The Evolution of the Workplace – Should You Go Virtual?

By Catherine Cummings, CAE

I recently had the opportunity to present on transitioning an Association to a Virtual Environment at the CSAE National Conference and I wanted to share some insights into the methodology of how I put that session together. I am not an expert consultant – I am an everyday association executive who has had the luxury of working in various virtual environments. As the Executive Director of a global association I personally work completely virtually, primarily deliver member value virtually and the majority of our governance work is done virtually as well. I will pre-state my bias that I do love working virtually and I think I would find it hard to move back into a traditional office environment if I had to. However, I didn’t want the conference session (or this article) to be reflective only of my own opinions and biases so I reached out to a number of association executives to do qualitative research on moving to a virtual environment.

As business models change for Associations, and technology is the way business is conducted, our ways of working to deliver member value is evolving too and that includes more Associations and individuals working virtually. How many of us have seen attrition at our in-person conferences and training seminars and the increased need to have effective virtual training? I was teaching at Seneca College in the year 2000 and that is the year that their online courses caught their in-person courses and then started to dwarf them as they moved further into the 2000s (that is almost 20 years ago for those that want to do the math)

Along with that shift in the business model comes a shift in how we can and should work. The three primary drivers for moving to a virtual environment are the (1) cost of office space; (2) demographic change; and, (3) fuel and energy costs. Associations, charities and social enterprises have a fourth factor in that there is increased scrutiny of administrative costs versus member value, and the virtual environment can shift the needle on percentages that are meaningful in this regard.

Office space has become a major expense for many organizations. One response has been to reduce the amount of space each employee occupies. Another is to increase the flexibility of the office’s layout and design through hoteling and hot desking; and another again is to eliminate bricks and mortar altogether. Some new, emerging associations never even start with office space and grow virtually from the beginning.

According to the Frost and Sullivan ebook done for Zoom, by 2027, 50.9% of the U.S. workforce will be freelancing. With more than half of the knowledge workers around the world working away from a corporate office routinely, this trend in demographic change is forcing employers to rethink how they employ and manage staff and how they respond to employee interests and demands. Associations are not immune to this.

The costs of the energy needed to commute, live and work are increasing rapidly. Urban forms are expected to change as a result. Look at Greta Thunberg right now and her example of sailing to the UN in New York rather than take a plane. The blackout of 2004 on the eastern seaboard gave us a taste of what we had to do without power in a crisis situation and also made us mindful of where we were using it. As the lights started to come back on many retailers and office buildings only used half lighting to not overtax the grid when it was fragile, but that event really heightened awareness of how much we rely on power.

The Fourth factor mentioned above is one that is unique to charities and associations and that is administrative scrutiny. While you may or may not agree with the way these areas are scrutinized, the reality is that there are pressures to reduce administrative costs so more money can go to charitable purpose or member value.

There are some basic benefits of moving to a virtual office that are universal and those are efficiency, productivity, motivation and, again I am going to bring in a societal trend, minimalism.

Virtual workplaces decrease costs as well as increasing efficiency. A virtual workplace is easier for employees because it often reduces business travel, consolidates services, and assists in the communication process.

Productivity is crucial to any organization. With the implementation of a virtual workplace, productivity may be increased because employees are more focused on business-related projects. Every single person I interviewed when I was developing this session mentioned that they are more productive working virtually.

Motivation is an area I could write about for pages because it is such a big factor in virtual work. Individuals are more motivated when they can align their personal and professional goals, and virtual work allows this to happen in a meaningful way.

There is a societal trend towards minimalism and individuals are shedding “stuff” in an effort to minimize their impact on the planet but also to simplify their lives. Often with a move to a virtual office people feel lighter because they throw out things that have been accumulating over years in an office.

However, it is not all sunshine and roses in the virtual world. The drawback to virtual work comes down to relationships and trust – in the interviews I did people often said “it takes a certain kind of employee” or “we had to increase face to face after we went virtual”, but I see this as an iterative process that will find the right balance over time. Employers have to invest in finding that equilibrium. Managing a mobile workforce and maintaining team cohesion can be challenging.

We know from numerous studies on what motivates us all at work that a lack of human contact can cause decreased team spirit, trust and productivity. It is something that now has to be worked at and paid attention to. There will be an increased sensitivity to communication, interpersonal and cultural factors and awareness needs to be maintained so that trust doesn’t become broken. Since water cooler conversations will no longer happen you have to institute some sort of virtual water cooler so that employees feel comfortable and part of the team.

If you are moving from bricks and mortar to completely virtual, don’t make it an all or nothing proposition. Reinvest some of those savings to allow for face to face meetings occasionally even if they are just social events.

If you think you would like to move to a virtual environment or you are being asked to consider moving to a virtual environment either in part or wholly by your Board take the time to fill out the questionnaire that follows this article to build your case for the move to virtual.

Catherine Cummings, CAE is the Executive Director of the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations. Cathy has extensive experience in the Canadian not-for-profit sector and believes deeply in the value of sharing knowledge and creating a community that works together toward a better outcome.