New Ways to Work

AEs are managing the shifting norms of workplace flexibility.
business woman leader with arms crossed

© Delmaine Donson / E+ / Getty Images

Like everyone else, association executives had to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic without a map in the glove box or a GPS on the dash. When the world was shut down, all lanes merged home.

Now, however, that single lane has opened into a confusing interchange of options and employee expectations, starting with what Tricia Thomas calls the “Why” question.

When the subject of remote work comes up, “that’s the first question anyone is going to ask,” says Thomas, rce, CEO of Bay East Association of REALTORS® in Pleasanton, Calif. “If I’ve been able to do my job and do it well in the last two years, whether hybrid or virtual, then why do I have to come back into the office?”

Not every AE has the same answer, but learning how others have navigated the return to business as usual—and thinking through the potential hazards along the way—can help you find the right answer for your association.

A Head Start

Before the pandemic, DaVina Lara, CEO of Bridge Association of REALTORS® in Berkeley, Calif., had already explored the work-from-home landscape by allowing a couple of key employees to relocate, including her chief operating officer, whom she considered too valuable to lose despite his desire to return to his home in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Now, in addition to her COO, she has one employee in Las Vegas and another in Washington state—and she lives in Southern California. “I’m a unique breed in the industry,” she says. “I’m running an association located in the north from the south.”

Thomas also got a jump on the pandemic. Given California’s history of earthquakes, floods and wildfires, planning for an office shutdown seemed like insurance against the inevitable. That insurance paid off in March 2020.

“We shut the doors by noon [in response to the state’s pandemic shutdown orders], and we were up and running no more than a minute later,” she says. “Because we’d done some dry runs, we were able to move quickly to virtual without being concerned about what the consequences were going to be. That made me as a CEO more open-minded about the possibilities to create flexibility for the employees moving forward.”

For Thomas, post-pandemic, flexibility doesn’t mean 100% remote. That’s because preserving the culture of the office is a lot easier to do when people are physically present, she says. Although fully remote during the pandemic, save one employee who checked on the property during the shutdown, her 33-member staff is now roughly 10% virtual, 60% hybrid and 30% in-person—a percentage that’s more organic than prescriptive.

“We looked at what the jobs had become and how performance was for each individual and tried to adjust to the needs of the organization,” she says. “If virtual was going to work for the organization, then we allowed them to remain virtual. But when the shutdown ended, we needed some of the positions back in the office, like meeting and event planning, which literally couldn’t be done remotely.”

On the other hand, Lara flipped Thomas’ “Why?” question on its head. For her, the question was “Why not?”
“As we started to transition back in, I started to look at the statistics and at how other, larger companies were embracing that hybrid or work-from-home environment. I approached my board members and said, ‘Let’s really look at the necessity of bringing the staff back in.’ ”

On the MLS side, Lara and her board decided there was not a need because there was no face-to-face interaction with members. On the association side, they decided there was not a need because what had become the status quo was working fine: Onboarding was being successfully handled online, lockboxes were being successfully distributed by appointment (a process that was developed and refined during the pandemic) and virtual training was being well received, even in the post-shutdown environment.

Now, the association does some live events, some hybrid events and some virtual events, but the day-to-day operations remain virtual, a practice Lara says is still very much supported by her membership and her board—as is the fact that she lives in Southern California. The attitude, she says, is “If we can call you up and you can get it done, get it done.”

By contrast, Meighan Harris, rce, CEO of Bonita Springs–Estero Association of REALTORS® in Florida, brought her people fully back into the office in the spring of 2023 after what she calls a “tapered” return.

“We’re here to serve the members, and when I started to see a bit of strain or that it was taking away from the service the members were getting, it was time to call it quits,” she says. “I told them I’d always make considerations, but [remote is] not our normal way to work anymore.”

Similarly, Jessica Coates, rce, CEO of the Sacramento Association of REALTORS®, had her staff report back to the office in October 2022. However, she allows all her directors to approve work-from-home requests based on individual, temporary circumstances. “Everyone is appreciative that they have that option when needed,” she says. “I think post-pandemic talent retention requires employers to be open to more schedule flexibility.”

That consideration—talent retention—is never far from a CEO’s mind. Even if leaders don’t all agree just where on the work spectrum the virtual and hybrid options belong, they do agree remote working won’t go away.

“The job market is so tight, especially here in the Bay Area, that a lot of employers can be 100% virtual, and I think I would lose some highly qualified, very valuable people if I said, ‘Nope, you have to come back,’” Thomas says.

Lara concurs, adding that she also considers the virtual option a great way to expand the talent pool. If, say, she wants to hire someone for marketing, she’s not confined to employees in the Berkeley area. “I can bring in the best of the best no matter where they live,” she says. “And that’s beautiful.”

Mapping a New Path

Though it has been uncharted territory from the moment she sent her people to work from home, Thomas says she’s found the lack of a map to be liberating.

“It meant that you could be creative, and it meant that you could make mistakes,” she says. “Because there was no playbook, there was a sense of ‘Go ahead and experiment—see what’s going to work and make some mistakes. You’ve got to stumble a bit before you can run.’ ”

The upside to that, she says, was a huge bump in trust from her staff as well as her board of directors.

