Remaking the Association Workplace
New Ways to Work

Building the Future With Maximum Flexibility

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That two-word philosophy—maximum flexibility—is reshaping how the American Psychological Association does business, guided by its community’s scientific work, its employees’ frequent feedback, and a CEO who knows that change is constant.

When business leaders get together and wax inspirational, someone inevitably declares an organization’s staff its “most valuable asset.” In these settings, the platitude can often ring hollow.

But when you talk to Arthur Evans Jr., Ph.D., CEO of the American Psychological Association, his thoughts on the importance of staff and their well-being in the workplace seem authentic and deeply felt. Rather than speaking in vague cliches, Evans cites specific science-based policies his organization is implementing to enhance the organization’s culture and the experience of working at APA.

“We try to base everything we do at the APA on the science, especially organizational psychology,” Evans said. “One of the things that causes stress for employees is when they’re not involved in the decision making. We’re making better decisions, and we know it has a really positive psychological effect on the staff.”

Evans, who became CEO of APA in 2017, held to this philosophy during the pandemic, relying heavily on research showing that employees need flexibility to thrive and on surveys in which staff reported that flexibility was crucial to them.

“We have a two-word policy: maximum flexibility,” Evans said. “What that means is that for people who want to work virtually, they have that option. Not only can they stay in their homes and work, but if they want to move, there are actually up to 37 states that they can move to, and some have taken us up on that.”

Evans’ push to integrate employee feedback into policy has paid off, according to Tara Davis, director of internal communications and staff well-being at APA.

“On our surveys, some people said that they were having the best work-life harmony that they’ve ever had because they are now spending more time with their families and less time commuting,” Davis said. “A lot of organizations said, ‘We have to go back to the office, back to the way things were.’ But Arthur, his philosophy has always been: We’re never going back. We’re going forward.”

Pulling Everyone Forward

While Evans and much of APA’s 543-person staff were on board with maximum flexibility, some employees expressed concern that allowing staff to work from wherever they wanted could negatively impact members.

“We have 133,000 members,” Evans said. “I doubt more than 1 percent ever come into the building. So, I was not really concerned from an operational standpoint or from a serving-our-members standpoint that staff not physically being in the building was going to be a problem.”

The APA board also needed some persuading. “I had to do maybe three or four presentations to the board to get them to feel comfortable with the decision,” Evans said. “I think that they were concerned about organizational culture. They were concerned about what this would mean for the members.”

What Evans did to sway them is what he does with staff and others he meets: actively listens to their concerns, reiterates them to ensure he understands the issues, presents the data, and explains how the data addresses the concerns. It helped that much of the data on employee well-being that he presented to the board came from members.

“Fortunately, we have a lot of organizational scientists who work in our field and are part of our membership, so we rely very heavily on that science,” Evans said.

He also pointed to APA’s own data demonstrating its performance during the pandemic. “What we know from the pandemic is that we were able to really accomplish the mission,” he said. “In fact, we have been more productive during the pandemic and working virtually than we had been even when we were working face to face.”

Evolutionary Plan

Evans recognizes that workplaces are experiencing a period of unprecedented change and that no one has all the answers in this unchartered territory. His goal is to let feedback and results guide the organization.

“We’ve done a number of things now based on feedback because we survey people, find out what’s working, what’s not, and make those adjustments,” he said. “Rather than trying to come up with one plan and implement it, doing this more evolutionary plan gives us an opportunity to make good decisions, get feedback, and then implement the next set of decisions.”

APA’s Author Evans Jr., Ph.D., and other Black CEOs share the importance of discussing mental health in the workplace.

Evans has also sought to lead on this issue, highlighting APA’s research on creating a mentally healthy work environment on its Striving for Mental Health Excellence in the Workplace site.

“I talk to CEOs all the time; we’re all trying to figure it out,” Evans said. “My biggest recommendation would be to approach these things from an organizational culture standpoint, not, ‘I’m going to do this specific program or this specific initiative.’”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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