Like many organizations across the country, the staff of Leading Edge left our office space in mid-March 2020 thinking we would be back within a week, two tops. Well, here we are almost four months later, still working remotely and incredibly apologetic to the plants we left behind (thank you for your service). Our team speaks endlessly about how lucky we are to have the luxury of being employed and working remotely. We realized that to keep our team engaged, we would have to shake things up a bit, since there is still no way to know when we will be back in an office space with each other.
While working remotely is not a new trend, most of us are used to having daily in-person contact. Whether it be a cheerful good morning to your office mate or a shared subway commute lament, there is more to being a team than just working collaboratively. It’s a human connection — a connection that has been put on pause while much of the world figures out how to move forward.
As our society contends with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, we are asking: how do we move through our daily routines while there is such a huge moment in history happening all around us? Most organizations have taken this time to look inward — to change policies, commit themselves to DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) training, and bring this new awakening into their organizations in more tactical ways. These are huge changes that are long overdue. Yet, with so many important and somber things happening around us, how can we possibly bring connection, joy, and celebration into our lives, particularly in a work setting?
Joy in a crisis
While doing some Jewish learning with our team, led by Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, I was reminded of one of the Biblical Miriam’s defining moments. When leaving Egypt, Miriam did something completely contradictory to the chaos around her. While the Israelites rushed to GTFO and couldn’t even wait for their bread to rise, she grabbed some musical instruments. She led a song of celebration after crossing the sea. Joy could be seen as frivolous and the last thing to focus on at a time like this, but the importance of hope and celebration is crucial in times of darkness. Miriam had the forethought to see that while her people were about to embark on a dangerous journey, they would need inspiration and courage. Growth is not just about surviving, it's about thriving. We must continue to celebrate and instill joy in others, or we will lose that important and beautiful piece of being human.
Operations professionals like me have a “behind-the-scenes” job. We make sure the office is filled with snacks, folks have the right supplies, and events run smoothly. We are a crucial yet often invisible thread that weaves through the entire organization and pulls together each department. So our new question is, how do we replicate the human connection in a virtual and chaotic world, while balancing the need for joy with the need for serious engagement with the world’s problems?
There’s no one right answer, of course, and all of us are still exploring new possibilities. But here are two examples of how we’ve handled it so far:
Leading Edge meets via Zoom every morning at the start of the work day. We’ve found that just saying hello to each other and having that human moment of sharing a cup of cyber-coffee gets us ready for the day. We also have a list of conversation prompts for each morning. From silly things like, “What’s your favorite dad joke?” to more introspective questions like, “What’s one thing that made you proud this week?” Coworkers have told me so many times how much they value our morning huddles. These prompts have brought us closer as human beings at a time when we all seem so far away.
More recently, Leading Edge chose to shift our morning prompts toward a more civil and human rights theme. For example, “What is your favorite POC-owned business?” and “What about America gives you hope?” We wanted to make sure we are living our values out loud. This is not a passing trend or 10-second video to swipe past. This is a turning point where we must look at our cultural DNA and decide who we want to be. Sometimes the more often you have difficult conversations, the easier they become. As long as you are approaching them in the way Coach Taylor approaches football games; with clear eyes and a full heart, you can only learn.
No matter what, the world keeps turning and life keeps on coming. I for one, enjoy very elaborate birthday celebrations, which my team graciously tolerates, or at least feigns interest in for my own appeasement. While we should be celebrating each other regularly, a birthday or milestone is a time to hone in on the gratitude for that one person. We decided to create virtual birthday cards, videos with a recorded message from each team member. They started off simple, but have become increasingly sophisticated in their artistic vision and production value. While this may be tricky for a larger organization, you can have each person say a quick “happy birthday” or limit it to your department only.
The important thing
Whether work happens in an office (maybe someday again? Theoretically?) or on your living room couch with a weighted blanket, we come to work with our whole selves. Boundaries are important, of course, but the point is that we bring our hearts onto our teams, not just our brains. When our organizations treat us not as cogs but as fully-rounded human beings — people who need fun, people who need joy, people who need to mourn their losses and fight for justice — then we can do our best work, and feel valued and happy along the way.
Cross-posted in eJewish Philanthropy on July 15, 2020.
Marisa Diehl is Operations Associate at Leading Edge.