Building trust with staff is one thing, but AEs also have to consider the impact of remote work on their ability to identify and build relationships with volunteer leaders. “Before, I was able to go to meetings in the committees, meet with members, see who future leaders are and observe their engagement,” Lara says. “You don’t have that in a virtual world.”

Now, without that personal touch, she’s relying heavily on current leaders for recruitment, in addition to reaching out to her “boots on the ground”: staff who have more direct contact with members, such as those in member engagement or government affairs. Now, staff members feel more engaged in the process of identifying potential future leaders.

Then there’s the issue of creating policies that define the boundaries of virtual and hybrid work. For example, “If you’re scheduled to be on a Zoom meeting, you need to be at your desk, not in the supermarket or on an airplane,” Lara says.

According to Linda Russell, director of employee relations and talent development strategies for the National Association of REALTORS®, it’s also important to consider the legal implications of remote work, especially when employees live in other states or countries.

While tax implications might be the first things that come to mind, labor laws and pay considerations can raise additional questions. If, for example, an employee works from home, does the association owe that employee a desk? In states that are very employee-friendly, the laws might say yes.

What if an employee working in Chicago chooses to move to rural Kentucky, where the cost of living is lower? Will the employee’s compensation be the same? Conversely, what if the employee voluntarily moves somewhere with a higher cost of living?

And what happens to the benefits package if an employee lives somewhere that doesn’t have easy access to those benefits?

Things get even more complicated when an employee moves out of the country; visa requirements and data security issues may come into play.

Wherever employees reside, Russell says, the onus is on the association to know what laws and regulations apply. “A lot of it goes back to having strong policies and procedures and processes in place,” she says. “You want to be transparent about what the employee’s responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are.”

Although not every association has the personnel—or can afford the personnel—to take on these additional human resources responsibilities, Russell says, AEs have a range of options to help them negotiate these new complexities, from engaging with outside vendors to investigating the educational resources offered through the American Society of Association Executives or NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Development. There’s also NAR’s HR Solutions team, which offers free resources and paid consulting services.

Reaching out to other AEs can be a good place to start. “We’re all learning by doing,” she says.

And a big topic of conversation among AEs has been how to offer remote work options without veering from your organization’s “true north”—and supporting productivity through employee engagement.

The Bay East Association has added two wellness days as well as eight hours of volunteer time each year and has given everyone a health-and-wellness allowance. Employees can use the money for anything that helps them find balance—hiking shoes for hikers, lift tickets for skiers, movie tickets for families who want some extra time together.

Thomas has made extended office lunches a recurring event, aided by improvements to the Bay East association’s building, which now features an event center with a large patio and accordion-style windows that can open to the outside. The change makes the entire space feel natural and inviting, she says.

At the Bridge Association, Lara keeps employees engaged through ongoing virtual events, including Family Feud–style games, contests with prizes like Starbucks gift cards, and more adventurous undertakings, such as paint-and-sip events, where employees are sent paint kits and an instructor guides them through a painting project.

To ensure that staff feel supported without the social outlets that come naturally in an office setting, Lara has also instituted a “buddy system.” Employees are paired for a month of regularly scheduled check-ins. “You’re with a different buddy every month, whether you’re on the MLS side or the association side,” Lara says. “We’re all one big Bridge family.”

Rethinking Leadership

Going virtual, Lara says, has forced her to rethink the way she leads.

“One of the things I always did was walk into the office every morning and check on my team,” she says. “Now, I check in on Slack. I just click on them and say ‘Hey—I appreciate you. Are you doing OK?’ ”

She respects her staff’s time by making sure virtual meetings have an agenda and a stated purpose, and she’s increasingly expanded the scope of her staff’s involvement to include projects such as developing the culture statement and working on the strategic plan—tasks that had previously belonged to the leadership team.

Thomas, too, says the pandemic changed the way she manages. “I went from being a perfectionist to being a realist,” she says. “I’m more open minded, and one of the biggest benefits that came out of that is trust.”

Regardless of whether your employers are in the office or working from home, trust may be the mantra for the age of remote work.

Harris uses productivity software to track employee work habits, allowing her to confront issues before they become problems. Others, like Lara, use shareable task tracking tools to help teams stay focused on objectives and to help individuals progress toward a goal. All recognize that regular contact is vital to building and maintaining trust.

Thomas doesn’t use monitoring technology, but she does use email and Microsoft Teams to interact and has been pleasantly surprised by her employees’ willingness to be connected, even after hours.

She says it’s not an expectation, but a “lovely surprise.”

“What it’s done for me and done for them as a team is build trust—that if anybody needs anybody at any time, they’ll likely get hold of them and get a response,” she says.

Whatever challenges you face with remote work, one thing seems to be clear: Flexibility in the workplace is here to stay.

“I believe this will be something we continue to do,” Lara says. “I believe it just puts us in a position of strength and viability.”

And despite bringing her employees back, Harris agrees. “It definitely gives comfort to know that we can serve our members from wherever we are,” she says. “It’s wonderful to know that at any point in time, I can bounce from one way of doing business to another.”


Written by: Eric Johnson, is a writer living in Wisconsin.


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