Do Jewish Organizations Still Need Offices?

By David Bernstein

In mid-March, when Jewish professionals, along with most “non-essential” humanity, started working from home, I thought to myself: “Who needs an office anyways?”

I’ve since talked to numerous other Jewish professionals in a very unscientific survey, and they too now question the efficacy of jumping in a car or on a subway to go to a physical office space where their colleagues happen to be working as well.

Here’s what happened on that fateful day in March when “work” as we know it came to an end: people didn’t have long commutes and had more time. They were less stressed even though there was more reason to be stressed, what with the pandemic raging and all. They met more often as a staff on zoom. They held phone calls or zoom meetings with outside contacts and stopped driving around town and flying to other places. They got much better at using Zoom and other platforms, conducting break-out groups and interactive discussions. They got more work done. Of course they also missed seeing their colleagues in person.

Offices have always seemed to me – with some obvious exceptions – relics of a bygone era, when people had no choice but to sit in the same space to get a job done.

Given what we’ve learned and experienced working during the pandemic, vastly improved video conferencing technology, and shrinking organizational budgets, it’s high time we ask ourselves whether we could do without physical office space or come to a new understanding of how often our staffs need to be together in person.

Here are the possible reasons Jewish organizations or any organization might need an office:

(1) The office contains specialized equipment, such as a 3D printer, that you can’t use elsewhere. Or it holds physical files that you can’t access from the outside. Most Jewish organizations do not require specialized equipment. The only equipment most of us need is a computer and phone.

(2) The office is a place where you directly interact with customers or clients. If you work at a bank or a doctors’ office, your office is where you do business. Again, most Jewish professionals do not need to interact with clients in their offices, even if they sometimes do so. However, Jewish social service agencies, particularly nursing homes, do need physical space to carry out their missions.

(3) The office is an embodiment of the organization’s brand. A law firm with an office in Manhattan is trying to project a certain image to its clients. A hip start-up housed in a Silicon Valley loft is also trying to project an image to investors and customers, in addition to building a certain kind of culture (see #4). How many Jewish organizations really need to make such a brand statement?

(4) The office is where culture is built and sustained. When people are together, they develop synergies, think through problems and come up with solutions. Being together in a common space allows for the serendipitous encounter at the water cooler leading to a new product or service. For most Jewish organizations, this is probably the main reason to maintain an office.

There’s a fifth, often unstated reason for having an office. Managers want to keep tabs on employees and make sure they are “doing work.” In lieu of coming up with real ways of measuring productivity, they judge the effectiveness of an employee by the appearance of doing work at a desk. It should go without saying that this is a completely lame reason to have an office and that any manager or organization that judges employees in this way needs to rethink how they assess productivity.

So let’s go with number 4 – building a sustainable culture – as the main reason most Jewish organizations say they need an office. How much time do we really need to be together in person in order to build a culture? Every day? Once a week? Once a month at an all day meeting? Quarterly retreats? Might shorter, more intensive times together be as good as regular interactions?

How much time can we work from home and meet by zoom? Can we utilize occasional physical space or shared space with other organizations where we come together when it makes sense? How would we utilize the savings from doing away with our own physical office space?

And given the risks of working in a hazardous health environment, do we really need to rush back to business as usual?

Before we fall back into familiar patterns now is a great time to revisit the conventional wisdom about the value of an office.

David Bernstein is the President and CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein