March 13 marks one year since Americans United started working from home. And March 18 marks the anniversary of The New York Times article “Working From Home in Washington? Not So Great” that featured a “Brady Bunch” picture of Americans United’s first remote all-staff meeting on Zoom, back when pictures like that were novel and not routine.
You might think that as a leader of an office where no one previously worked from home all the time, I would have to worry about a drop in productivity with such a sudden and unprecedented transition. But one thing this year has taught me is that when people have as much passion for a cause and overall good juju towards an organization as AU staff does, they will give the job their full energy, no matter where they are.
This has not been an easy time. Last year included a global pandemic, a painful racial reckoning, a bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle and a fourth year of President Donald Trump’s war on church-state separation. My colleagues also have had to battle everything from losing parents to homeschooling children to feeling isolated and lonely. Nevertheless, they brought their all and then some to the many new and old challenges coming our way.
Throughout it all, we have gained an intimacy with each other – the kind that comes from seeing a colleague’s cat stroll in front of the Zoom camera or a co-worker’s dog peacefully snoozing in the background. We’ve watched our colleagues answer children’s homework questions, break up sibling squabbles and bounce babies on their knees when meetings run long. We have undoubtedly grown closer as we have shared our home backgrounds, our struggles and also some unexpected joys during this strange period.
At the same time, we have missed the more casual interactions with each other, the ones you have when you’re on the way in or out of a meeting or bump into someone in the kitchen in search of a snack. It’s funny that while it’s physically easier to reach out to a co-worker from home because you don’t have to get out of your chair, it feels psychologically harder to just pop in on someone virtually.
But we are trying to recreate camaraderie. I hosted a weekly Zoom afternoon coffee for many months, our Vice President for Outreach and Engagement Sarah Gillooly often starts our weekly all-staff meeting with some spirited music or a contest, our National Organizer Alicia Johnson has initiated a monthly game hour and our Senior Director of Development Brittany Pfister, also a certified yoga instructor, will soon be offering AU staff a free weekly yoga class (cameras on or off).
On a personal level, I miss traveling and getting to interact in person with our supporters. But there are upsides, too, to the new online format. I can now “appear” at events in Washington state and Washington, D.C., within hours of each other. Many of our staff are undertaking more speaking engagements than before. And AU has been able to expand its reach dramatically. We had 700 individuals join our new “Summer Series” events, and more than 800 supporters participated in AU’s first-ever National Advocacy Summit.
“AU from home” has lasted longer than we thought, but we continue to work hard and achieve so much, even making progress on our strategic roadmap. In addition to organizing AU’s successful Advocacy Summit, our Outreach team also launched our first-ever Youth Organizing Fellowship and new AU Action Network. Our Legal Department filed 45 friend-of-the court briefs (and counting) fighting dangerous religious exemptions from COVID-19 public safety orders. Our Public Policy team, amidst battling a spate of discriminatory Trump regulations, created a 10-point agenda to reclaim religious freedom that we shared with the Biden-Harris administration. Our Communications team has grown our digital presence, run a series of special campaigns and placed AU in a steady stream of prominent news outlets. Our Development team has found new creative ways to connect with AU donors. And our Finance and Administration departments have kept AU running smoothly and, importantly, found new ways to support our staff through hard times.
This year has shown me that when it comes to AU, everything is possible – even if over Zoom.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.