Next normal

No single right way to return to work

Our greatest asset is our staff that enabled us during challenging times to be creative, collaborative, and effective

As the programmatic, academic, and — hopefully — the pandemic years winds down simultaneously, we all face myriad variations of the question, “What comes next?” For those of us who worked previously in offices, with colleagues, five days a week, the question has so many layers to peel back. We are in the midst of this process at The Jewish Education Project, and we know others are too. In the spirit of transparency and helping others, we are sharing some of our approach and thinking regarding our office reopening. We of course welcome others’ thoughts as well so that as a field we reopen in smart, healthy, and safe ways.

Over the last year and a half we’ve read the many important pieces by Dr. Betsy Stone on mental health and wellness related to the pandemic. She recently discussed the fears and subsequent struggles people may experience returning to “normal” work life after so many difficulties and changes. With her insights and pragmatic suggestions in mind, we worked to craft a return-to-office framework that simultaneously recognizes where our team was before the pandemic, what changes both as a team and as individuals they experienced, and how these individuals and our agency can be most healthy, happy, and productive moving forward. 

The result is a preliminary return-to-office framework reflecting a rich and diverse set of practices designed to create a workplace that ensures we thrive. Our team’s mental health and wellbeing is essential to how we design our workplace culture differently:

  • We are reintroducing a prolonged schedule to return to the office, offering our staff an extended period of time off during the Jewish holidays in September to recharge.  
  • We are offering a hybrid office after learning to trust our colleagues in new ways — our team’s effectiveness and efficiency remained very high throughout the past year — and seeing the added benefit for many of working from home. This structure offers “family flexibility” for our staff who care for children, for aging adults, and for themselves. 
  • At the same time, we understand that in-person collaboration is also extremely important. Our hybrid model will bring staff together on specific days of the week, for clear purposes, but allow flexibility on others.  
  • We also encourage regular breaks during the workday, as well as exercise, healthy eating and establishing appropriate boundaries to maintain a work/life balance
  • We approach all of these changes as a “year of experimentation.” We will try new things and learn new things that will help determine whether and to what extent we want or need a physical office long term. 

One of the boldest ideas Dr. Stone put forth in her recent articles was giving everyone a month off in July to rest, recharge, and refocus. We seriously explored this, and adapted this idea to an extended period in September, coinciding with the High Holidays, when everyone at The Jewish Education Project will receive consecutive days off, fully paid. We do not take this decision lightly. Yet we believe that having everyone stop work for the same extended period will enable all of us to slow down and rejuvenate (if people take time off on their own schedules, their inbox continues to fill up). 

Just as important, this all-team break marks sacred time — an extended “havdalah” of sorts that separates time before and after the pandemic. We want people to prepare appropriately for these days to ensure that work after does not bring on more pressure. Our staff, leadership, and board of directors believe it is essential to not only value the important work we do, but our hard working employees who do it. This sentiment was affirmed when a veteran staff member shared that “being treated like a whole person, knowing that my health and well-being are considered paramount, makes me want to work even harder and deliver more for the agency.”

We were able to arrive at these new policies, and recognize we are fortunate to do so, because the agency is in a strong position at this time, with our board, partners,  and funders continuing their support. After this past year, and the care, dedication and focus it took by our staff to continue our important work through an unprecedented crisis, we want to take care of them through a renewed focus on health and well-being in the workplace. These days off in September combined with the other changes are a response to the intensity and countless hours our employees worked navigating Zoom, realigning workplaces, managing stress, illness and even death of loved ones, and finding new challenges at every turn. We share our approach to hopefully help other organizations think about what works best and what’s possible for them and their team.

Our greatest asset is our staff that enabled us during challenging times to be creative, collaborative, and effective. Throughout the pandemic, we tried to demonstrate how much we value each and every member of our team.  In encouraging these new office policies, we want to show our team, our families, and our supporters that we understand that this year has been difficult. Instead of demanding an immediate return to the hectic bustle of everyday life, we encourage everyone to find the grace to move through this next transition with patience and an understanding that this too may not be easy for everyone.   

We learned this past year that things can change quickly and often, and we all must remain nimble and patient. We look forward to moving past the pandemic and our optimism is exploding with new ideas for the coming year. This is why we are taking this time now to support our excellent staff, and give them the time, flexibility and space to recover so we can move forward together, stronger than ever. 

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.