Happy to Work

It’s a fact: When your association culture is built on making well-being a priority, supporting physical health and modeling a good work-life balance, your staff thrives—and your members will, too.

At Maryland’s Howard County Association of REALTORS®, CEO Sarah Rayne, RCE, CAE, is firm about this: “Work is not your whole life dynamic.”

“Everybody has a family. Everybody has individual needs,” she says. “We spend 40-plus hours a week together. It needs to be a healthy, enjoyable experience. Is it hard sometimes? Yes, absolutely, but I like to believe, or I hope, that people know that when it’s hard, they can come to me, and we will figure it out together.”

The association executive who is attuned to staff wellness has a leg up in serving employees and, in return, gaining their full energy and capabilities during the workday. Each association crafts an approach that suits its staff needs, but the common denominators for success are genuine concern for well-being, encouraging physical activity for stress relief and health, and leading a wellness culture by example.

When Well-Being Comes First

Rayne has a one-on-one check-in with staff members every month. With six full-time people including herself, she knows that frequency is a luxury other AEs might lack, but regular check-ins are essential to establishing connections and making sure workloads are properly balanced. Recently, one staff member suggested that an assignment was outside her wheelhouse, and Rayne realized she was right.

“I want them to be comfortable enough to tell me that this is too much, and if it is too much, then that’s OK,” says Rayne. “It is really important to demonstrate empathy and make sure your staff feel seen and understood.”

New Jersey REALTORS® CEO Jarrod Grasso, RCE, finds daily opportunities for quick check-ins, perhaps asking a team member how she, her family and her department are doing when they see each other in the office gym. With a staff of 19 spread over two stories, he will sometimes take his laptop to the second-floor kitchen, where team members know they can find him for a chat.

“I love to hear about their families and what’s going on outside of the work environment,” says Grasso. “I truly care. I believe that my team members are an extended part of my family. If there’s something I can do to help them, of course, I’m going to help.”

Flexibility is another benefit that can pay big wellness dividends. Working with his leadership team, Grasso created a post-pandemic hybrid work schedule—Fridays and a choice of Tuesdays or Wednesdays to work from home—that offers a dual contribution to work-life balance: It eases the pressure on managing family duties while also expressing Grasso’s trust in the team’s abilities and integrity. “It shows that I believe in them and that they’re going to be still doing their jobs while they’re working at home,” he says.

At New York State Association of REALTORS® in Albany, CEO Duncan MacKenzie, RCE, says his directors are “present in the lives of their staff, and we always say yes to a request to leave early or take a long lunch.” The team also celebrates real holidays, made-up holidays, and every group or individual accomplishment.

Also important is building the right culture, one that avoids blame and injects a little humor. Rayne encourages a team ethos by apologizing for any missteps in a way that spotlights her ultimate responsibility for the entire team. She leads a no-blame culture, where even saying, “It wasn’t me,” is not an acceptable reaction to any errors. “I don’t tolerate anyone blaming anybody for anything,” she says. “We are a team. I’m not looking for whose fault it was.”

Rayne opens HCAR staff meetings with uplifting ice breakers. In addition, the annual staff day includes training spiced with fun, such as a recent scavenger hunt that sent staff teams scurrying to another building to find a word on a floor mat. “It’s important that you recognize them for their efforts and provide opportunities to bond and be a little silly,” she says.


“I think it is important for a manager, a boss, to set an example that a work-life balance is important.” — Andrea Bushnell, North Carolina Association of REALTORS®

The Mind-Body Connection

In one of life’s vicious circles, stress contributes to ill health, and ill health contributes to stress. Physical activity can help, but many people lack time in the mornings and energy in the evenings to tackle full-blown workouts, especially when they have family responsibilities.

That’s when the workplace can offer opportunities to get some activity and maybe soak up some sunshine.

Grasso and his team stumbled on a partial solution by chance. While building the headquarters they’ve occupied since 2016, they were temporarily housed in an office park surrounded by “a ginormous parking lot,” he says. One day, Grasso told others in the office that he planned on bringing his running gear the next day. A couple of team members joined in, and a culture of shared wellness was born.

