Embracing Virtual Work: The Time Is Right

Several presenters at the #ASAE18 last week made the case that virtual work—whether full time or on a freelance basis—is an increasingly compelling option for associations. The tech is ready, but is your culture?

There was a whiff of irony in the air at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Chicago. For a conference set in one of the country’s association hubs, with a focus (as usual) on bringing people together, there was a lot of discussion about working apart.

I couldn’t possibly have hit every session about virtual work, remote work, and the freelance economy, but two that I did attend touched on some astute points about managing an association in 2018: Often, the smartest minds available are thousands of miles away; they can offer significant value at a time when the job market is notoriously tight; and their best role might not even be as full-time employees.

One Monday session, “Productively Manage a Virtual Work Environment,” covered technology tools like Slack and Dropbox, which enable close interaction among remote and onsite teams. But a huge portion of its focus was on the cultural aspects: how organizations need to set clear expectations for remote workers—such as requiring them to have a productive home work environment and establishing when they’re on the clock—and what steps can be taken to make people who work remotely feel like they’re part of the team.

Without that, you may end up with employees who are poorly suited for remote work or who don’t know how to step away, said Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. “Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, it can be too easy if you are a remote worker that’s working from home to get caught up in work and not stop,” she said.

Sometimes remote work happens almost by accident—not the recommended approach, according to Nicole Banks, associate director of membership at the American Welding Society. She works in a physical office these days, but she spent more than a decade working remotely for the North Carolina Section of the American Water Works Association. The arrangement was meant to be temporary when she left her full-time job at the organization to move to Texas. But after a series of contract renewals, AWWA made her a full-time employee once again.

The one thing I wish we would eradicate from our vocabulary is the word ‘remote.’ In this technology world, there’s no such thing as the word ‘remote’ anymore.

“This was never something I wanted to do personally; I probably would have done it differently had it been my intention to be a virtual employee,” she said.

The Monday session made a significant case for full-time remote employees as potential assets for associations, but a Tuesday morning session titled “The Freelance Revolution” went further, providing an example of the freelance model extending all the way to the top. Stuart Meyer, founder and CEO of Social Frequency, spent several years as the freelance CEO of the National Barbecue & Grilling Association, which doesn’t have a single full-time employee.

He and others on the panel—including .orgSource President Sherry Budziak and Vice President Kevin Ordonez, along with FrontlineCo President Kim Robinson—said the freelance economy gives associations an opportunity to move past the traditional thinking about what makes an employee. And while not everyone is a good fit for such a role, those who get it really get it. For example, Budziak said, digital natives who go to YouTube to learn new skills are particularly well suited to freelance work. And Meyer noted that associations often can hire freelancers who would otherwise be out of their price range as a full-time employee.

He added that associations can take an even more forward-thinking approach to virtual employees. “The one thing I wish we would eradicate from our vocabulary is the word ‘remote,’” Meyer said. “In this technology world, there’s no such thing as the word ‘remote’ anymore.”

The presenters raised a few caveats to bear in mind. For example, regulatory concerns require that employers not treat freelance as a different shade of full-time work, and freelancers should treat their work as a dedicated business and manage their earnings accordingly.

Session attendees seemed as excited about the possibilities as the folks on stage. The enthusiasm seems to extend beyond the technology tools tools that enable alternative work arrangements and into a new view of what an organization’s team can look like, especially for small associations where resources might be scarce. We might even see association-centric digital nomads one of these days.

Folks like Nicole Banks and Stuart Meyer are trailblazers for the new forms of work now spreading across the economy (for a deeper dive on that, see ASAE’s ForesightWorks research initiative). The fact that they pulled it off for so long highlights that what was once the hard part—the technology—is now the easy part. It’s been figured out.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out if your organization can create the culture needed to help new kinds of teams thrive. It’s absolutely doable—and it might make your association even more successful—but it’s harder than it looks.

(UberImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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