Dreaming of a Better Workplace
DECEMBER 19, 2022 | TEAM COWORKER
Over the past four years, we’ve been rethinking the kind of workplace we want to be at Coworker. As an organization supporting workers to fight for dignity and respect at work, it’s vital that we’re applying that lens to our own workplace and fighting to make it better every day. We’ve approached this work like we do everything else – as an opportunity to learn, iterate, and co-create with one another.
At the helm of this change is our departing inaugural Managing Director, Aisha Satterwhite. Aisha came to Coworker in 2018, and when she joined our small team, we could instantly feel the organization “leveling up” in its systems design and the way we worked together as a team. The changes that Aisha has initiated and guided the organization through have impacted its work in profound ways – from Coworker’s overall vision of the future we’re fighting for to our team culture and practices. As Aisha prepares to exit Coworker at the end of this year, we wanted to take this opportunity to talk about her leadership, in the hopes that it will inspire other employers in our field to look at their own employment practices and work cultures.
Here’s an incomplete list of policies and changes we implemented under Aisha’s leadership that have dramatically improved the way we work together:
- Giving ourselves time to dream. – In January 2020, we implemented a “Do You Fridays” policy that allows staff to use Fridays as time to attend to personal needs, read books, walk in the park and think about something that requires more unstructured time. It’s a time we protect from meetings, emails, and Slack messages. While it’s not technically a day off from work, the unstructured time ends up feeling like a 4-day-workweek, which is exactly what we want. In the beginning, it was challenging to condense five days of meetings into four, but over time, we each found our rhythm.
- Giving ourselves time to rest. – In 2018, we implemented a policy that provides 3 months of paid time off to anyone who has worked at the organization for five or more years. At the time, there were very few non-profit organizations who offered paid sabbaticals to employees. We’re pleased to see that more social movement organizations have adopted similar policies, and hope this trend continues. At Coworker, the sabbatical policy helps us to retain talent, providing an incentive to staff who’ve already been at the organization three or four years, but it’s also necessary as an outlet for staff to step back and reflect on the work they’ve been doing, and what they want to focus on in the future. That kind of deep reflection requires a spaciousness that is hard to find in a one-to-two week vacation.
- Making space for our lives at work. – We’re creating a culture of ease with flexible work schedules. This one hits differently after COVID. Flexible work arrangements aren’t about “flex schedules” that allow someone to work from home two days a week at a time agreed upon in advance with a manager and approved by HR (not knocking that – it’s just not actually flexible). Real flexibility is acknowledging the personal lives of staff members, that human beings have responsibilities outside work, that mishaps don’t often come with advance notice. Under Aisha’s leadership, Coworker has progressed toward a work culture that centers care, one that encourages staff to attend to their own needs and their family’s needs when necessary. We’ve affectionately deemed our team #TeamTender because of this cultural shift. If there’s a deadline that can’t be missed, we find a way to step in and take on someone’s work. It’s always a work-in-progress, but we believe a culture of care is true flexibility.
- Addressing white supremacy work culture. – We have been working on resisting practices that are common in our field and in U.S. work culture – practices like emailing after work hours or on weekends, defaulting to urgency for every project or decision, and setting deadlines that don’t leave room for reflection, processing, and unforeseen challenges. Aisha has led our team in thinking about how non-profit working norms are rooted in white supremacy, and exploring other ways we might approach our work with one another that doesn’t center productivity over people. This work is ongoing, and it continues to shape the way we think of economic justice, racial justice, and workers’ rights, and what it might look like for workers–in particular workers most impacted by white supremacy and systems of oppressions–to hold power in our jobs and economy.
- Making space to connect. – As the pandemic set-in, Aisha led our organization in partnering with a team meditation practitioner who provided optional space each week for team members to participate in zoom sessions that were sometimes joyful, sometimes nourishing, and sometimes densely emotional. Not everyone on our team takes advantage of this offering each week, but many have found it to be a critical support in their workweek, and the experience has repeatedly popped up in our team’s discussions around healing justice support for people engaged in workplace organizing.
- Designing better systems. – For many years, Coworker didn’t have an operations team, and whenever someone had a question about payroll or PTO or filing for reimbursement, we tried to crowdsource the information on Slack with one another. We had no one on the team who was responsible for internal-facing programming, culture-building, and systems design. Aisha created all of this from scratch, while hiring and onboarding a stellar ops team. Why does this matter for other organizations in our field? It’s clear we should’ve invested in our operations sooner, but it was never a priority until we made it one. As a new non-profit, Coworker’s executive team didn’t fully appreciate the importance of internal-facing systems and infrastructure to support staff in getting their work done. These systems became a foundation which we could build on–a foundation that supports all the other policies outlined in this list. You cannot have a culture of care at work without investing in operations and internal systems.
- Navigating challenges of the past few years: As workers dealt with personal loss, trauma, and ongoing uncertainty these past few years, our jobs became both a source of pain and a place to seek refuge from a turbulent world. Every organization has dealt with these difficulties in their own way, but we’re proud of the way Coworker, as an employer, has supported and showed up for staff throughout this time. Under Aisha’s leadership, Coworker encouraged staff to take extended time off if necessary, sent staff meals who were caring for sick loved ones, offered to assist with childcare and family immigration challenges, secured funding for staff to access “healing justice” resources, and adjusted workloads. The work isn’t finished, but we’re proving that you can show up for people in crisis at their jobs at places like Amazon, Publix, and Starbucks, while also showing up for each other as a team.
Workers everywhere are fighting for dignity and respect in their jobs. In the last few years we’ve seen workers fight for more humane scheduling, win hazard pay during the pandemic, and push their employers to embrace diversity and inclusion. And over the last decade Coworker.org has been there supporting these movements, from building digital organizing tools to providing one-on-one coaching, and even providing direct cash assistance through our mutual aid fund, Coworker Solidarity Fund.
But this internal element, while less visible, is equally vital to realizing a future where everyone’s work is humane, just, equitable, and safe.
It feels like a real vulnerability to talk about these internal changes publicly, but in doing so, we’re hoping to push the conversation forward on how we improve jobs and workplaces in our own imperfect sector.