Play: Lead change and remote work in a time of crisis

In this play:

This play was written by Alluma and Civilla, partners in the Social Tech Collaborative.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social services organizations around the country have pivoted to remote work. It’s remarkable to see how fast organizations have been able to adapt their service delivery models in a short period of time. But the transition has also been challenging. To be able to respond to the changes in business processes required in this current crisis, leaders must find new ways to help their teams adopt remote work practices and creatively problem solve.

In the months and years of recovery ahead, it is unlikely that daily operations for benefit delivery will return to how they were done pre-pandemic. To be successful in the long term, social service organizations will need to continue investing the time, intention, and resources that are needed to make remote work a success.

Best practices for this play

What can be done quickly

Establish an effective remote work environment for staff

  • Identify and prioritize new infrastructure/IT needs.
    • Ensure staff computers have an up-to-date operating system, browser, and antivirus software
    • Set up infrastructure for communications, such as conference calls, videoconferencing, and a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
    • Agree on a file-sharing method for remote work that includes version control and accounts for relevant security concerns
  • Provide basic instructions and training to remote staff on all new IT systems or processes. Do not assume they will be able to “just figure it out.”
  • Establish an IT help line for staff that is supported by “super users” who can help colleagues navigate the new processes or infrastructure.
  • Update and re-issue security and confidentiality policies.
    • Determine what information needs to be encrypted and how it should be sent by remote staff
    • Remind remote staff to talk with clients by phone or video in a location where there is privacy
    • Ensure physical records are stored in a secure place
    • Remind staff to either delete personal information from shared mobile devices (including tablets) and/or to enable necessary security features
  • Find alternative ways to answer questions or provide feedback to team members.
    • For example, supervisors can provide “office hours” or answer questions through a dedicated IM channel where everyone can post and see answers.
  • Designate a shared document or folder or intranet to be the “single source of truth” for changes, decisions, goals and priorities, and other “need to know” information. It is more difficult to keep track of key information or actions needed with multiple communication channels.
  • Talk to staff about how to build a strong team culture without interacting face-to-face at the office.
    • Explicitly ask team members about their obligations and preferred schedules when working remotely
    • Virtually share calendars with all team members to facilitate remote work
    • Provide collaboration and communication tools that can be used for informal and formal conversations (in addition to e-mail)
    • Schedule time in standing meetings for check-ins and less-structured conversations
  • Re-evaluate goals and the need for standing meetings
    • Limit meeting participation to only those critical for decision making (vs. informational)
    • Shorten length of meetings
    • Clearly identify what actions/decisions are needed by end of the meeting
    • Consistently communicate actions/decisions to all stakeholders to ensure information is timely and accurate.
  • Create standardized templates for case notes to help reduce time needed for workers to input the needed information.
    • Example: Nevada Human Services Agency created a standard template for its case workers to help them indicate cases if a case was being processed under COVID-19 waivers as required by state and federal policy. The template helped ensure consistency in the case files while making compliance with the new rules easier and quicker.
  • Prepare scripts, FAQs, and “cheat sheets” to help staff answer common questions from individuals or families. Update materials frequently so staff stay up-to-date on policy or process changes.
  • Empower staff and decentralize certain decision making. Reward/incentivize creative ideas to improve the status quo.

Managing remote staff in crisis

  • Create a rapid response team
    • Establish and clearly communicate the process for escalating issues
    • Remove hierarchical barriers to allow more open communication and feedback
  • Hold short “stand-up” meetings daily with key staff to identify priorities and roadblocks for the day or week. Check-in frequently with front-line staff (including those working remotely) to understand roadblocks and celebrate successes.
  • Use real-time data to better understand operations. Review data regularly to see if changes to policies or processes have the intended outcomes or if adjustments are still needed.
  • Share results in real-time so all staff are aligned on priorities and desired outcomes.
    • Example: Create a dashboard for tracking progress that can be shared with staff and upper management.
  • Consider non-traditional staffing arrangements
    • Schedule shifts for backend processing times before and after working hours (to decrease demand on systems during peak hours)
    • Temporarily reassign staff from other departments or areas to help increase staffing for critical functions (e.g., call center, data entry)
What to aim for long term
  • Establish a clear process for new ideas to be shared, evaluated, and implemented quickly.
  • Use new staff, processes, and policies that were put in place during the crisis for long-term changes.
    • Example: Re-purpose the temporary rapid response team to a dedicated problem-solving team tasked with long-term improvements
  • Implement and maintain new approaches to management, collaboration, and culture, especially for staff who continue to work remotely.
  • Create or update crisis-response plans and capabilities based on lessons learned.
  • Develop staffing plans needed with reduced budgets, increased volume, and more automation.
    • Example: Conduct a gap analysis of future technical/skilled job functions needed and existing staff’s skills to plan for upskilling programs


Related categories

Remote Virtual assistance Workforce


We encourage feedback, comments, and contributions to the Social Tech Playbook. Do you have experience with this play that you can share with your colleagues in the social services sector? We’d love to hear from you.

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