The Future of Work in the Association Sector – What Lessons have we Learned from the Pandemic?

By Rebecca Harris

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged business leaders, including those in the association sector, to do business differently…and in many cases forced us to make these changes at a much faster pace than we would have even dared to try in the past. What have we learned from how our business practices shifted during the pandemic and what potential implications could this have for the future of work in associations?

These are large questions and ones we will likely be grappling with for many months to come as we gradually transition from the crisis back to a normalized working world. This article is not meant to provide concrete answers as to what the “future of work” will look like for our sector, but rather to pose questions and considerations for how our business could (and in some cases should) change. There is a need for ongoing dialogue around how the lessons-learned from the pandemic can shape our world going forward to increase inclusion, maximize productivity, protect and foster employee mental health and well-being, and reinforce corporate culture.

The following topics may help to frame some of our discussions as we move forward to the future.

Remote Work – Here to Stay?

Prior to the pandemic remote work was not the normal in most associations (although we had seen a shift to more virtual offices and remote teams over the last several years). There still seemed to be some resistance to truly embracing remote work as organizations worried about the impact on productivity and corporate culture, and how to ensure the appropriate resources were in place to equip employees for success. The COVID-19 pandemic forced associations to shift to remote work quickly and we saw employees being sent home with laptops and other digital technologies to begin working from home.

In the beginning many of us thought these restrictions would be short-lived and as the pandemic continued there was a move to embrace more technologies to ensure that employees were equipped to succeed. Digital tools, including online meeting platforms, were embraced to bridge the physical divide and ensure we were connected as we worked within our own homes to ensure that the mandate and mission of our respective organizations were still being met.

Now that these tools have been put in place and we have effectively piloted the “work from home” model in our associations, the question becomes how many employees will want to continue working remotely (at least some of the time) post-pandemic and how is each organization going to approach this? What are some of the considerations of a virtual model post-pandemic and what lessons have we learned during the pandemic that we can apply?

Some of the key considerations of looking at whether remote work should be considered going forward at your association include:

  • there are disparities among employees that may impact their ability to (or wish to) work remotely including: poor internet access; lack of space; the demands of parenting/caring; and personality.
  • whether a completely virtual model or more of a hybrid model would work better for your organization and culture. A hybrid model (for example two or three days working remotely) might be considered as it could offer the benefits of remote work and the social interactions generated by working in person with others.
  • will you adopt a remote workplace policy for your entire team or leave it up to the individual?
  • what will the impact of whichever model you choose have on how you communicate, connect, and innovate? For example, if only a portion of your workforce will be working remotely how will you foster a sense of community and inclusion between those working from home and those in the office on a daily basis? How will you ensure appropriate communications between the in-person and off-site workforce? For example, when hosting team meetings between a team that is comprised of both in-person and remote team members you may want to consider having everyone login to the meeting separately to ensure that the entire “on-site” team can be seen by everyone and that everyone can interact fully without any distracting side conversations.
  • if you move to a remote or hybrid model will this include more freedom around when to work as well as where? Offering freedom and flexibility for some tasks may allow for more balance for employees to incorporate their full lives into their workweek. For example, perhaps report writing can be done after traditional office hours to allow an employee with small children the time to play or prepare meals. How much flexibility in schedule can be given and how will it vary from employee level? Setting clear expectations and guidelines at the outset will ensure that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

Connection, Mental Health, and Employee Well-Being

The pandemic highlighted the need for employers to carefully consider how to foster a sense of connection and inclusion in their workforce. It also highlighted the employer’s responsibility for employee well-being and mental health, and the need for adequate sick/personal days. During the pandemic there has been an openness to allow employees the opportunity to take time off (or to work remotely for those of us who are back in an office environment) when dealing with an everyday illness like the cold or flu. Will this trend continue post-pandemic or will we return to seeing employees coming into work with a cold? How can we foster a work environment that prioritizes our employee’s health and makes it clear that they will not be penalized for taking time away from the office when dealing with an illness?

At the beginning of the pandemic we increasingly looked for ways to increase a sense of connection as we remained physically distanced. The usage of online meeting technologies took off to new levels, but over time we also saw “Zoom fatigue”…how will we ensure that we remain human-focused in a technology-driven world? What practices and protocols can be put into place to ensure the appropriate use of online meeting technologies (#ItCouldHaveBeenAnEmail) while at the same time keeping us connected?

Separation of Critical Skills – Breaking the Knowledge Silos and Designing for Resilience

One key lesson learned from the pandemic, was the necessity of breaking down knowledge silos and designing our workflows for resilience versus just for efficiency. We (re)learned the importance of ensuring that more then one employee knows how to do each job and that we have built in redundancies to ensure the resiliency for the organization in the worst-case scenario.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the potential considerations for what the future of work will look like for associations (#Digitization, #AI, #BigData, #HybridEvents, #FlexibleMembershipModels), but it is perhaps enough to start a dialogue and discussion. How can we ensure associations are not only poised for the future but are able to lead the charge?

Rebecca Harris, CAE is the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Residences Treating Youth (OARTY) and has been working in the association sector for over 15 years. She is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) and possesses an MA degree in Art History and BFA degree in Fine Arts. Follow Rebecca on twitter @beckymharris