Thoughts from a Think Tank: The Shifting Work Culture

September 15, 2021
Three people talking across a table in an office

I recently moderated a Think Tank event for the Association Executives of North Carolina Young Professionals group, FUEL. This event brought association executives and their partner organizations together to discuss the problems they see facing the world and innovate new solutions to fix them.

Think Tanks do not create policy, but they do bring new ideas and solutions to the table to enable change. The format for this event was a moderated discussion where attendees submitted questions ahead of the event and then answered each other’s questions by providing ideas and feedback during the live session. It was an amazing experience watching peers help peers—especially during our ongoing global pandemic. The energy in this session was unmatched. It was exciting, scary (at times), enlightening, and ultimately gratifying. I know no greater success than being able to assist my peers in their pursuit for positive change!

This was my second opportunity to moderate this type of session, and I had an absolute blast doing so! The discussion revolved around three main topics: 1. The Shifting Work Culture, 2. The Work We Do, and 3. How Will the Work We Do Be Affected Post-Pandemic?

Because these topics are top of mind for many association professionals we engage with at Blue Sky eLearn, I’ll be sharing highlights from each in a series of blog posts titled “Thoughts from a Think Tank”. Read on for part one of this three-part series.

The Shifting Work Culture

The Office: Who is going back to the office full time? Who works in a hybrid environment? Who is now fully remote?
  • The answer? A mix of all three! Association teams primarily work in the hybrid space; however, they also represent the fully remote crowd. Industry, technology, and facility partners were a mix between remote and in-person.
  • Board meetings are now all virtual, which has led to higher engagement.
  • Some professionals are currently working in a hybrid office environment, but they are trying to figure out how to convince decision makers of the need to stay remote. In 2020, work was remote for safety concerns, but now there is a cultural shift with many desiring the flexibility of a remote office.
  • Pay attention to your teams! There is a higher risk of turnover if you aren’t listening to employees’ office preferences. “Why don’t you trust me now? I was able to perform my job well remotely DURING A PANDEMIC. Why can’t I continue?”
With business producing more demand, how do others handle feeling overworked due to lack of staffing? What creative ways are people attempting to find staffing?
  • Many employees are leaving their jobs because of a lack of ongoing flexibility. Turnover is an issue all around, which can impact client/member relationships.
  • One of the hotel members mentioned they are struggling to hire; and when they do hire, they sometimes find that new employees won’t show up for their shifts or will work two shifts and then disappear.
  • They are trying to incentivize employee referrals with things like pizza and ice cream parties. They’re doing anything they can to show they care.
  • Who you are hiring is so important—now more than ever! You must get the right people in the door. And when you don’t, how do you “get them off the bus”? Evaluate team members immediately through onboarding. Try a 90-day hiring period, and write the evaluation period into the offer letter. It saves time and allows space to let them go if they aren’t working out.
  • Talk openly with your team. You should be able to identify who is at risk and who is dedicated to being there through the tough times as well as the good.
  • At the end of the day, the work is never done. But, the thing people love most about Association careers is contributing to something vitally important while maintaining the ever-important work-life balance.
How do you keep young leaders in your organizations engaged?
  • Look at your perks and benefits. Are they enough to retain great people? If they aren’t, NOW IS THE TIME TO PIVOT!
  • Try upping the ante on insurance offerings.
  • Consider increasing your 401(k) contribution…or starting one.
  • Offer continuing education opportunities or funds. Professional development and/or training programs show you are willing to invest in your employees.
  • Extend time off. There are lots of options here! Do what’s right for your business and your membership.
  • Member Engagement: Some are seeing opportunities within their membership in trade associations, increasing the seats at the table to give more access to young professionals.
  • Mission/Vision/Values: If you don’t have them, get them. If you have them, are you living up to them? Young leaders MUST see action on your mission, vision, and values.
Should you try taking a "sabbatical" at work?
  • The idea is to look at your calendar and block out an entire day once a month. You aren’t taking the day off from work, but you are taking the day off in the office. You’re instituting a no-meeting, no-interruptions day to get s**t done! This is such a great idea! So many professionals struggle with meeting mania and have a hard time moving the big rocks. A “sabbatical” day will allow you to do more of those things uninterrupted.
  • Another idea was to make Fridays a no-meeting zone for all team members.
Does your company have travel restrictions or new office policies due to COVID-19?
  • At present, no one in the group had travel restrictions; however, this is a significant consideration with teams who must travel for membership work, events, meetings, etc. Setting some basic policies and procedures will help you navigate when situations arise.
How do you reconnect with colleagues after being out of the office? Within the office hierarchy, how do you manage being in a lower rank and feeling appreciated and heard?
  • Some are super excited to be heading back into the office, while others are apprehensive about their safety and wellbeing. Yet another group would love it if they never had to go back again. Whichever group you fall into, remember that your feelings are important. My advice is to be empathetic to those who may feel differently when you return to the office. Look for visual cues of discomfort in groups, and try to make those people feel comfortable, too. And to the last group, you may not want to be in the office, but make the best of it until you can either get comfortable or find another job.
  • Office hierarchy is such an interesting struggle. I was interested in digging more into the idea of whether hierarchy subsided or increased while remote. Either way, you will always have hierarchy as well as people who misuse power, or conversely, those who don’t use it enough. When you are a lower-ranking team member, you must make your voice heard. Not by power, but by actively adding value to your interactions. Don’t speak to fill space. Be intentional about your contributions and make an impact.
  • Lastly, being appreciated and heard is all about who you are engaging with, and it is something that you CAN’T control. Practice being articulate, especially when standing your ground on an issue, but don’t bulldoze either. It’s a delicate balance to convey your message without drowning people with it. All you can control is your voice. Private conversations seem to work well and can become “coaching moments.” You will see what those with more “power” have to say, and you may find out that you were being heard all along. If possible, offer guidance to those in power. I know that isn’t always an easy place to be and that giving guidance to a leader isn’t always taken well. Leave if you don’t feel heard. Find a place where your contributions will be appreciated and where you can make an impact! Do it safely, but do it.

WOW! Such great stuff. It was so insightful to hear how people are navigating office culture in this uncertain landscape. As the world changes, so does our office dynamic. This conversation demonstrated that now, more than ever, paying attention to people is vital. “People” can take so many different forms: team members, constituents (those you serve), clients, partners, and others.

The time spent nurturing will pay off in your business outcomes. Take the time now to set yourself up for success in the future. The “loud and clear” message was to make sure you are appreciated for your contributions. There is opportunity out there, and if an organization is unwilling to show you how important you are, other places will.

Be sure to look out for the next blog where I’ll share highlights from our next topic, The Work We Do.

About the Author

Amanda Davis, CMP is our Vice President of Client Experience and has nearly ten years of experience in the association world, strategically focused on learning products. With multiple association roles as Director of Learning & Development and Online Learning Manager, Amanda has a deep understanding of the adult learning landscape and what keeps association executives up at night. Amanda recognizes the importance of strong learning technologies for today’s nimble associations and hopes through her role with Blue Sky eLearn, she’ll be able to contribute to the success of our growing mix of association clients.

Amanda graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, with a degree in Communications Studies with a concentration in Interpersonal Communications. She and her husband are parents of a four-year old, Leo. Amanda enjoys playing competitive tennis, completing DIY projects for their very own “Fixer Upper”, and community outreach activities. Seemingly she stays very busy but is always sure to make time for family fun.

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