Back to the office? Jewish agencies say, ‘Not yet.’

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People are ready to return to the office after a year of working virtually, said Gil Preuss. But despite falling COVID case numbers, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s CEO is cautious. More than half the country is partially vaccinated and state governments have loosened restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. But several Jewish organizations the Washington Jewish Week spoke to expressed hesitancy about calling back staff.

“I don’t want people to come back if they’re worried, constantly, about what might happen to them as they’re in the office. And so that’s one part of it,” Preuss said. “And I don’t think we’re there yet, as a community. I mean, things have changed a lot over the past couple of weeks. But I think we still need a little bit more time.”

Preuss doesn’t want to require the 55 Federation employees that worked out of its office in Rockville to return just yet. He’s concerned about potential case spikes among the general public in the near future. He also wants to wait for kids to return to school so parents won’t have to juggle transitioning back to the office with caring for children. For those reasons, he believes the earliest they’ll return is late summer or early fall.

Todd Schenk, CEO of Jewish Social Service Agency, said he is content with the status quo for the time being. Less than half of JSSA’s 400-member staff transitioned to remote work in March 2020, like administrative staff and mental health therapists. And Schenk isn’t in any rush to call them back to the office as he hasn’t seen any negative impact to their productivity or job performance. He plans to reassess the situation this summer.

“At this point it’s not mandated that people who’ve been able to successfully work remotely would need to come into the office,” Schenk said. “We don’t want to be a part of creating a new wave of infection and severe illness because we’re forcing people to come into our offices for service that they just as well could be receiving through telehealth from us.”

While employers agree that staff will return to the office eventually, the pandemic has changed some employers’ views toward remote work. Before the pandemic, The Federation and JSSA did not have a policy in place regarding virtual work. Instead, working from home was done on a case-by-case basis. After seeing the viability of virtual work, GatherDC is considering allowing staff to work virtually a few days a week, according to operations director Julie Thompson.

“Everyone recognizes and values the flexibility that this experience has given us,” Thompson said. “And we’re trying to find a way to fit that into a world when we are in the office in some capacity.”

And GatherDC isn’t alone. Federation allowed some staff to work virtually one day a week prior to COVID, but Preuss said a May 2021 staff survey showed most employees want greater flexibility in their work schedule. So Federation is considering expanding the number of virtual work days to two or three days a week.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said virtual work has its perks. He said virtual work allows staff to spend less time driving to the office. But Halber said there are downsides to virtual work too, like the loss of “spontaneous communication and collaboration that happens from being in the same office setting.”

Schenk said having some staff working from home could free up office space for additional employees or services. It could lead to organizations reducing overhead by downsizing office space. However, he’s concerned that virtual work could be seen as a perk or privilege for certain positions, as not every job can be done remotely.

Another challenge to allowing virtual work, according to Schenk, is making sure office employees aren’t benefiting more from opportunities for promotion than virtual workers due to being more visible to management. And like Halber, Schenk is worried that virtual work will lead to less collaboration and less creativity.

“We’re very much a relationship-based kind of business,” Schenk said. “And I think that gets lost when you’re working with people two-dimensionally as opposed to three.”

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