Five good ideas for remote client service work

Many thanks to Maytree for asking me to participate in their “Five Good Ideas: Home Office Series.” I presented five good ideas for remote client service work.

It may not feel like it, but for organizations that have moved suddenly to remote work, there is an opportunity to learn, share, and collaborate. There are also opportunities to connect deeply with their clients and communities and to start thinking about what their work might look like in the post-pandemic new normal.

My session builds on the 2008 Five Good Ideas session I presented with Christopher Wulff about Building conversations on the web. While a lot of what we talked about then still holds true (and I encourage you to watch that presentation), I’ve added an additional five good ideas for the situation we all find ourselves, working from home during a pandemic. Or, as Stella O’Malley put it, “Trying to get some work done while confined to your home during a crisis.”

Here’s the full transcript of my remarks

Hi everyone, my name is Marco Campana, and I’d like to thank Maytree for asking me to contribute Five Good Ideas for remote client service work.

These ideas build on the five good ideas that Christopher Wulff and I presented around 12 years ago about building conversations on the web. A lot of what we talked about then still holds true and I encourage you to watch our presentation. But I want to add some of ideas for the situation we all find ourselves in during a pandemic.

Before I start first, a pandemic bonus tip or idea. Listen to the advice, don’t cut your own hair. Although it may bring some levity into your house. I did it recently and I may have been able to create this video for you last week but as my spouse wrote to my family when sharing some pictures of what my sister eventually called “a haircut hack job.”

It’s short, doesn’t look terrible from the front. However, every time I catch a side view, it makes me laugh. It’s filling in nicely but perhaps one reason why I’m making my video this way with me down in the corner, small in this video is because of my hair. So listen to the experts, lesson learned.

Idea 1: Connect and integrate your digital work with your offline work

So my first idea is actually one of the original Five Good Ideas from our presentation, but it still holds true 12 years later. Connect and integrate your digital work with your offline work, you’re living this right now.

Working right now could feel completely overwhelming but if you think about the work that you do and how you do it, then think about how that might translate online and you’ll create a roadmap to remote work in digital for yourself and your organization.

So what could that look like? If you’re offering workshops in-person, those could be webinars, it could be video archives that you create, could be livestreams, it could be video chats that you have with groups or with individual clients.

Doing needs assessments can happen through text or digital messaging, through email, again through secure video chats, or using secure online forms.

One-on-one work information and referral even therapeutic counseling can shift online through websites, through secure service portals using social media for information and referral, digital or text messaging, once again email, and through your website.

And if you run classes or courses, you might move them online into a learning management system in facilitated or self-directed content or even just web how-to content.

The reality is, what you’re doing offline can translate online easily and quickly more than we think.

Ideas 2: Learn about your audience’s information and technology practices

The second idea is to learn about your audience’s information and technology practices. Right now you’ve had no choice but to use technology to serve your clients. Now is the time for you to take, to learn as much as you can about the audience, their information practices, as well as their preferred technologies to communicate with you.

There’s an opportunity for you and your organization to move from anecdotal knowledge of your client and community’s digital literacy to data about it.

Go from “I think our clients want us to text them,” to “I’m sure they want us to text them.”

If you haven’t yet build this right into your agency’s intake form, ask two new questions, very simple, very quick.

What technology do you use to communicate and consume information? And add some things like email, text, digital messaging like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Telegram, Signal et cetera.

But also ask them, what is your preferred method of communication with us? And from that you’ll get points of data that you may not have had before.

For example, if you serve 12,000 clients in a year and after three months of asking these questions, you have 3,000 new points of data that tell you, “wow, 80% of our clients want us to text,” maybe we need a texting solution, or maybe our staff all need smartphones or cell phones so they can send text messages back and forth with clients.

It’ll reveal that data, but it’ll also help you understand something that you already know. Anecdotally, it’s that the digital is not for all of your clients and that the digital divide is real. It affects you and it affects the communities that you serve.

