By Leah Phillips and Emily Rothstein
Over the last decade, with increasing technological advancements, many Jewish nonprofits have adopted a dispersed structure. A dispersed organization is defined as operating out of multiple cities, often with hub-city offices and remote employees working together. However, without consistent face-to-face interaction, this structure presents unique challenges for organizational culture and health. Trust is more difficult to establish and maintain, members’ identification with their leader and organization becomes more fragile, and shared routines and experiences are not created. Employees may feel isolated from coworkers and organizational information and feel challenged by time zone management. Remote employees may struggle to thrive both as part of a team and while working alone. Many organizations experience these challenges but don’t know what steps to take to combat them.
We set out to discover how dispersed Jewish nonprofit organizations can address their unique challenges. After conducting 21 interviews with employees from four Jewish nonprofit organizations and a review of previous scholarship, we identified six critical touchpoints within organizational culture: onboarding, engagement, community and relationship building, identification, internal communication, and feedback and evaluation.
As one culture expert shared with us, “There is no right or wrong answer to this stuff. You have to decide what you want and be extremely intentional about creating it.” Organizations that are intentional about creating organizational culture have found a way to bridge the gap created by geography. We have created a list of effective practices that dispersed organizations should consider incorporating:
Onboarding: defined as a process to help newcomers learn and adjust to their workplace
- Prioritize an in-person training experience with a checklist for the new hire to maximize their time and the organization’s resources. We suggest using the one created by Leading Edge in 2018.
- Establish a buddy system in which a new employee is paired with a current employee, so they have a go-to person for any work-related questions.
- Require one-on-one “get to know you” conversations between the new employee and current employees, including executive team members.
Engagement: defined as the methods for providing employees with a feeling of positivity and fulfillment
- Designate funds for each employee to pursue professional development opportunities and encourage them to attend by sharing opportunities with the staff.
- Formalize a system for recognizing personal and professional achievements, such as an email chain, virtual party, or e-card.
- Provide some flexibility regarding where and when an employee does their work.
Community and Relationship Building: defined as the mechanisms that lead to connectedness amongst coworkers
- Require regular supervisor, department, and staff meetings that take place through video chat. We recommend at least two of each meeting per month, but the more the better. Each staff member should join meetings from their own computer, so their face and voice do not get left out.
- Encourage staff members to establish informal time during video calls for personal check-ins and updates or encourage remote staff to schedule virtual coffee breaks/lunches for two or more employees.
- Create a set of expectations regarding in-person time. We suggest that remote employees meet in person with their supervisor at least two times a year, all staff meets once per year, and each department meets once per year.
Identification: defined as the mechanisms that lead to employee connectedness with the organization
- Create an inclusive set of norms, identity, and expectations to serve as a framework for the organization before growing and expanding.
- Embrace different cultures in different offices by folding their experiences into the unified organizational culture, allowing for each office to hold their own identity.
- Require continued conversations about mission, culture, and identity and encourage each employee to pick an organizational value to focus their personal growth and learning on for the year.
Internal Communication: defined as the tools used to spread information within an organization
- Establish tools to make team meeting video calls more interactive. This can include polling, trivia, break out rooms, and multiple meeting leaders.
- Create a guide for communication across time zones that specifies times that each employee should and should not be expected to answer work-related communication.
- Require that all employees keep their calendars updated and have access to each other’s calendars to streamline the process of setting up meetings. Encourage employees to video call each other if their calendar indicates they are available to ask quick questions or to co-work.
Feedback and Evaluation: defined as the protocol used to provide performance reviews
- Each supervisee/supervisor pair should create weekly lists of things to talk about during check-ins that both people can access and update.
- Require a biannual formal evaluation process between supervisor and supervisee that evaluates personal and professional goals and includes feedback on how the supervisee demonstrates the organizational values. We recommend creating a checklist that can be used to streamline this process.
- Establish a formal process for employees to provide internal feedback to the organization at least twice per year.
Leaders of dispersed teams should recognize the challenges that their dispersed team members face, but the opportunities for increased support are promising. By incorporating these tools, as well as others discussed in our capstone paper, your organization will be better equipped to create dispersed teams with thriving employees who feel connected and motivated.
Leah Phillips and Emily Rothstein are second-year dual masters students in Public Administration at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Zelikow School. Leah is the Development Intern at Camp Ramah in California and Emily is the Development Intern at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.