Member Perspective: MNA Member Goes Mobile

When I called the main line at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the phone rang as usual. I entered the extension for Associate Director Melanie Piana, but her phone didn’t ring at her desk, in fact, her desk wasn’t even there. I was seamlessly transferred to Piana’s cell phone, where she was ready to answer my inquiry.

The Michigan Suburbs Alliance is one of the first MNA members to go to an almost completely mobile operating model. Each staff member works from a laptop computer, and is encouraged to work from anywhere. The Suburbs Alliance’s office has also been transformed. Where cubicle walls once stood, now exists an open space for meetings and brainstorming. According to Melanie Piana, the model was rolled out primarily as a cost savings effort.

Michigan Suburbs Alliance

“With the age of our server approaching five years, we knew that we had to start considering replacing it,” explained Piana. “We were currently spending $1,500 annually on IT costs for that server. With the help of NPower Michigan’s tech assessment we were able to weigh out our options, and make educated decisions about moving forward.”

Instead of purchasing a new server, which would have cost the organization nearly $4,000, NPower’s staff helped facilitate a transition to offsite information storage, costing much less than the purchase and management of a traditional server. They now use jungledisk.com, a secure online storage system powered by Amazon® and have access to their files from anywhere. The nonprofit has also moved to using Google Docs to collaborate on documents with internal and external contributors.

The laptops provided for employees are equipped with video cameras for conferencing. By using Skype, a videoconferencing tool, staff is able to interact from anywhere. In addition the Suburbs Alliance uses Delicious, Clips and Tokbox as tools to keep their staff engaged and connected with their network and each other.

“We’ve always allowed for flexible scheduling at our organization,” explained Piana. “It is all about getting your work done, something that our employees have shown can be done from anywhere. While some employees work best between midnight and 3 am, others prefer working at more traditional hours. Whatever the case, the flexibility we allow encourages our staff to work in a way that encourages their highest level of productivity.”

The Michigan Suburbs Alliance is an advocate for community re-investment and committed to the redevelopment of metropolitan Detroit’s mature suburbs. By convening groups to discuss policy reform and redevelopment strategies, Michigan Suburbs Alliance works to uncover creative solutions to complex community problems. Their early adoption of new technologies could prove helpful in their work, as a mobile office may provide a new means to connect individuals from across the metro region.

While it remains too early to tell the full benefit of going mobile, Piana explains that their decision seemed natural. What may have been the harder choice was deciding what type of laptop to provide their staff. “We had to take into account that we have a technologically diverse staff, she said. “In the end, half of our laptops are Macs, and half PCs.”

The Michigan Suburbs Alliance has been an MNA member since 2003. For more information about their organization, visit them online at www.michigansuburbsalliance.org.

Story developed for the Michigan Nonprofit Story Bank.

Submitted by Brandon Seng

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