5 Essential Skills You Can Learn From Remote Volunteering
Victoria Borisch, The Unmentionables' Communications Director
As 2017 starts to come to a close, recent grads are facing one of the toughest job markets to break into. Even those of us with multiple post-graduate degrees and years of experience under our belt still struggle to be competitive. Taking on a remote volunteering position is one way to help set yourself apart from the pack of job seekers. The Unmentionables’ entire team is composed of remote volunteers spread across 17 different countries who work together to bring dignity through hygiene to displaced people around the world. While working remotely may seem like it would be easier, being physically separated from your team can come with a whole new set of challenges that will force you to develop essential skills that you will need for almost any job.
Communication is key. I dare say it may be the most important skill for working remotely, but also perhaps the most difficult to master.
When your colleagues aren’t sitting in the same office as you, every piece of information and every question or concern needs to be directly communicated. Reading minds is difficult enough to do in person and nearly impossible with someone who you may have never actually met in real life. If you don’t understand a task, you will need to ask for clarification. If you are directing others and giving instructions, nothing can be assumed and clear details must be given to make sure nothing is missed. Even if you think you understand, sometimes it’s best just to double check so you don’t get to the end of a project and realize something was misunderstood along the way and now it’s completely wrong.
The way you communicate also changes when you work remotely. At The Unmentionables, the majority of our team communication takes place in some form of typed message. As anyone who has ever sent a text that was misinterpreted incorrectly by the person who received it knows, being conscious of tone is essential when communicating primarily through the written word. You may be in a rush and write a short and to the point email to your colleague without even thinking and they might translate it as being unusually cold and that you are mad at them. It is difficult sometimes to find a balance, especially when it comes to giving not-so-great feedback or pushing a hard deadline. Being receptive and learning to understand written tones are also important parts of remote communication. You will learn how different people communicate through this medium and not to jump to conclusions or get offended if something is worded in a strange way.
Without a manager looking over your shoulder and checking up on what you are working on constantly, you will need to become more independent when it comes to your own time management. Other people will be depending on you to get your work done, so it is crucial that you stay on top of tasks and are able to motivate yourself. Without being in an office environment for a set amount of hours each day, there is an added layer of motivation needed to ensure that tasks are completed on time.
While your supervisor will set deadlines and follow up regularly, it will be up to you to set your own schedule. This is especially true for long-term projects that have no hard deadline. Having this much independence may be challenging to some, but it will force you to hold yourself accountable and really think about the best ways to use your time. Through working remotely, you will develop a system prioritizing your tasks and working through each part to make sure that you accomplish your goals in a timely manner. The beauty of doing this in your own space is that you are able to learn more about yourself, the way that you work best, and figure out a system that fits that.
Patience is a virtue is a mantra I live by. Especially when volunteering with a team that is not only remote, but also based in different locations around the world. The Unmentionables has volunteers working across four continents, which means calculating timezone conversions becomes part of our daily life. This kind of organizational setup will teach you the importance of patience because you may not get an answer to your questions right away and may have to wait until your coworkers wake up.
Patience is also key when you need information from someone for a project or approval to move on to the next step. Chasing people up when they haven’t followed through becomes more difficult when working remotely. You can’t simply knock on the door to your boss’ office door and ask if they can quickly glance at a document so you may have to be patient and wait a bit longer for a response.
Many volunteers also have full-time jobs and other commitments that make it impossible for them to be available all the time and able to respond quickly. Volunteering as part of a remote team will help you become more conscious of other people’s schedules and you will develop skills that can help you anticipate possible snags in your project timeline.
To be successful at working remotely, you will have to be able to see the bigger picture and plan for what is to come next. This includes planning to be flexible. This may seem like an oxymoron, but if you plan ahead knowing that you need to be flexible, it will be less of a shock when things are completely flipped on their head.
Especially when working with refugees and displaced populations, the situation can change very quickly and volunteering remotely will help you learn how to adjust swiftly to any situation that may arise. This skill will be vital if you make the transition from remote volunteer to field volunteer. Flexibility is not only important in the professional sphere, but also in life in general.
We rise together and we fall together. In most professional situations, employees and teams are in some form interwoven and must work together to succeed. This is even more pronounced in a remote working environment and takes a slightly different form. Teams must bond in unconventional ways and develop a strong sense of respect for people they’ve never met in person before. Sharing a mutual goal and vision for the organization may bring remote volunteers together, but truly learning how to work together as a team will take practice.
Through working remotely, you will learn how to communicate effectively with your colleagues to get things done, how to manage your time and be respectful of your teammates’ time, understand patience and understanding why your co-workers aren’t meeting your expectations, and learn how to adapt to unforeseen situations efficiently as a team. All the other factors and challenges of working remotely come to a head here and it’s how you work together as a single entity that will determine whether deadlines are met and goals are achieved.
Are you interested in becoming a remote volunteer for The Unmentionables? Check out the opportunities that are currently available.