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CEO Update Live: Can you ‘future-proof’ your association?

Three CEOs say they are still learning how to adjust to the many ways the pandemic has changed office work and events

CEO Update Live panel

Three association CEOs joined CEO Update on June 29 for an online discussion about the future of the association business model. Clockwise, from top left: CEO Update Editor-in-Chief Lynn McNutt, News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern, American Counseling Association CEO Richard Yep, and Association for Supply Chain Management CEO Abe Eshkenazi.

June 30, 2021
By Walt Williams

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work, and as a result, association leaders are making potentially momentous decisions about the size of their physical offices, the location of their workforces and the nature of their events.

Three association CEOs joined CEO Update on June 29 for an online discussion about “future-proofing” organizations. Each of the panelists said the pandemic had an impact on their operations, ranging from moving into new, smaller offices to accelerated employee turnover. But those changes were not necessarily for the worse.

“When we say waterproofing, we don’t want the water to come in, but future-proofing doesn’t mean we don’t want the future,” said Richard Yep, CEO of the American Counseling Association. “It means we want to be enabled when things are challenging us.”

The pandemic proved to ACA that its employees didn’t necessarily need to be in its Washington, D.C., offices to be effective. The association dipped its toes into teleworking in early March 2020¬—before offices shut down nationwide¬—by having its roughly 60 staff work from home for two days, just to see if it could be done. They could, and ACA’s staff hasn’t been back in the office since.

ACA polled employees and found that roughly 70% want to continue working from home. Armed with that information, the association terminated its existing lease in Alexandria, Va., and is moving into a smaller space that will save it roughly $15,000 a month, Yep said. While there were financial penalties associated with ending a lease early, the CEO said the group “crunched the numbers” and worked with its new landlord to make things work out.

The savings “means we can direct our resources more into things that directly benefit our members,” Yep said.

Employee expectations

The Association for Supply Chain Management, based in Chicago, is still trying to figure out what its new office environment will look like, according to CEO Abe Eshkenazi. Each of the association’s departments has flexibility on who gets to work from home, but the group’s leadership isn’t pushing for a fast return.

“Our focus right now is either the office space is safe for all or is safe for none,” Eshkenazi said. “We are not going to go into a part-time office. We believe we can provide a safe environment, but it will be different than in the past and most likely it will be a shorter duration.”

Associations need to find different ways to attract and retain talent given the new office environment, he said. Some analysts have predicted a “tsunami” of employee turnover as workers seek out new job opportunities after hunkering down during the pandemic. The wave has already crashed over ASCM, which watched its normal annual turnover rate of 10% swell to 30%.

“We've been a great place to work for five years,” Eshkenazi said. “Our salaries are competitive, we do a market analysis on every position every three years. Even still, we're still seeing a significant turnover. … Any organization right now that can find qualified talent is going to hire them, and they're going to pay salaries that we just can't compete with right now.”

One thing ASCM is struggling with is how to establish an organizational culture when a large percentage of new employees have not met their co-workers face to face. The group also is trying to figure what a telework policy looks like for different departments given some job functions more easily translate into remote work than others. The one certainty: New hires are expecting a telework policy.

“A lot of employees won’t consider a job unless it is remote right now,” Eshkenazi said. “We’re now seeing a very different requirement from the employee base in terms of what an attractive offer is to them.”

Virtual vs in-person events

Association events are also shifting. Arlington, Va.-based News Media Alliance got out of the business of in-person conferences a while back, but CEO David Chavern said he is considering resurrecting them in digital form now that the past year has shown this is a viable option.

“One of the things we found with the online world is content delivery is often better,” Chavern said.

Still, the CEO noted the downside of the all-digital experience was the lack of opportunities for networking, which is a “high-value component” of meetings. The question his association and others face is how do you deliver both components in a satisfactory way.

“When you’re doing a conference, first of all, the expectation is everything is going to be online," he said. "Secondly, you're going to have a bunch of people sitting in their hotel rooms watching the conference on their laptops then going down to the cocktail party afterward. These are really two different values and you got to think, 'How am I going to deliver on the best experience for the audience?'"

A hybrid event model is touted as a possible solution, but it is not one ACA plans to pursue, according to Yep. His association has been able to reach larger audiences with virtual events, so it is instead looking at holding separate in-person and virtual events.

“There will be a virtual one where they can do continuing education (and) renew their license to practice, and another one where they can come together for hugs and networking and all the other stuff,” he said.

“That’s the direction I think we’ll go. It will be different for every association, of course.”