Being creative is really important right now. The new normal of community and social services isn’t going to be complete, digital services or in-person, it’s going to be a blended approach and there will be opportunity.

If you do it right, imagine the time that you might spend with more digitally connected clients well will potentially decrease as you move administration, as you automate some of those processes for clients who can self-direct, who can pull that knowledge at themselves at three o’clock in the morning they’re surfing for information. But for clients who aren’t necessarily digitally connected or more vulnerable or more high-need, you’ll have potentially more time to spend with them to serve their specific needs to have those face-to-face interactions that matter and give them the information they need.

But even for other clients, you may end up serving them in a blended way, a bit in person, a bit online. Imagine how freeing it’ll be when they don’t have to take a bus, a subway, and another bus to get to your organization.

There’s a lot of potential here and it starts by learning about your audience.

One of the ways that I think is really good is to go back to our roots in social services. You may be familiar with the spiral model for popular education. You start with the experience and knowledge of the participants and you build from there.

So even if you can’t right now build questions into your formal intake process, survey your clients. Start asking them some questions, start having this conversation. You’re probably having many conversations with your clients and communities right now about their needs and their challenges; now’s a really good time to collect this information to build this knowledge as well and you’ll have the additional benefit of clients and communities who feel valued, who appreciate being asked not just about their needs but what they want, their assets, their preferences.

This can go a long way in building those relationships with your community. For now, practically, the more you know about your clients and communities, the better you can actually serve them remotely and it helps to make the case for how you might prioritize services and service delivery in the future.

Idea 3: Make your services private and secure by design

The third good idea is to make your services private and secure by design. If we learned anything since our presentation in 2008, it’s that we live in a world of constant surveillance and insecurity. Phishing, malware, ransomware are among newer words and concepts we’re all more familiar than we want to be.

If you’re moving services online, it’s essential that you learn about privacy security and encryption.

Thankfully, the technology to do that has become more widely available and easier to use than ever before but there is still a learning curve.

It also all starts with intention.

When you’re moving your work online, do it intending to protect you, your data, your clients, and their data.

It also means taking a look at how you work and the communication expectations.

Maybe you’re using digital messaging like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger or you’re texting your clients. You need to know what’s secure and when you need to shift in interaction from one digital channel or technology to another, one that’s more secure to ensure privacy and confidentiality.

This also means building policies, protocols, guidelines, and processes in your agency.

Idea 4: Experiment

The fourth tip, the fourth good idea is to experiment. No one will be as forgiving or patient with you as you try new things than right now.

Early on when we were all starting to work from home, I attended a couple of webinars about remote work done by experts in remote work. In two cases they had complete technology failures. They had breakdowns during their sessions, it was perfect, it was almost like they planned it out.

What it showed is that when it comes to technology, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, so it’s important now to take the time to experiment and to get comfortable, not only with the technology but for when things don’t work and the plan B and the plan C that you might need to have for those interactions.

We’re all in this learning together, so play a little bit but test it out with your colleagues before you dive into it with your clients. Now’s a really good time to experiment and play and then share.

Idea 5: Share what you’re doing, what’s working, and your struggles

The last good idea that I have is to share what you’re doing, share what’s working, share your struggles. Somewhere, there is someone who needs to hear what you’re doing and how it’s working.

Your funders need to know what life is like right now for you.

This is a great opportunity to start doing what some people call working out loud.

And don’t stop, we can all learn from each other. The more we share, the better all of our work becomes; that means better outcomes for your clients, for communities, and more interesting work for us.

That little pivot that you may have made online a couple of weeks ago, that small shift in your work that transcended and changed something, that’s gold for someone out there who is struggling to figure it out.

Share and share often; and if you start sharing, don’t stop when this is all over. When we all come out from the other side of this pandemic let’s keep sharing, learning, collaborating together. Wouldn’t that be a great new normal?


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