Naaleh College asked Rabbi Dr. Fishel Mael, author of, Ben Torah in the Workplace, to share his thoughts on some key issues that frum people in the workplace face today.
1. How has the increase of smart phone usage influenced the work/life balance?
Sadly, we see greater encroachment of smart phone activity in all aspects of life. For some people, there is an expectation of always being available to bosses or clients. Those who are unsure of their job status are especially vulnerable to thinking that they need to be on call at all times. The mindset of repeatedly checking a device for messages spills over into all uses of the smart phone including entertainment. A person who constantly scans his phone for messages, emails, texts, and news will find it very difficult to focus on davening, learning, or a conversation with another human being. The persistent ping of stimuli can make other people and even current life events seem comparatively boring. When one finds himself watching a ballgame on a device while attending a shiva house, texting while listening to a shiur, or tuning out family members while ostensibly listening to them, it should be a warning sign about falling into multitasking mediocrity.
2. Remote at-home work options have become more widespread especially in light of the pandemic. How can a Ben-Torah better set boundaries between work, home, ruchniyus pursuits?
First, we cannot take for granted the unanticipated blessings of being forced to work from home. The negative effects of commuting are sometimes immediately obvious (think transportation/parking expenses, earlier wake-up times) but there are long-term effects on the body and the spirit that can wear a person down. Once arriving, the workplace has its share of distractions and nisyonos. The religious young man or woman has less in common with coworkers in the secular workplace compared to 10-20 years ago, in terms of religious and societal values and lifestyle. Workplace vulgarity, more casual dress, and the weaponization of inclusiveness to push certain agendas into the workplace, can lead the religious employee to feel compelled to stifle his opinions or to conform to others.
My own research shows that the all-frum work environment has advantages, but also has its own unique nisyonos. Some employees experience religious one-upmanship or conversely, resentment and teasing from less observant Orthodox bosses. Some mention too much of a “family-like” atmosphere and less of a professional/personal wall, leading to lack of privacy and uncomfortably close relationships. In that sense, working from home can solve or minimize an array of problems.
However, the downsides of working at home are also cause for concern. The workday may never end. Spouses and children may feel that they are only getting part of their spouses’ or parents’ attention. In addition, the employee may feel guilty about ignoring her children throughout the day while also apologizing to coworkers and clients about distracting tantrums during meetings. Both the children and the boss may claim they are understanding but may not evidence that tolerance for interruptions and unavailability. Transition time between a work location and home creates a buffer that can clear the mind or calm the emotions; for many teleworkers, this no longer exists. Thus, enforced COVID-19 togetherness can result in both positive and negative side effects.
There are solutions, but they may take great fortitude and the breaking of some less-than-stellar habits. For most types of work, the phone and computer could be shut down at a pre-designated time. People who are honest with themselves acknowledge that the majority of late-night emails can wait for morning. A Bais Medrash, chavrusa, or shiur can be a refuge from work-related technology, but only if the person makes themselves inaccessible except for emergencies.
At a busy stage in life, short-term and medium-range spiritual goals are absolutely necessary. An obvious area is learning. It may be finishing or reviewing a mesechta or a topic in halacha, writing down a weekly Torah thought, or any goal that is achievable but requires some daily or periodic effort and that will provide a tangible sense of accomplishment. For others, the most promising areas for growth goals may be in areas such as tefilla and chessed. A Baltimore rabbi recently urged his members to make growth commitments; it generated 350 solid ideas across the spectrum of bein adam laMakom and bein adam l’chaveiro. Take the time to determine what will work best for you.
3. Can the proliferation of frum SM and WhatsApp groups obliterate the need for actual face to face relationships with good chaverim?
Think of a continuum starting from face-to-face contact, moving through Zoom, phone, SM and finishing at WhatsApp. As one moves toward the last point of contact, there is a decreased commitment of time for interaction and more possibility for spontaneous communication. There is also less need for amenities and politeness and greater acknowledgment that all parties are too busy for more sustained interaction. You can touch more people using less time with less emotional entanglement. For some or most “relationships” or interactions, that may be all that is needed or desired – especially if one is just scheduling an appointment or meeting. The problem is when communications on the less engaged side of this spectrum totally replace the other forms of interactions. Saying hello or rushing in and out of shul or a simcha barely register as “face-to-face.” encounters. Neither the warmth nor the nonverbal communication is present. For example, if you have barely seen or spoken to someone, you can’t encourage him to share why they look worried or upset.
