Upsides include cost savings and a much broader talent pool; challenges include time management oversight, coordinating communication, long-distance IT support.
If your association is in hiring mode, a key consideration is whether your employees will work together physically in a central location, or whether some or all will work remotely (also called "teleworking"). For many small or mid-size associations, having a large physical headquarters is not economically feasible; for others, it can be a conscious choice to take the remote approach or create a hybrid of the two.
With all the tools and technology available to us today, from online collaboration platforms to video-conferencing, an association can implement the setup that works best in its own particular situation.
- Cost savings. These are obvious – no need for office space and its associated expenses, such as utilities, office furniture, and so on. You need not even invest in a telephone system if your staff is small: you can utilize the capabilities of today's mobile phones;
- Unlimited talent pool. If geography is not a factor, you can cast a wide net in your recruiting and hire the very best for the job. You may even be able to save here as well, if you hire people outside areas where the cost of living is very high;
- Lower employee turnover/higher satisfaction. Although it's now a much more common offering, working remotely was initially a sought-after benefit, and it's usually welcomed as an option today. Remote employees can enjoy more flexibility and control over the rest of their lives, such as child care arrangements. As long as their work is sufficiently challenging and satisfying, distance workers tend to stick around;
- Greater productivity. Eliminate that time behind the wheel or on the subway that can sap energy and time, and replace it with more time to be productive. A remote employee doesn't have to cope with the hassle of a grueling commute, the distractions around the water cooler, or group lunches that somehow extend well into the afternoon. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that remote workers tend to put in longer hours, simply because they don't have to get up and leave for home at a set time – they may be home already and can finish the projects they've started.
- Disconnection from the mission. If your association's employees are far flung and there is insufficient effort to communicate and reinforce the organization's goals and plans, you risk having employees drift away from where they should be, which could have ramifications for your public image and your employees' priorities;
- Opportunity for slacking off/misrepresentation. Though abusers of remote work situations are in the minority, there have been some high-profile reports about possible dishonesty, such as the alleged wrongdoing at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. For some people, it's all too easy to do the minimum when the boss isn't watching. It is important to have a written organizational work plan everyone is following and mechanisms for staff to share their progress against plan;
- Communication and teamwork issues. Frankly, communication is always smoother when done in person. Emailed instructions can be misinterpreted even with the best of intentions and attitude. When managing remote employees, it’s important to schedule frequent teleconferences to ensure better communications and strengthen relationships;
- Difficulty of remote technology. How will you troubleshoot a remote employee's computer problems? If the IT person is just down the hall in an office, diagnoses and fixes are not such big deals. But if your distance worker has to take the afternoon off to visit the computer store and wait for a solution, it's a bigger challenge to productivity, as well as a potential additional expense.
- Not every job can be done remotely, or done well. Teleworking isn't always appropriate. If your organization has a significant flow of incoming and outgoing mail and packages, for example, managing these activities may be better suited to a formal office setting;
- Not every employee can be successful remotely. Self-starters and those with more initiative usually deliver higher remote productivity. A certain level of judgment also helps – someone with experience will better know when to escalate a problem or seek assistance with an issue. You may decide to offer remote working arrangements only to more senior employees;
- Don't assume that managerial skills are less needed. On the contrary, managing geographically dispersed people and projects can be more time-consuming: you can't just casually swing by someone's office or have an impromptu corridor conversation. You need to pay attention consciously and consistently to make sure no one goes off track;
- Face time is still important. Make it a point to bring people together somehow, if you can swing it. If you plan well in advance, travel bargains can be found, and the team-building results are worth it. Or perhaps you can arrange to meet your remote employees for lunch or coffee when you are traveling to their regions on business;
- You'll still need to do the paperwork. Even though people are not in the office, payroll has to be run, bills paid, checks deposited, taxes filed. You must ensure that all employment, etc. regulations are followed – in some areas, having remote workers could make gathering needed information more challenging.
If you don't want to set up physical offices but the challenges of relying on distance workers are daunting, here is another option to consider: engage an association management company (AMC). And there's more than one way to approach AMC services. Your contract can detail the activities to be performed and their associated fees, and the AMC will allocate employees' time as needed. Using this approach, you can call on expert skills as needed, without having to pay a specialist's full salary.
Or, if your association's workload is appropriate, you can have dedicated employees who work only for your organization, whose workspace is located at the AMC's offices and who can use all the services available there, from postage meters to IT assistance to conference space. These dedicated workers can even be set up as employees of the AMC or of an employee hosting company, eliminating your burden of paperwork and record-keeping.