieve our mission. Like others in this space, we see resilience as a form of resistance, and our own well-being as “an imperative for sustainable movements”.

Making well-being a shared goal

Creating ways for our team to stay happy and connected wasn’t just an exercise of figuring out what benefits or schedules people preferred. Instead, we have explored team well-being through three interconnected activities. Each one is big and requires careful thought and team discussion, but we think they are each necessary to create a space where team well-being is a shared goal, not an afterthought. They include:

  1. Committing to organisational values that contribute to individual and collective well-being. (We’ll share these soon!)
  2. Recruiting people who embody those organisational values
  3. Designing policies and practices that address the needs of our team and promote our values

Creating shared organisational values

When your organisation doesn’t have a physical office, your values should address the realities of working with people you don’t actually see (at least not often and not in 3D). Adopting them should make your work easier and more fun.

For example, values like accountability, trust and empathy – which are important in all work environments – take on an even more crucial role in remote workspaces. Because we don’t have spontaneous interactions with each other as we would in an office, it’s hard (or impossible!) to casually check in on projects, read each others’ body language, and get ambient knowledge about each others’ lives outside the office. Instead, we must intentionally embrace these values and actively practice them.

That means we hold ourselves accountable to our commitments even though nobody can follow up with us in person, we trust that our colleagues will fulfill on their own commitments even though they are out of sight, and we have empathy for others when things go wrong, even if we don’t witness their struggles first-hand.

Hiring for values

There is a human resources adage that you “hire for attitude and train for skill.” We’ve found this to ring true at The Engine Room, too, as attitude and values go hand-in-hand. We focus on hiring individuals who hold our values and then adapting their roles to best reflect their skills.

Empathy and accountability are nearly impossible to teach, and the problems created when they’re lacking can be very difficult to resolve. By making sure that each new team member believes in our values, we are not just making sure that they feel at home with us, but that we’re setting the stage for better well-being for everyone.

Building policies and practices

Even with the right values and people in place, we need policies and practices to promote and support those values and people.

First, because we have fewer opportunities to learn about each other in person, we design documentation processes that ask our team to be honest about their desires and expectations when it comes to collaboration (and to learn about those of their colleagues). For this to work, we need team members to be honest about what they need – which is why the above point of hiring for values is so important.

Second, we work on policies that seek to address the fact that our global team has different needs because of their unique local contexts, time zones, lived experiences, roles and personal responsibilities. Many of the policies and practices below could be beneficial for any organisation, but we think they are particularly relevant for a dispersed global team like ours.

Our policies include things like our perks policy, which allows for each team member to request reimbursement for benefits unique to them, which might be covered as a standard package in a traditional office. Our processes cover many topics, including one dedicated to building intentional communication relationships between managers and reports. It builds upon a questionnaire, which asks team members and their managers to share communication preferences, dreams and pet peeves. You can read more about these – and a few more – in a forthcoming blog post.

Organisational development is never done. It’s an ongoing process and we’re constantly looking for inspiration for how we could improve all things people-related. We know there are innovative and effective ideas all around us, and we’re keen to connect more with others who also care about well-being. If you have ideas, questions or lessons learned about what an organisation can do to take care of its remote team, please let us know! You can reach out to our People Lead, Anneke Victorica, at anneke@theengineroom.org.

We look forward to sharing updates as we keep evolving!

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