Should your Membership Association return to the office?

25th June 2021

What does the future of work look like for a post-pandemic Membership Association and Professional Body Sector?

To flex or not to flex

Freedom will shortly be upon us (despite an adjournment) and next month should see us revisiting wonderfully indulgent lifestyles of nightclubs, eating out, and relaxing on foreign shores (maybe). Most importantly, we will also be returning to our places of work, the hallowed ground that is, The Office. Or will we?

With Deloitte’s announcement that it is making flexible and home working a permanent fixture of their culture, and Morgan Stanley doing the opposite, the debate about what the new world of work will look like has quickened from a smoulder to an inferno.

What are leaders of trade, membership associations and professional bodies planning to do when July 19th eventually arrives? Does leading a coalition of interested parties demand a centre of gravity or, in a world of digital learning platforms, remote lobbying, digital campaigning and video conference events, is having an office a sign of opulent nest feathering?

What does Big Business think?

Last week Deloitte’s CEO, Richard Huston, declared, “I’m not going to announce any set number of days for people to be in the office or in specific locations.” Others in the commercial sector, such as Schroders and Unilever have announced similar moves accompanied by magnificent PR “wins” for their employer brands. At the same time, infamy was granted to the comments made by Morgan Stanley’s CEO, James Gorman, “If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York. None of this: ‘I’m in Colorado … and getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City.’ Sorry, that doesn’t work.” Or Goldman Sach’s boss, David Solomon, who described working from home as an “aberration” and worried about how training of the next generation of bankers would be adversely affected by remote working.

This is all well and good for multi-nationals to seize the opportunity to increase their brand impact (or not), but many Membership Sector Leaders cannot apply the decisions of large professional services businesses to their own professional responsibilities of consensus building, campaigning and learning platforms. Perhaps the Membership Sector has more in common with the SME audience than they do with Goldman Sachs.

What are SMEs doing?

Craig Beaumont, of Federation of Small Businesses, told me, “The hybrid approach to working is something we’d expect to see increase as it will in big business, however small employers are well placed to discuss it, [with their staff] adapt to it and bring it in. The experience in this area is that regulations and creating a need to design policies can end up dampening reform down in paperwork. Small employers should be given the space to develop their approach and adapt as the economy recovers.”  In short, SMEs should use the opportunity to engage openly with their teams, avoid setting rigid policies and allow working to adapt as the environment evolves.

Should HR have a say in the decision?

In a word, ‘Yes’” If your Membership Association has a Director of Human Resources, you will know how critical a stakeholder they can be to deliver the smooth operations of your association. They consider what impact a hybrid working environment can have on your association from a recruitment, retention and development perspective. If your association does not have a HR Director then there is a wealth of insight offered by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) on the subject of post pandemic preparedness that you can refer to [See here].

What actually is ‘Flexible Working’?

According to CIPD, for the sectors that have offered flexible working historically, there has always been a surprisingly low uptake of such benefits. This means that having the offer of flexible working/hybrid approach can do wonders to your association from a recruitment brand perspective but will have very low impact on how your association works day-to-day because the number who take up the offer might be fewer than you think. In the same report, the CIPD also points out that “working from home” is only one kind of “flexible working” benefit, there are many others, such as job share, zero-hour contracts, part-time working and flexitime, which could be offered and applied to your association’s employees. Although some, like zero-hours contracts, are counter-productive, others, such as job-share, can have overwhelming benefits to your Membership Association, in particular (but not limited to) improving your ability to recruit a more diverse workforce.

One such partnership is Hannah Essex and Claire Walker of the British Chambers of Commerce who, as part of the BCC’s Executive team, have acted as a tireless voice on huge issues like Brexit and COVID. One of the reasons that they have been successful during this period and over the last four years is directly attributable to their partnership in a job-share. Claire explained that “[although] many doubted the viability of our joint role, others immediately saw that two heads are better than one… The fresh legs, thinking and challenge we gave each other, and the organisation, is absolutely critical.” Claire describes the partnership as, “the best professional development we have ever had.”

They go on to discuss the concept of the job share in broader terms, organisations need to think creatively about what the right balance for them and their staff and members is. Somethings have been improved by the pandemic, for example, I can now pop into Glasgow Chamber [of Commerce] in an instant and working from home has its benefits as well. But it is not the only type of flexibility and nor should it be. Organisations need to think mindfully after the pandemic about what is right for them – and how they support their members and staff to succeed. Some people would love to return to the office but with different working patterns, or long to be away from family or shared housing to concentrate on work. We need to make sure that younger staff still get the right direction and support – there is no right or wrong way but being open to different ways of working is the right way to attract the talent and set the right culture.”

It is all about the Members?

The critical point for any membership association is, of course, your membership. If your membership demands a centre of gravity to coalesce then surely the decision is out of your hands?

If the members you represent are front line workers, then is it better that you are also seen to be mirroring their working habits? Not necessarily – Stephen Bethell of the British Retail Consortium explains that the COVID crisis has had an unforeseen benefit to his members, many of which have an employee base that are largely front line. He said, “Remote working during Covid has democratised our membership, as members have been able to make full use of BRC’s services regardless of where they are based in the country, using a digital platform. We have seen much greater engagement from our members as a result, and everyone has benefitted from a richer and more diverse dialogue, so we will continue this practice after Covid. We have also seen the benefits for our own people of having more flexibility in where they work so we will be adopting an approach when we return to the office, where the office is a base for specific activities rather than somewhere you need to go to be at a desk to do your job. This means our people have choice about where they work and why they work there.”

Which way is the right way?

Unfortunately, running a membership body can be a lonely road and there is no right answer to the July 19th conundrum. It is a judgement that needs to be made by you based on the development needs of your team, the status of your recruitment brand and the demands of your members. While some will fix their policies in stone to offer a sense of certainty after a sustained period of living on perilously shifting sands, coming out of lockdown might need you to remain flexible and resist putting too much down on paper. Consider what “flexible working” actually means and whether there are alternatives to what has become labelled “The Hybrid Model” that might suit your association better.

Given my position as an Executive Search Consultant, I meet with hundreds of leaders in the membership sector every year and so, just as last year saw a stampede towards digitalisation of services, this summer is torn by the question, do we stay, or do we go?

The answer from many leaders in the Membership Sector is:

We might be away from the desk right now, but our hats remain resting safely on the stand…

For more information, please contact Tom Ewen, Principal Consultant in our Not for Profit practice.