Inflection point

How a ‘bless our workforce’ approach can help us frame the journey back to the office

Despite the pandemic’s scores of significant stressors, many Jewish organizations have thrived amidst the difficulties

As the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel grows closer and brighter, the Jewish communal workplace has reached an inflection point. For 14 months, Jewish organizations have adapted to remote and hybrid work environments, embracing digital tools—Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Padlet, Zoom, and others—to collaborate and innovate. Despite the pandemic’s scores of significant stressors, many Jewish organizations have thrived amidst the difficulties.

With the light at the end of the tunnel, now or soon, all—or nearly all—of us likely will be asked to return to our pre-pandemic workplaces, once again taking on a regular commute, travel, face-to-face meetings and conferences, and more that all are integral to in-person professional life.

This request will come at a time when Jewish community professionals whose employment remained intact, even if their particular role evolved, feel utterly exhausted or burnt out, as Dr. Betsy Stone has written about in this recent eJP article and others throughout the pandemic. Alternatively, they may feel they’ve finally adapted to a remote work environment—leaning into the benefits and conveniences of added time with family or taking a break to do laundry or walk the dog—and may resist or resent a return to the office. 

No single, one-size-fits-all approach to this request will work for every JCC, day school, synagogue, federation, Hillel, Jewish family service agency, or myriad other institutions in the Jewish communal landscape. One philosophy, however, will position each professional team for success as we begin to embrace a new, post-pandemic culture around work and life: To best meet our organizations’ missions and bottom-line financial goals, we must place the needs, interests, and passions of our staff first.

This spring, I released my book, “Bless Our Workforce,” which includes blessings (strategies) to best motivate and demonstrate how we value staff. The blessings are based on the narratives of 13 Jewish community professionals and supported by best-practice management theory and the wisdom of Jewish tradition. I wrote most of the book prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet its core message is, perhaps, most poignant at this very moment: Only if we deeply know the people who work for us and with us, can we best motivate and inspire them, as well as  demonstrate how much we value them, so they feel truly blessed at work. 

In “Bless Our Workforce,” I introduce this camp philosophy that easily applies to any organization: happy staff members lead to happy campers, who, in turn, lead to a happy camp. The philosophy suggests that when staff feel motivated, valued, and inspired, they will deliver at optimum levels, producing exceptional programs, experiences, and services even beyond what we ever could have imagined. In turn, our end users (congregants, patrons, members, funders, etc.) will be happy as well, which translates to thriving and productive organizations, and a resurgent Jewish organizational community. 

As we look toward a new work structure born of the pandemic, it will be essential for you to ask each of your staff members: What do you need? What have you learned during this time about what you need so you can feel motivated, productive, and happy at work? 

When you engage in this dialogue, you likely will not find that everyone wants to continue working remotely; in fact, many Jewish community professionals yearn to engage in-person again. Employees’ answers may require managers to think (and act) creatively to keep staff motivated, productive, and happy. Some may want to commute most days, others may not. Some, especially those in a different locale than a central or headquarters office, may still prefer Zoom meetings; others may prefer to return in person to the conference room. 

The key not only is to solicit input from your staff team, but also, as our tradition’s most recognizable Hebrew prayer, the Shema, urges us to do, we must listen and hear to ensure their needs, opinions, and suggestions are validated and recognized when leaders debate, announce, and implement new policies. We also must communicate new protocols with clarity and transparency, to show the influence individual and collective staff needs and interests had in the decision-making and iterative processes. 

Jewish community professionals are not a selfish bunch. They do this work because they are inspired by the missions of Jewish organizations and the transformative power of Jewish life. They are bolstered by devoted mentors and by the way work in the Jewish landscape satisfies their souls. If we can couple these inherent qualities with our people’s needs and interests—including fostering meaningful relationships, championing an entrepreneurial spirit, and feeding creative drives, among other blessings I write about—so they may thrive, then our field will be the envy of all others: a superstar workforce that thrives in caring, empathic, professional settings; forms collaborative cultures that flourish; and performs the truly holy work that builds and sustains community, enriches lives, and values individual’s ideas and expertise, all the while striving to meet their needs for motivation, productivity, and happiness.

If we genuinely know our people and place their needs and interests at the top of our discussions about returning to the office—and envisioning workplaces yet to be—we and the Jewish communal world will be just fine. 

Mark S. Young is the director of JResponse® at JCC Association of North America and the author of “Bless Our Workforce,” available on Amazon or Bookshop. Learn more at blessourworkforce.com