by Dr Kevin G. Smith
Since 2009, SATS has dreamed about its staffing model replicating its teaching model. We teach online; the students are dispersed, and we use technology to take the distance out of distance education. Our dream has been for our staffing model to embody the same ideal: we work online; the staff are dispersed, using technology to overcome physical distance. We have been building a world-class team of dispersed staff for several years, intentionally shrinking the contingent who work at our head office. By the middle of 2020, the transition from a centralised faculty to a decentralised team will be complete. We will retain a small contingent of our staff onsite, but more than 90 per cent will work remotely. While this may sound like a radical and disruptive change, it is barely a change at all. Over the past two years, we escalated from 50 per cent of staff offsite to 85 per cent offsite. The “real SATS” has not been at the head office for more than a year—it is already a dispersed team of godly men and women who serve the seminary wherever they live. Perhaps the most reassuring realisation is that almost none of our students even know something has changed. This not only can and will work—it has been working brilliantly for two years already.
The purpose of this article is to clarify the opportunities and obstacles that accompany our decentralised dream and to answer a few common questions about the outworking of the changes.
The first question people ask is, “Why?” Why would we prefer to decentralise our staff? Is it not better to have everyone together? No, it is easier, but not better. It is easier to manage a centralised staff, but it is better for SATS to have a decentralised team. We prioritise excellence over expediency. Why is it better? There are numerous advantages, which cumulatively are a key to the future success and sustainability of SATS’s mission. Here are the five most obvious benefits.
Research confirms that staff who work from home are approximately 20 per cent more productive than those who work in an office. Staff outputs increase because they have fewer distractions, take less sick leave, and do not waste time commuting. Staff turnover decreases because they love the freedom and flexibility of working from home. In the past four years, only two full-time staff have resigned from SATS—the productivity gains from retaining quality staff are immense.
If we require staff to work at the head office, it limits us to employing those who either live in Gauteng or are willing and able to move to Gauteng. Moving cities or even countries is costly for SATS and the recruit. By employing people to work where they live, we can source talented individuals who would never consider moving to Johannesburg. God has added to our team many brilliant people who could not or would not have moved to Johannesburg to join SATS.
SATS is passionate about diversifying our staff team. Our commitment is grounded in gospel conviction—Jesus has called us to serve the global church with relevant training. To do so, we need a team of men and women from a diversity of ethnicities, nations, ages, and churches. Last year alone, we added three African scholars to our full-time academic team—Batanayi Manyika (France), Jesse Kipimo (Congo), and Seyram Amenyedzi (Ghana). If we required them to relocate to Johannesburg, we might not have secured any of their services.
We do everything in our power to keep our education affordable without compromising quality. Purchasing and maintaining the property to house a centralised operation becomes prohibitively expensive. We want to invest our resources in people and technology, not in property. Decentralising our workforce keeps our overheads as low as possible, freeing us to invest our resources in the assets that improve online education—quality people and technology.
Why isn’t everyone decentralising? If there are such great benefits, one might expect more organisations to go this way. It is a growing trend, but it requires the right organisational culture to work. There are three stand-out obstacles; we have been working to overcome them for several years as we have steadily moved the centre of our operations online.
The leadership challenge
Leading a decentralised organisation is more difficult than leading a centralised team—and the challenges are not every leader’s cup of tea. As one manager complained when her company made this change, “Managing always felt like herding cats, but now I am herding them by email.” For a shepherd, all the sheep in one fold simplifies the task. We need to work harder and smarter, and we need to be intentional about replicating dynamics that happen naturally when the people are together. SATS has been doing this successfully for years, so the final push towards completing the journey does not involve a fundamental change in how we already work.
The relational challenge
It is easier to build friendship and trust when you interact in person, but it is possible to grow real communities online. Our entire staff prays together for 15 minutes every morning. Our work teams have real-time online meetings with voice and video feeds every day, seeing and hearing one another just as co-workers would in a physical office. We encourage a culture of starting business meetings with a personal check-in since online gatherings tend to be more task-oriented than in-person ones. Once every year, we bring the entire staff together for a week of team- and relationship building—an intensive time to pray and play together.
The innovation challenge
SATS has long been an out-of-the-box seminary. We consider ourselves unconventional and innovative. We are early adopters, eager to experiment with new ideas. Radical decentralisation poses a threat to that culture of creativity. While people working from home are more productive, they are also less innovative. Interaction fuels creativity. In casual conversation, one idea sparks another, and the result is new thinking. This does not happen naturally and automatically when people work alone and interact in scheduled virtual meetings. Therefore, we have to create a culture of virtual creativity.
What do these changes mean for the daily operations of SATS? For the ordinary SATS student, they make no difference. We have been 80–85 per cent decentralised for the last year. Our staff can do their work anywhere.
What will happen to the building? We own our head office. It will remain our head office; we have no intention of moving. However, the building is underutilised. Since we want the space to serve God’s kingdom, we decided to move SATS’s offices into one side of the building, and invite our founding church to start a campus on the other side. Therefore, half the building will remain SATS’s head office, while the other half becomes a local church.
What will happen to the library? Ninety-five per cent of our library holdings are electronic books and journals. Some 15 000 printed books make up the remaining five per cent. We could leave them at head office, but they are barely used. We have at most one student per month who uses the books. Since our heart beats for the kingdom of God, we long for resources to serve God’s people. Therefore, we found a better solution. We initiated an agreement with the Baptist Theological College, a long-standing and like-minded theological institution that is just six kilometres from SATS, to merge our books with their holdings. Our staff and students will have full use of the combined books. It is a win-win arrangement that only works in God’s upside-down kingdom, in which “competitors” are brothers in Christ.
What about our availability to see students or enquirers? We will retain a few staff onsite daily, enough to assist any enquirer who drops in. The rest of our Gauteng-based staff are available for meetings at the SATS offices, but the meetings need to be scheduled.
In summary, we realised eleven years ago that God’s plan was a decentralised SATS team. For more than a year, we have been operating with more than 80 per cent of our permanent staff working remotely. We already know how well it works. The benefits far outweigh the challenges. As a ministry team, we are excited to continue serving the Lord and our students with excellence.