Especially in a time of forced isolation and limited social events, some people feel loneliness even if they spend their day interacting with others in an impersonal manner. This can be especially difficult for men, who are used to lingering in shul or Bais Medrash and schmoozing with people there rather than calling someone on the phone without a specific request or need. My own experience early in the pandemic was that if I called someone just to check on them, they invariably ended the call by saying “this means a lot to me,” not a common “guy” phrase. There are many individual differences that are relevant: if you are an extrovert, work with other people all day, have a large extended family, and are needed by other people, you may not feel the loss of face-to-face contact with others as acutely. If you don’t have these advantages, and especially if you are alone at home without sufficient work or structure, it is very important to reach out and connect with others in more personal ways.
4. If one uses an online form of Torah learning, due to work/time commitments is that adequate or can it ever replace going to an actual shiur? What is lost?
Here again, are we comparing a Zoom or phone chavrusa to a face-to-face one, a live shiur to a remote but still live one, or live learning to a video or recording. I give a weekly shiur, that for the last dozen years has been held in the library of our shul. We have temporarily switched to Zoom, and here are some things I have observed. Attending a shiur from home makes driving and parking unnecessary; it allows a person to babysit for sleeping children while learning; it affords the opportunity for children to see a parent learning at home; it also opens many shiurim to a wider audience.’
On the downside, some people may be uncomfortable speaking or asking questions, (especially after being asked at first to mute themselves!) The sense of cohesion that the chabura has developed over the years may not happen for the new members, and it may even dissipate somewhat for the original group. I wonder if it will be noticed, as it has in the past, when some members are missing. Post-shiur lingering to discuss a personal issue or to follow-up on the shiur seems less usual. Of course, not every shiur needs to feel like a chabura, but for many that is what is needed to counteract the effect of regular workplace relationships and create kinship with one’s religious friends. if this is important to you, you would benefit from finding a way to make face-to-face learning a part of your schedule. I believe the pros and cons of a live one-on-one chavrusa, by Zoom, or by phone are more subtle and may depend on the amount of privacy available to the partners.
5. What resources can a Ben Torah draw on to stand firm in his religious principles despite social expectations in the secular workplace?
As noted, COVID has squashed much of the social life of the secular workplace. What remains to be seen is whether this forced interlude will generate a real reset. The question remains: if a person spends most of their waking hours with others who do not share their values, how is one to remain resolute in their religious principles?
Accountability to a Rebbi, mentor, or chavrusa is a great help in this area. If the lifestyle and values of coworkers are more appealing than ones’ own, it requires some soul-searching: is it something I find distasteful about the frum lifestyle? Do I find my frum friends superficial, simplistic or uninformed in their views, or unwilling to fully engage? Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky ‘s book about the workplace, Ben Torah for Life, courageously acknowledges that one’s coworkers may have some fine qualities. They also value what you do for a living more than the people in shul, and they may have more time to show the empathy you are not getting from friends. That means you have to search out other frum people who share respect for what you do for a living and also value Torah even more. It is not always easy to acknowledge that you’ve grown somewhat apart from long-term friends; you don’t have to cut them off, but you need to supplement them with people who understand you.
On a more delicate note, if your long-term Rebbi or mentor answers your questions with what feels like smug dismissiveness, search for supplemental guidance from another source. It may take some effort, but there certainly are people out there who can support and guide you during this period of your life.
Rabbi Dr. Fishel Mael has been an organizational consultant for over 20 years. He assists organizations and their employees nationwide in working more effectively. Prior to starting his own organizational consulting firm, Dr. Mael was a consultant with AIR, a Washington, DC, research and consulting firm. Previously, he worked for the Army Research Institute and Unisys Corporation. Rabbi Dr. Mael is the author of over eighty book chapters, journal articles, and conference presentations on topics such as organizational culture, loyalty and retention, career progression, leadership, and work unit cohesion. Rabbi Dr. Mael lives in Baltimore, MD and can be reached at: http://www.maelconsulting.com/contact-2/