Making Remote Work Work

By Mary Lou Jay

The rising cost of rent, talent acquisition and retention, and a desire for more flexibility from employees are ongoing challenges facing today’s association leaders. To address the issue, some organizations are reconsidering their office footprint and internal policies to offer full- or part-time telecommuting options.

The Career & Technical Association of Texas (CTAT) closed its physical office during the 2009 recession. “We could either give up the office or keep staff to maintain our programs,” said Executive Director Robin Painovich.

It’s a decision the association hasn’t regretted. “Not having to deal with traffic is a huge plus, and I think we’re actually more productive because our collaboration and communication are more focused,” she said. “It’s also a benefit to be able to hire based on skill set and experience, regardless of geographic location.

“The downside is not being able to see each other frequently, but when we do it’s cherished quality time together,” she continued. CTAT brings employees together for meetings each quarter and will begin annual two-day staff retreats.

enSYNC Corporation, a technology consulting firm serving associations, has had several telecommuters for over 15 years. This year, by April 1, all 20 staff members will be full-time remote workers.

“We’ve been considering it for at least two years,” said Janet Davidson, vice president of business development. The company wanted to reduce its carbon footprint and knew employee productivity wouldn’t be an issue. “With technology today we can do our work from virtually anywhere, so having a physical office becomes obsolete,” she said. By working virtually, they’re saving significantly on their overhead while taking an important step for the environment and for the future.

To help staff remain connected, the company has arranged for a WeWork space where all the local employees will meet on Mondays for meetings or for potluck lunches like they shared at the office.

American Mensa isn’t ready to hand in the office keys, but after a positive experience with two telecommuters (both relocated after working in the office), the association now offers employees the chance to work remotely once a week. They can choose any day except Tuesday, when everyone who’s not traveling is expected in the office. (Monthly staff meetings are held the third Tuesday of each month.)

Telecommuting promotes better work/life balance, said Executive Director/CEO Trevor Mitchell, CAE. “So many things happen in our lives today that don’t fit the typical 9-to-5 day.”

The American Mensa staff is taking full advantage of the opportunity; 80% of its eligible employees now telecommute one day a week. The remaining 20% are interested but still figuring out how to make it work for them. Mitchell said in the coming year the organization will be looking at the feasibility of offering more teleworking days each week.

Employees clearly appreciate and see the benefit of telecommuting options as well. Tracie Seed, now communications coordinator for the Texas School Public Relations Association, worked remotely once a week when she was an editor in Rhode Island. “The benefit of telecommuting is primarily the flexibility; if there is a doctor appointment, it is easy to work around,” she said. “I’m extremely productive at home. I can hyper-focus without interruptions and get things completed much more quickly than if I were in an office.

“The downside would be the lack of face-to-face communications. There are subtleties and nuances you can’t replace, even with the most advanced emojis,” she continued. She thinks a balance of working from home and from the office is ideal, maintaining the in-person interactions with coworkers while in the office and gaining the ability to focus more closely on a project when working remotely.

Consider All Impacts

Associations that want to offer teleworking either full time or part time will have to look at many different factors and be prepared to make a lot of decisions before it can become a reality.

Finding the right combination of software and online options should be a top priority. Look for tools that will promote seamless communication among your staff and with your members. All three of these organizations use Slack, a web-based instant messaging platform that allow users to organize discussions into different conversational channels.

“Slack has helped tame the barrage of emails that we had daily,” Painovich said.

enSYNC uses the Office 365 suite for email, Microsoft Teams for video chats, Zoom video for online meetings and join.me for screen sharing.

In addition to the technology tools, you’ll need to establish a remote working policy. What hours do you expect employees to be available? If you’ll be using video for chats or meetings, define what you want your employees to wear (i.e., a button-down shirt and not exercise gear). Require them to check their surroundings so that dirty dishes or messy family rooms don’t show up in the background.

Talk to your employees about their work setup. Do they have good internet service and a backup option so they won’t suddenly lose connection during an important presentation? (Both CTAT and enSYNC subsidize these costs.) Remember that some families might not have the right space for a full-time teleworker. Davidson said they’ve authorized WeWork space for one employee who needs it.

If you’re considering taking a big leap to going totally virtual, start looking two years in advance at your contracts and commitments for everything from leases and on-site phone systems to copy machines. “We made sure that they all aligned to when we’re going to make this change,” said Davidson. Determine what documents, if any, require paper copies and decide where you’re going to store them.

Even when an association doesn’t plan to go fully virtual, ensuring that employees have everything they need to work remotely might be a good idea. American Mensa had put some things in place for telecommuters, but when a fire in their building closed their offices for two weeks, they discovered that other office components, like their phone system, didn’t work virtually. “It was on our list of to-dos in case we ever wanted to take the organization completely virtual; we just weren’t there yet,” Mitchell said.

Leading a Virtual Workforce

“Managing a remote staff is different than managing an in-house staff,” Davidson said. During in-person meetings, body language, facial expressions and the cadence of conversation provide managers with clues to employees’ reactions. As it’s been going virtual, enSYNC has done the next best thing by encouraging employees to use video chat when talking to each other. “Being able to have that video face-to-face conversation is much better than just being on the phone,” Davidson adds.

Painovich has found a managerial style that works well with her employees. She sets expectations about outcomes and provides support only when they ask for it. “Everyone on the staff is incredibly talented. Given the space to work independently and together, they often exceed expectations and come up with new ideas that benefit the organization,” she said.

The relationship between a telecommuting employee and a boss is all about communication and trust, according to Seed. She’d keep her boss informed about what she’d be working on Fridays, her telecommuting day. “She knew I would get it completed by Monday,” she said. “I would definitely suggest having an accessible way to contact each other during work hours, but also have an agreement not to micro-manage – that can suck time, energy and confidence out of an employee.” 

One drawback with working virtually is that some employees find it hard to shut off their computers and “leave” work at the end of the day. They often feel they need to be responsive to the boss’ requests even after hours. Mitchell makes it a point to remind employees that he doesn’t expect them to maintain the same work schedule he does. If he sends an email at 10 at night, it’s because that’s when he has time; he’s not looking for a response until the next day.

Lessons Learned

If you’re considering offering telecommuting options to your employees, a good place to begin your journey is with advice from organizations that have implemented it.

Davidson advises organizations to start early. “Until you do it, you don’t realize the amount of planning that goes into a smooth transition,” she said.

For teleworking to be successful, “having a timeline of activities for every role is a must. It helps us all stay accountable,” said Painovich.

Understand that telecommuting will require a culture change, and be prepared to guide employees through it. Mitchell says his staff members are sometimes reluctant to call someone who’s out of the office; he has to remind them that the telecommuters are working and should be responsive. Although there will be challenges, you may find that telecommuting helps your employees grow. “It’s nice to be trusted by my supervisor without being micromanaged,” said Seed. “It’s a big confidence booster when someone says, ‘Here’s what I need you to do, and when I need you to have it finished. Now go do your job.’”

Ready to implement remote work options at your office? View these samples of remote work policies from TSAE and Mensa.

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