Might We Love Going to Work?

If our Jewish organizations are not places that attract and retain talent, then the question of the quality of what these organizations are producing becomes moot.

by Maya Bernstein

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, entitled “Why You Hate Work,” the article’s authors quote Luke Kissam, the chief executive of Albemarle, a multibillion-dollar chemical company. He shares “that his life was increasingly overwhelming – ‘I just felt that no matter what I was doing, I was always getting pulled somewhere else,” he explained. “It seemed like I was always cheating someone – my company, my family, myself. I couldn’t truly focus on anything.’”

If that sounds familiar (the life being overwhelming part, not the running a multibillion dollar company part), it turns out that you’re not alone. Citing a recent Gallup report, the authors conclude that “For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and … it’s getting worse.”

Similar findings are shaking the Jewish professional world. In 2013, The Tarrytown Group, an informal group of senior Jewish foundation and Federation leaders, hired the Bridgespan Group to conduct a field analysis to understand what work is needed to attract and retain high-quality leadership for Jewish nonprofits. Their findings led to the creation of the Leadership Pipelines Initiative to increase the number, quality, and retention of top leadership in the Jewish nonprofit sector. Workplace satisfaction, then, is plaguing our community as well. We have not put enough energy and attention into how our organizations are designed and run, and have not focused enough of our creative energies on how to ensure that our workplaces are cutting-edge, meaningful, enriching places to work.

The ramifications of this are perhaps as dire as the ramifications of having organizations that are not meeting the needs of their constituencies. If our Jewish organizations are not places that attract and retain talent, then the question of the quality of what these organizations are producing becomes moot. Unless we have a vibrant pipeline of knowledgeable, committed, creative people who devote their energies and talents to the Jewish community, it is inevitable that our community will not offer the quality of offerings that will attract and offer meaning to today’s Jews.

What are people looking for in today’s work environments? The article’s authors have found that:

“Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work … The more needs met, the more positive the impact.”

This echoes the findings of Daniel Pink, who, in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” explains that three basic things drive better performance: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

The Jewish community is at an early advantage; by definition, individuals who choose to devote their professional lives to the Jewish community feel connected to a higher purpose at work. The problem, though, is that because we know that people are devoted not only to their institutional missions, but to the overarching desire to keep Judaism vibrant, meaningful, and relevant, we tend to slack off in the other areas. And, increasingly, that spiritual/purpose satisfaction is not enough to make up for the lack of autonomy and mastery, physical, mental, and emotional satisfaction, that is necessary.

I feel lucky that I have had the opportunity to work in an environment that has supported my professional autonomy and mastery. Over the past eight years that I have worked for UpStart, I have never had to show up every day at UpStart’s offices, which are over an hour commute from where I live. I work from home two days a week, and commute to the office two days a week, and do not work on Fridays. I am an example of the author’s findings “that employees have a deep desire for flexibility about where and when they work – and far higher engagement when they have more choice.” New initiatives, like Office Optional, offer wonderful guidelines about how to create these opportunities for employees. Sadly, though, “many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight – a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.” I am a beneficiary of the opposite – an employer who trusted that I could accomplish my work without constant oversight, which has led to my trust of the organization, and my ongoing commitment to it.

The authors of the NY Times piece note: “We often ask senior leaders a simple question: If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused and purposeful, do they perform better? Not surprisingly, the answer is almost always “Yes.” Next we ask, “So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?” An uncomfortable silence typically ensues.”

Our community needs to begin to ask itself this question, and to use its creative talents to respond to it. The article concludes: “A truly human-centered organization puts its people first – even above customers – because it recognizes that they are the key to creating long-term value.” If we wish to continue to be the vehicle through which Judaism’s ongoing value is translated for today’s world, we must begin with better nurturing and meeting the needs of those individuals dedicating their professional lives to our community.

Maya Bernstein is Strategic Design Officer of UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.