Today, Grasso continues to encourage use of the association’s wellness amenities. Team members will send Slack messages soliciting walk-run buddies. Another group recently started yoga sessions in the office gym.

At Arizona’s West and SouthEast REALTORS® of the Valley, Vice President of Member Services Tonya Deskins, RCE, shares her love for yoga with her teammates. She and her husband, a mortgage lender, find relief from their pressure-filled days by attending yoga classes four or five times a week. Plus, following a tip from a staff member of the Austin Board of REALTORS®, she starts every day with a few sun salutation exercises.

“It’s been a way to start the day off, which helps put you in a better mind frame to get the day going,” says Deskins. “You can’t participate and hold the poses if you can’t have a clear mind, which is part of the practice—learning to let go of those problems that are circling around.”

Deskins regularly shares yoga stress-relief techniques with colleagues. For example, laying your forehead on a desk—gently, of course—puts pressure on the frontal lobe, releasing endorphins that help calm the body and release negative energy. A forward fold—a stretch where you fold your upper body over your legs—can also relieve stress. Conversations with staff and, occasionally, members aren’t built on suggestions as much as on “sharing the love of the practice and sharing how calming it is,” Deskins says.

HCAR’s Rayne is one of several staff members who leave the office and walk around the building once or twice a day. She invites staff to follow her lead or to use the empty board room as space to stretch out achy backs and muscles.

The HCAR team’s physical wellness also gets a boost from policy. Staff can leave work for a certain number of doctor visits yearly—without using PTO. Rayne discourages staff members from “having to drag themselves in” when they don’t feel well. Together, they might devise a work-from-home plan, if needed.

And if someone just feels grumpy once in a while, there’s leeway for that, too, because that’s how humans release stress. “I definitely support the staff in anything they want to do to take care of themselves,” says Rayne.

Leading By Example

Using every bit of allotted time off is essential to achieving work-life balance for MacKenzie and his staff. Equally important is allowing staff to occasionally take long lunches or leave the office early for personal reasons. “These small investments of time pay huge dividends in staff morale,” he says. “To my colleagues, I would suggest that you assume that you and your staff do not currently have the best possible work-life balance. There is always another step forward to be taken.”

AEs can also lead by example through transparency about their own challenges and obstacles. Rayne doesn’t walk around the office shouting that she is in therapy, but she makes no secret about her sessions. “You have to be mindfully vulnerable—showing them that it is OK to need therapy, showing them that the whole ‘strong CEO, no faults, perfect persona’ is not real,” she says. “It’s OK to not be OK.”

Rayne derives so much benefit from self-care and professional development books—she says Mel Robbins’ The 5 Second Rule and Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass are life changers—that she established a little staff library in her office. A new favorite of Rayne’s is Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, for its guidance on communicating and expressing empathy.

Executives should also set the stage for others by being transparent about their own commitment to work-life balance, says North Carolina Association of REALTORS® CEO Andrea Bushnell, RCE. The avid tennis player takes off days for tournaments and puts her games on her calendar for all to see, “so it gives them permission to be able to do things that are important to them, also.”

Bushnell adds, “I think it is important for a manager, a boss, to set an example that a work-life balance is important.”

All In It Together

Employees who care about one another and work well together are better able to deliver on the association’s value proposition.

“We’re realizing for the long haul, we have to come up with some kind of ritual around this and normalize that it is healthy, that this is what longevity and sustainability look like,” says Amelia Roeschlein, a consultant at the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, in Washington, D.C. “Whether you work by yourself or not, having a team or having others who do similar work call you out and ask, ‘How are you doing? What do you need?’ Like it or not, we need each other, and one of the most potent ways to feel better is to lean into someone else.”

Then, when staff feel connected and supported, that feeds into great member care. “It’s important to me that when somebody walks in the door, they are warmly greeted, and I’m not looking for it to be fake. I want our staff to be happy to be here,” says Raynes.

Grasso agrees: “The opportunity to take that mental break during the day, to kind of recharge and recenter and then go back to work—that helps staff provide a high-level service to the membership.”

M. Diane McCormick is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer and author.


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