Back to the office: Jewish organizations take different approaches
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COVID-19Jewish institutions plot a return to the office

Back to the office: Jewish organizations take different approaches

“We wanted to give our staff the opportunity to really ease back into the office and give them the flexibility in this interim period to adjust. That’s really important.”

After a year of mostly empty offices, Jewish institutions are preparing plans to return to in-person work. Photo by Martin Deutsch, courtesy of flickr.com
After a year of mostly empty offices, Jewish institutions are preparing plans to return to in-person work. Photo by Martin Deutsch, courtesy of flickr.com

More than 15 months after COVID-19 forced most nonessential businesses and nonprofits to shutter their doors and embrace work-from-home models, employers are now grappling with when and how to return to the office.

The strategies vary depending on the organization, and the concerns and vaccination status of its employees.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is in the midst of a “soft” reopening, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing. For many employees, the transition back to an office, he said, involves more than making decisions about childcare and commuting.

“It’s also a psychological one,” Hertzman said. “We wanted to give our staff the opportunity to really ease back into the office and give them the flexibility in this interim period to adjust. That’s really important.”

To accomplish that goal, the Federation has set a September target date — after the High Holidays — for its entire staff to return to the office full time.

There is still some fear of contracting the virus among members of the Federation’s staff, Hertzman said, including those who may not be able to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“In order to maintain a truly inclusive workforce, we need to understand that there are people who don’t have the same ability to receive the vaccination as others,” he said.

There will be some leeway moving forward in terms of in-person requirements, Hertzman continued, including for those employees who may worry about passing the virus to their children under 12 and not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Accommodations are important to maintain a competitive workforce, Hertzman said, adding that there were benefits to meeting over Zoom or through Microsoft Teams this past year.

“One of the advantages to someone that is hearing impaired has been the closed captioning,” Hertzman noted. “That is something we’re going to have to address in the office.”

Jewish Residential Services, whose mission is to support individuals with psychiatric, developmental or intellectual disabilities, had to adopt several different approaches for its employees, according to Nancy Gale, executive director of JRS.

Staff members for JRS’ supportive living program — which assists adults with chronic and persistent mental illness and/or developmental disabilities to live independently in their own homes — has worked in person throughout the pandemic, Gale said, because their work can’t be performed through Zoom or by phone. Employees at the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, a psychiatric and social rehabilitation program, in contrast, were able to utilize video conferencing software and the phone to contact clients on an individual basis during the worst part of the pandemic. Since March 15, 2021, however, the Clubhouse staff has been back to work fully in-person.

Behind the scenes, JRS office staff has worked in cohorts, Gale said, operating with an A and B group, limiting the number of people in the office.

“Starting after Labor Day, everybody will be back in the office full time,” she said. “Everyone is vaccinated. There is no health reason to put off having everyone come back, but in terms of managing the whole work-life balance, I felt it was important to give them some time to make plans for childcare and that sort of thing.”

When employees do return to the office, Gale said, they seem happy to see their colleagues in person and have conversations around the coffee maker.

Jewish Family and Community Services has offered modified services to its clients during the pandemic.

While the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry has remained open with staff working in person, some other services have been handled virtually — as well as in person, with safety precautions in place as needed. JFCS leadership is still developing plans for its staff to return to the building later this year, said Allie Reefer, the organization’s public relations specialist.

While many local Jewish organizations plan to return to the office full time this fall, others are taking a more tentative approach.

“What the pandemic proved,” said Aviva Lubowsky, Hebrew Free Loan Association’s director of marketing and development, “is something I already knew — that HFL’s staff can work remotely very easily. It will be interesting to see if we ever go back to traditional office hours again.”

The staff of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle — with the exception of CEO and publisher Jim Busis — has been working remotely since the start of the pandemic and has no immediate plans to return to the office full time.

“The Chronicle’s staff has always worked partially out of the office – reporters cover events, and sales reps makes sales calls,” Busis said. “When we transitioned to all virtual (except for me) it worked better than we thought it would. For now, we have no plans to re-open the office in the sense that most people would be showing up most days, but we will resume having in-person staff meetings from time to time.”

Hertzman said that the Federation had access to a team of experts for advice about returning to the office, but most businesses don’t have to dig too deeply.

“Above all else, we are following the CDC guidelines,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing to consider. You don’t have to necessarily pay for an expert. The CDC has excellent guidance.”

And, as individuals return to the office and Jewish institutions begin to welcome clients and employees in person, Hertzman noted that the struggle brought on by the pandemic won’t have ended.

“What about someone that can’t get the vaccine?” he said. “What do we do for them? In the interim, they’re going to need the support of the Jewish community. I think it’s important to think about the pandemic effort in the way we think about everything, which is cross-community. It’s almost funny to talk about reopening Federation’s offices because it ripples to Community Day School and Yeshiva School and Hillel Academy, JFCS, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry and the JCC. “

In the end, he said, it’s Federation’s ability to adapt to the community’s needs that is more important than whether work takes place in-person or remotely. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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