One key to the crisis: flexibility

1 July 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

Three months of running a think tank from my home office amid a global pandemic and mass protests has taught me a simple, paradoxical lesson: for a think tank to remain stable in a crisis it needs to show flexibility itself and ask for it from its supporters.

Let me offer some background first

I’m President of the R Street Institute, an eight-year old $11 million think tank with about 65 full-time staff.

We’re based in Washington, DC, have branch offices around the country and take a practical-minded right-of-center point of view on most issues.

We don’t seek government contracts and draw our support from very large foundations and well-known private enterprises.

Our work focuses on issues like property insurance, cybersecurity and electrical grid regulation that are only sometimes in the news, while more-or-less ignoring other important issues like health insurance and immigration.

R Street’s staff might not pontificate about political horse races but if there’s a hurricane threatening Florida or a cyberattack underway, you’re likely to see our people quoted in top media outlets and advising top policymakers.

Keeping course on long-term efforts while bringing expertise to bear on issues of the day

A quarter of a year into the crisis, much of what we’re doing is business as usual. We were already working a great deal on policing issues – with a racial justice focus – and have intensified this work in light of the protests following George Floyd’s killing.

A longstanding project on the postal service engaged heavily on work to vote-by-mail. The director of our insurance policy program partnered with people in the industry and members of Congress to develop a pandemic insurance policy.

Although modified in various minor ways, long-term efforts to do things like define a right-of-center agenda on climate change and define the future of Internet regulation have continued. These issues will continue to matter well after the pandemic and we see no reason to change course.

In other cases, we’ve brought existing expertise to bear on the issues of the day. While the specifics of efforts have evolved, in short, we’ve simply stuck to our existing areas of expertise.

We remain on schedule to complete every written product we’ve promised anyone and have alternatives in mind for all but a few planned events and convenings.

Finances and people – no-layoffs, no furloughs, no pay-cuts

Of course, to continue our work in this unique time requires doubling down on the people who will do it. After a careful review of our finances and conversations with my executive team, we publicly promised my staff a no-layoff, no-furlough, no across-the-board pay or benefit-cut policy for the remainder of 2020.

Our board – all of whom I talked with in the first few days after we closed the office – have been universally supportive. This course of action will have some costs but we want to make it clear that, at a difficult time, we put our people first.

Living up to our written policies on flexibility for staff

Providing this level of continuity, however, happened only because we’ve been flexible.

While we have always maintained very flexible telework policies (a local magazine even recognised us for this ), the cascading disruptions from the pandemic made us realise that written policies simply saying we were flexible weren’t enough.

In the first few weeks, the press of work and easy availability for meetings resulted in many people staring at Zoom screens for six and even eight hours a day. Starting in April, we asked every team lead to designate a half day off during the work week to allow employees downtime – no internal meetings allowed and no obligation to respond to email right away – so that employees could attend to home, family and personal obligations.

Employees with family or other responsibilities were also able to work out bespoke schedules that met their needs.

Finding that most staff had canceled summer vacations, we announced in June that we’d take alternate Fridays off as an office through the entire summer. (Our policy of asking everyone to take an August vacation remains in force too, although we suspect that many simply won’t.)

We moved previously monthly all staff meetings to a weekly cadence (for the first few weeks we were all at home) and then to a bi-weekly one. This let our employees work where and when they needed to and remain as productive; despite a shorter working week and new flexibility, measurable outputs of our work like white papers, op-eds and events have either stayed even or increased. I doubt we could have accomplished what we have without flexibility.

Asking our partners for flexibility to meet our shared objectives

At the same time, we realised we needed to ask our partners – particularly foundations – to give us flexibility in how we met our joint objectives.

Sometimes the requests were obvious. For example, in-person dinners scheduled for the early spring became impossible to carry out as planned.

In other cases, our inability to predict the future made us want to cover our bets. We’re still hoping to conduct some in-person events this fall under one major grant but need the flexibility to pivot to virtual convenings if that’s impossible.

In addition, uncertainty plagued many aspects of our operations as many donors delayed making commitments and a few others reduced them.

Costs also changed. A switch to video conferencing and work-from-home has increased our IT costs significantly while travel costs, which were typically pretty high, have shrunk to zero.

While we never faced any danger of running out of cash, we did foresee the possibility of having to borrow against restricted funds as some donors delayed payments.

This is where our major donors came to our aid: while the specifics of how we proceeded varied, we were able to work with nearly all of our donors who had given restricted grants to gain the flexibility we needed to complete our work in a much-changed environment.

This was a team effort that involved nearly everyone in our organisation from support staff to our board chair and me. We would have continued to exist without this flexibility, but it would have been impossible for us to complete our work as effectively as we are.

Although uncertainties still exist – a global depression that lasts into 2021 would have massive impacts on every business including ours – R Street has remained stable in tumultuous times. And we’ve done it by being flexible.