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Remaking the Association Workplace
Refreshed Spaces

An Association Headquarters That Works for Members

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The Northern Virginia Association of Realtors staffed up and revamped its spaces to make its office more inviting and useful to members, who needed meeting space and help with new business practices like multimedia production.

Members of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors have always had a few reasons to visit its headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia: classes, events, picking up equipment like lockboxes. But there weren’t many reasons to go there and stick around.

“It was set up more like a DMV experience—very transactional, with staff sitting behind desks buried behind their computers,” said NVAR CEO Ryan McLaughlin, CAE.

That was a problem, because Realtor members have increasingly needed more flexible work environments: places to meet with colleagues and clients, quiet spots to handle paperwork, opportunities to work on multimedia promotions for their businesses. More and more, members were scrambling around the region to convene meetings. “We would have to go to a local country club or one of the rec parks to try to rent a venue of some sort,” said Michele Brantley, an NVAR member.

In 2020, NVAR began renovating its headquarters space to be more inviting and valuable for members. Aiming to switch the vibe from the DMV to an Apple Store, it cleared bulky desks out of its entry area and replaced them with standup tables. NVAR hired staffers to greet visitors and guide them through the association’s offerings, workspaces, products, and services. An underused meeting room was renovated into what NVAR calls a Collaboratory, which can be used for meetings and education. Old hardwood doors were replaced with glass ones to let in natural light and create a more welcoming atmosphere.

In addition, NVAR reworked its space to be more multimedia-friendly, as more members were investing in podcasts and video production. The association’s “digital experience team” now has a dedicated room where staff provides training on new tools and where members can make and edit recordings.

“Now members will stick around for a couple of hours and get work done. It’s been a complete shift.” — Ryan McLaughlin, CAE, Northern Virginia Association of Realtors

A New Dynamic

The changes, which were completed in the spring of 2021, have resulted in a new, more bustling dynamic at NVAR headquarters and for Realtors working in a surging pandemic-era housing market. “Now people will come in and meet clients, come in to purchase a product at the store, get help with something, and camp out in the Collaboratory,” McLaughlin said. “They’ll stick around for a couple of hours and get work done. It’s been a complete shift.”

Since the renovation, Brantley has found it much easier to gather colleagues from her firm’s multiple offices for meetings. And the flexibility of the space means it’s valuable for large and small clients. “No brokerage has a convention center, so the rooms we have access to at NVAR are beneficial for bringing back [employees from] several offices,” she said. “And for smaller independent brokerages, it’s a great place to meet a client.”

Such changes required a substantial investment, not just for the renovation but to bring in additional staff to support the new member-centric experience. NVAR created six entry-level positions that it calls communications experience and engagement specialists. They serve in part as customer service representatives, guiding visitors through NVAR’s offerings. But McLaughlin says they also serve as association ambassadors who know NVAR’s full suite of services. Because of that, they double as ears on the ground about member concerns.

“We designed the jobs in a way that’s not traditionally bucketed: ‘I only do member services,’ or ‘I only do education,’ or ‘I only do marketing,’” he said. “They do all of it. We were very intentional in identifying diverse skill sets. When they’re talking to members now, they have a full knowledge and awareness of everything that’s happening in the organization.”

NVAR’s own staff has been working in the office full time, but the headquarters renovation reflects an understanding that many members remain in a hybrid work environment. If the NVAR building can serve as a bridge between working at home and at a desk at a brokerage, McLaughlin says, the association is happy to play that role.

“We want them to feel like when they come in here, it feels like their home and it feels like their office,” he said. “Whether they’re meeting clients, doing their work, or looking for support, this is their building.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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