By Sherri W. Morr
I have worked remotely since 2010. Before the Pandemic. Before it was popular and the new normal. In 2015 I had the idea to do a study of remote workers … who is adept at this, who qualifies, and how are they managed as at-home workers. What are the prerequisites I wondered, other than a space to work and some promise of productivity based on their experience, and yes, their style and character? Most knew what to do. Others did not have a clue, and those were too new to the organization to have experienced the organization and thus had no feel for its culture. When I interviewed candidates, I did not ask (nor was it suggested to me by HR) to ask questions of how one works independently. How do you respond to needing information? How do you learn the organizational structure? If you think you will sit in your house and work, what does that really mean. How do you deal with the frequent crisis of lack of information, or would you worry about saying ‘I do not know’?
I did not feel managed the entire decade I worked at home. Yes, I felt enabled, and surely independent. I was productive but in all honesty at my own pace and timeframe. Yes, I was accountable and scheduled weekly supervision calls which were often rescheduled to fit some higher-ups schedule. I filled out the requisite (and dreaded) Key Performance Index (KPI) monthly but over a four-year period no one ever questioned them. Not one question or explanation for further detail, or next steps. Thus, they became an exercise at best.
On the opposite end I was a manager of 11 people during a job phase from 1997 to 2010. All of these workers with the exception of one was remote … working in an office in another city, or working from a home office in another city. We spoke weekly and twice monthly we had ZOOM staff meetings before Zoom was born. I was good at supervision. I received high marks from the HR department and for the most part I felt my staff was enhanced by my supervision. They were productive. They met their numbers, some very close, other times even exceeded them. I believed as a manager to allow for as much freedom as possible as long as the numbers came in. No KPIs were required, mainly it was trust and belief in the fact these people wanted to succeed. When numbers were off, or when expectations not met, or there were so many community crises I was offering therapy rather than motivation to succeed then it was problematic. However, the key for me was to have to pull back the freedom and ask for the equivalent of KPIs so they could prove they were working. The more time I spent on figuring out the lack of productivity, the less time I had to spend in meeting my own numbers.
So, we would move to a system of reporting: 2 to 5 personal meetings (eyeball to eyeball) per week; ten phone calls attempting to close donations or begin conversations about a donation. 4 calls per week to NOT ask for anything, i.e. thank then tell them something new the organization is planning, or the best ask for advice … do you think the organization should consider adding purchasing baseball fields to our list of million-dollar projects?
Are the young and newly minted graduates of nonprofit management schools able to take this on? Are educational institutions prepared to teach the skills needed? How do you teach resilience? How do you explain reliability must be consistent? How do you teach creating stewardship and cultivation? Especially in the alone, sometimes lonely surrounds of their own homes? Where they cannot get up, walk down the hallway and find a colleague who’s smile and encouragement might add considerably to the last negative phone encounter. I doubt it. How do we train people to be engaging? How do staff come to understand they must see and be seen to become engagement specialists? How do at home staff decide on which events/gatherings to attend, to thus see and be seen. What are the criteria? Is there a budget for this?
Two almost three years ago when I approached foundations for support for such a study no one was interested. One did say it’s an interesting thought, but they were not certain it was a relevant issue. After all who really knows how many at home workers there are in the Jewish nonprofit community. Well of course I wondered that myself, thus the study. There appeared to be many issues with such a study but without having data there could be few answers or conclusions. One thing I felt secure about: young, little experienced people would not do well home alone. It was more than a feeling but a truism based on understanding the degree of peer support that is necessary and valued in Jewish organizations. Having worked off and on in several organizations for decades I have heard horror stories of first day on the job: HR reviews your benefits and gives you the organization manual, you sign papers of acceptance to all the sexual harassment decrees, and have your photo taken for your ID badge; someone perhaps a suit even takes you for lunch, he tells you about the 500 person gala held last week, and then escorts you to an office where you are placed and not even sure how one gets to the elevator in the labyrinths of hallways. You are on your own honey, good luck.
Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in and out of the Jewish community as an expert in nonprofit management. She completed an MA & an Honorary Doctorate at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She is on the Jewish Women’s Theatre Advisory Council, the board of Yesh Tikva, and a member of the Steering Committee of Chai Village LA.