There has been a tremendous shift over the past year and a half in the way that we “come to work” each day. Back when the pandemic hit, we were forced to stay home and recalibrate all the ways that we used to perform our job responsibilities. In a social service non-profit, such as the one I lead, the pre-pandemic days were consumed with seeing our clients in the office or in their homes, running groups at a variety of locations, working with kids in the Philadelphia schools, meeting birth mothers and adoptive parents in local hospitals, and attending a host of meetings both with our colleagues and community organizations. We were all driving quite a bit, as our agency had many locations, and we collaborated with so many organizations throughout the Greater Philadelphia area. When we got home at the end of the day, we were tired from running from our offices to meetings, to seeing people in their homes, to running groups in schools, to visiting babies in new homes.
The tiredness at the end of a long day came from the emotion that accompanies the work we do, plus the physicality of moving from place to place. I remember listening to public radio several times a day as I moved from seeing a donor, to a community meeting, to a particular office.
Over the past two years we have all adapted to working from home-seeing our clients virtually or talking by phone, and also dedicating a good amount of time to Zoom meetings and solitary record keeping in the comfort of our living rooms. Since the spring, as we’ve become resigned to the fact that COVID is here to stay and that even with vaccinations and boosters, we will all most probably get it, places of business such as ours have created new guidelines for returning to office space. Most places of employment recognize that hybrid work (at a minimum) is here to stay. It is hard to rationalize an employee coming into the office simply to do paperwork or a Zoom meeting they could do from home. Serving those in need is of course our top priority, but many of the vulnerable individuals that we serve do not want to come back into office space and are sometimes reluctant to be seen in their homes. Often buildings are sitting vacant or with a minimum of staff present. Work is getting done, but just not in the same way anymore.
How do we foster the synergies that used to occur simply by talking in person to each other throughout the workday? How does an employee develop a sense of organizational identity, pride in the non-profit’s mission, and value in those they call colleagues? This is the challenge for the new normal of work, that of maintaining the practical successes that were gained during the pandemic while strengthening the connection between employees who do extremely challenging and rewarding work on behalf of an organization.
Harnessing the bond that occurs between employees through their work while acknowledging the transition to less in person contact is a true challenge and one that’s on the minds of all executives these days. Solutions? One thing I am implementing in the fall is a monthly retreat (of sorts) where all staff come together for one day to learn, hear updates on the organization, give back to the community as a group, and have fun. Bringing colleagues together may now have to be more planned and deliberate, but the hope is that it will yield the same result, namely a greater connection to each other and the organization.
Another possible approach I have begun to consider is sharing spaces with other organizations, whether inviting community partners into our own offices, or finding new spaces to work that are made up of many organizations, all of whom need less space. A light at the end of the pandemic tunnel may be that we all work more collaboratively and under one roof, all expending less of our resources on rent and all that goes with it, and more on serving individuals as a continuum of care where they can get many needs met in one place. A big shift, but possibly long overdue.
Organizational life is evolving after many years of being stationary. Calling it just that helps to create a sense of excitement about what the future holds as opposed to ruminating on the past. And as is the case with all change, one needs to look it square in the eye and adapt.