By Keshet Starr
Recently, a Florida university made headlines when it announced to its employees that starting in early August, everyone would need to report to work in-person – childcare or not (you can find more info here. This announcement generated a firestorm of controversy, and while the university has worked to adjust its message (now, apparently, only non-professors will be affected, which now means an even more vulnerable group of staff members will have their jobs at risk), the underlying conundrum is still there. As both a mother of young children and a nonprofit CEO, I’ve been wondering myself how to “boss” well during the coronavirus pandemic. Should we expect our employees to produce as usual, regardless of the circumstances? Create new hours of work or standards of productivity? Or – here’s a radical thought – just cut everyone a break?
Gone are the days where we expect employees to have a spouse at home to take care of children, run a household, and handle the myriad pesky “life” tasks that come up – at least in theory. Today, in many cases, most of our employees are part of dual career families working to balance professional and personal lives. And yet, too often our workplace cultures assume that all of the social change of the last fifty years hasn’t happened, and assigns value to employees based on hours clocked in and the slippery concept of facetime.
As a supervisor, I have worked with many employees transitioning to parenthood on the job. And what I have found is that when you can provide flexibility to a staff member during a difficult life stage – or, you know, a global pandemic – what you “lose” in time you quickly earn back in loyalty, dedication and ultimately, productivity. An employee who is treated with patience and understanding, who knows that their whole self is welcome in the workplace, will likely stay longer, work harder and provide more value to the organization. On the other hand, when organizations “nickel and dime” their employees and lose the forest for the trees, odds are those same staff members will be equally rigid with their own commitment to the institution and its goals. Supporting employees when life intervenes with normal work is not only a kind move, but a strategic one – especially for employers seeking to play the long game in attracting and retaining strong talent.
If strategy doesn’t sell you on this concept, perhaps values will. Too often, Jewish communal workspaces claim to offer diversity and equity, but espouse practices that lead to opposite results. Studies are already indicating that women are disproportionately paying the price of the lack of childcare during the coronavirus outbreak, evidenced by everything from the low amount of articles being submitted by female academics to the overall numbers of women leaving work with no viable plan to care for their children (more info right here). Expecting our employees to produce as if things are “business as usual” and nothing extraordinary is happening will negatively impact female employees more than male staff, and can therefore have a long-term destructive impact on gender equity in the Jewish nonprofit world.
As an organizational leader, I know that now, of all times, we are under enormous pressure to get things done, to bring in funds, and to prove the value of our services to our stakeholders. Certainly, we need our employees’ dedication, commitment, and, practically, time in order to meet these objectives. However, pursuing our mission in a way that ignores the very real obstacles impacting professional work right now will ultimately backfire, negatively impacting the relationships we have with staff today and the makeup of our leadership tomorrow.
In the middle of the deep stress, pain and loss this pandemic has caused, there’s one small silver lining I’m happy about: That in a world where home and work are one and the same, where we Zoom into each other’s living rooms and sunrooms and back porches, we cannot pretend that our personal and professional selves are two separate entities, masks we can alternate at will. (For instance, while on work calls today, I broke up an argument between two kids, fixed my toddler’s ponytail, and opened a somewhat alarming amount of fruit snacks.) If our workplaces take one thing from this difficult time, let it be this – the commitment to create a work culture where we welcome full, integrated people, in all of their humanity and complexity and contributions, into our offices. Trust me, our organizations will be better for it.
Keshet Starr, Esq. is the CEO of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), the nonprofit organization addressing the agunah (Jewish divorce refusal) crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide. Keshet has written for outlets such as the Times of Israel, The Forward and Haaretz, and frequently presents on issues related to Jewish divorce, domestic abuse, and the intersection between civil and religious divorce processes.