Jay Karen – Go Virtual

Go Virtual: How One Association Marches On Without an Office

By: Jay Karen, CAE

Published by American Society of Association Executives

Learn how one association is faring with its new virtual office. Everyone works from home, but operations are carrying on quite successfully.

Circumstances in the past few months at the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII) brought us in fairly short order to consider going “virtual” with our association office, which meant all employees would work from their homes. Several factors went into the decision, but financial considerations were certainly the driving force. Fortunately, I felt that we were in a favorable position to take the plunge. Now that we’re more than two months into our new setup, I’m happy to report things are going very well.

Nine months ago, looking to take advantage of depressed real estate prices, we were shopping around to purchase a building, having leased our office for many years. Just five months later, we found ourselves ditching the idea of getting a mortgage in exchange for a no-mortgage, no-lease plan. We were knee-deep in budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1, our lease was up for renewal, and we had a grave need to reduce our expenses for the coming year. We didn’t exactly feel forced into a decision, but we felt the timing was right for giving serious consideration to going “virtual.”

My first roadblock, I thought, would be my board, which is composed of mostly baby boomers whose profession is dependent on working in a physical space—running bed and breakfasts.

I knew a great deal of change was in store for us. The first question I asked myself and was consistently asked by others was, “Will your staff be able to do their jobs as well when isolated from you and their colleagues?” I also thought about the cultural effects on our office, because we are a tightly knit staff of six. But in many ways, I thought we were ready for it. We already communicated by way of instant messaging, even though all of us were under one roof, within twenty feet of each other. I had very little concern about the work ethic displayed by all of my staff, so I had no trust issues to resolve.

My first roadblock, I thought, would be my board, which is composed of mostly baby boomers whose profession is dependent on working in a physical space—running bed and breakfasts. This would be a big change for them to consider, but fortunately once they knew the staff would still be meeting face-to-face every Thursday, they were on board. It was important to them that we keep the office culture intact as much as possible.

“What about all of our stuff?” was another question to consider. We worked out an advantageous deal with our landlord, in which we gave them our office furniture in exchange for one year’s use of the conference room every Thursday (and other times with notice), a small space in the building for cabinets and our copier, storage space in the basement for our archives and other supplies, and use of the mailbox so that we could maintain our shipping address.

For more than 20 years, we had a staff person answer our phones on a traditional land-line system. A Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system, which now involves an automated system that transfers callers to employees’ home offices, has been working very well for us. A few staff members had technical difficulties at first, but once those were overcome, we all decided we couldn’t go back to a land-line set up even if we move back into a traditional office environment.

We’re saving a good bit of money, and we were able to easily port our toll-free and regular phone lines. We eliminated the centralized server and now use online resources to store documents and to share our calendars. Mostly we use free Google tools (e.g. Google Docs, Google Calendar). Our email server is remotely hosted on the web, so that was not an issue for us.

Naturally, many office procedures and processes had to change. Our bookkeeper comes to my house twice a week to process checks and bills that arrive by mail, rather than doing it on a daily basis. However, she updates the books remotely from her home office every day for credit-card payments received by members through our association management system.

I now have once-a-week meetings at my home office with each one of my staff throughout the work week. This allows me to have daily interaction with everyone, which is important for management purposes and to break the monotony of working alone otherwise. Because all of our staff members live within fifteen miles of me, it has not been hard calling the staff together for unscheduled meetings. I can’t call an impromptu meeting as easily, but we could hold a conference call if we needed to.

The most unexpected challenge was dealing with UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service. All of them sent important packages back to the senders because the regular delivery guys thought we had moved or went out of business. We didn’t properly notify them. Having my staff tip-toe up to my office around children napping in their rooms has added “tip-toeing around office challenges” to the resumes of my staff members. I’m not sure if I would label this as unexpected, but it seems that most of the staff are logged in and working at hours they did not previously—some early in the morning and some late at night.

From a perception standpoint, I admit I was anxious about what members and other supporters might think about our going “virtual,” as it might seem like a sign of failure. While we didn’t broadcast the news (after all, our address and phone number remain the same), all the staff are prepared with a response if we get the question, “Why did you move out of the headquarters?” The party line is that we’re saving a great deal of money in rent (which is true: tens of thousands of dollars per year), service will not be sacrificed (which is true, mostly because 90 percent of incoming requests are by email anyway), and we’re going to give this a try for a year or two and see if we accomplish more (which is true; our plans for going back to an office environment are indefinite, and everyone is reporting to be more productive in our relative isolation).

My use of quotation marks around the word “virtual” was intentional because in just about every way, we still feel like an association headquarters. We’re still a team of people working to accomplish a set of goals, just now in a different environment. There is nothing in this “virtual” environment that is preventing us from doing our jobs and doing them well. Check in with me a year from now, and I hope to report the same.

Jay Karen, CAE, is president and CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. Email:jay@paii.org

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