Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

What retiree phone-bankers taught me about loving work


Published on October 14, 2020

Filed under

“I’m 84 years old. I’m not very tech-savvy,” says the woman on Zoom, apologetically. My purple-haired co-trainer and I exchange wry Zoom glances, which we’ve learned to do stealthily over the past few weeks of training 20 to 200 volunteers at a time to call potential voters in swing states. We know that despite our octogenarian’s self-doubt, in less than an hour she’ll be calling voters like a champ.

After 25 years of occasionally running training sessions ranging from software, to writing, to corporate communications, I found myself shocked and amazed this summer when I began training phone-bankers who volunteer to get out the vote. The motley, diverse groups who show up for training at the start of each shift have shown me how different work can be when everyone in the room actually wants to do their job. Call me a dreamer, but what if all our work was like this?

Everyone hates training class

To be clear, no one ever gets excited over a software training session. This usually manifests as a cast of predictable characters in the room: The Dissident who sits at the back, cross-armed and eyes rolling. The Warlock who knows more than everyone else in the room and needs to remind us. The Inquisitor whose blurted-out questions can’t wait until the allotted time. And up front—or nowadays in the main Zoom window—the hapless Instructor trying to keep things on track for everyone else.

With a class of volunteers, though, there’s a striking difference: No one is being forced to learn new tools against their will to keep their job. The Dissident isn’t there in the first place. The Warlock quickly realizes they’re not impressing co-workers, but annoying 97 standalone volunteers who want to get through training so they can start calling. 

With a class of volunteers, there’s a striking difference: No one is being forced to learn new tools against their will to keep their job. 

And the one with the blurty questions? That, I understand. There’s a lot to absorb at first, and phone-banking or texting software is often far from user-friendly. In desperation one early session, I put on my game-show-host smile and addressed the group rather than the guy who kept interrupting me: “Can everyone please hold their questions ‘til we’re done in twenty minutes? There’s 65 of us, so every minute extra is an hour of voter-calling we could be doing.” 

Then, I softened my voice to reassure the questioner: “Pat, we’ll help you and anyone else one-on-one afterward. Gladly. You’re here to call voters, so we’ll stick with you to get you calling voters today.”

Gladly was the biggest lie I’d told all week. But it worked! With some after-class help Pat was calling voters a half hour later.

Older people get tech—when they want to

The first surprise of training phone-bank volunteers is that anyone signs up to do it at all. Phone-bankers get hung up on far more often than not. Sometimes we get yelled at—by supporters of an opposing candidate or party, by people who’ve read too many Internet rumors, or by political allies who are simply sick of you calling me, I asked to be taken off your list!

Into this unwelcoming audience charges a volunteer army whose overall diversity is nonetheless dominated by one overwhelming demographic. Friends usually presume it’s college students. No. It’s retirees. Most of my trainees are ten to twenty years older than me. Few would call themselves tech-savvy. Hardly any have actually worked in tech. 

How do they get past the technical hurdles? They’re relentless. A party organizer confirmed to me: Retired people in America are how elections get done. They have a secret that quickly becomes obvious: When they claim they can’t figure out Twitter, haven’t seen Instagram, haven’t even signed up on Facebook, what they’re not telling you is it’s only because they don’t want to. 

One octogenarian advised me that when I’ve someday lived as long as he has, I’ll know immediately when it’s not worth my time to learn something new. He runs Chrome on his iPad, with a Bluetooth headset. He can FaceTime and Zoom his grandchildren. So he sees no need to spend time on Insta trying to keep up with them. He shrugged and smiled: “Do people think I have nothing to do all day?”

How do they get past the technical hurdles? They’re relentless. 

You might be surprised how many seniors are running Chrome on an iPad. They claim not to be tech-savvy. But when the pandemic’s shelter-at-home orders came down, installing and figuring out video chat was worth their time to stay in touch with family who could no longer visit. After that, using Zoom to attend phone-banking and texting class isn’t much of a stretch for them. 

Despite the learning curve and persistent problems with the various apps we use, most of my senior trainees will hang in there until they’ve got voters on the line and are clicking through the day’s list. To them, that goal is worth a first hour of frustration.

When everyone wants to get the job done

Some of them do have all day. More don’t. But nearly all my phone-banking colleagues are possessed of a sharp sense of what matters in their lives. That’s why we’re calling voters for free in the first place: helping get out the vote for an election is an effective way to not spend years being dismayed over the results.

Come November, I’ll enjoy removing my headset and putting my feet up. But I’ll miss working with a team of people on which every single person is there because they want to get the work done. I don’t expect people to work for free, but it’s so often obvious that in paying work we regularly deal with people who don’t want to be there at all. They’re there for the paycheck, or because the position gives them social status or prestige. They’re easy to spot for me: I’m a compulsive people-pleaser. They’re the people whom no one can ever please. I feel sorry for them. 

It’s been eye-opening to train and support people who can be demanding, perfectionist, or just plain cranky, but who truly want to get the work done. They complain, but it’s a different kind of complaining. They argue, but it’s to meet shared goals. When they tell me that our software or my presentation are confusing, or I talk too fast, or my slides have too much information or not enough, I know they’re actually trying to help. 

Can all our work be like this?

One volunteer copied the training slides and edited them for both content and order. “I hope I’m not stepping on any toes,” she said cautiously. I’ve worked at companies where she’d have marked herself to be fired as soon as she crossed some obscure rule in the HR guidebook. Instead, we’ve incorporated many of her suggestions. Getting an outsider’s view was terrific. It encouraged me to submit my own edits to another volunteer group’s slides. Their response: I’m now training other incoming trainers for them.

Helping get out the vote for an election is an effective way to not spend years being dismayed over the results.

Not everyone should let anyone edit their slides. But I saw how we all took input more readily when we could trust that our constructive critics were only trying to help us all do our work better.

My hope, as both employers and employees are more free to choose remote relationships rather than take what’s available nearby, is that people who really, truly don’t want to be there don’t have to be. And that those of us who eagerly come onboard, with fewer disgruntled coworkers to guard against, learn to be patient with colleagues whom we trust are trying just as hard as we are. 

In a recent training class, one older man arrived after we’d finished. He was cantankerous. He talked without facing the camera. He couldn’t figure out the software on his own, of course, but he wasn’t even sure how to copy and paste on his computer. “It’s not working,” he repeated every few seconds. “No, it’s not working.”

Can he come back tomorrow for the next scheduled training class, we asked? “I don’t get home from work until after you’ve started,” he explained.

My co-trainer and I exchanged those stealthy Zoom faces. We were both thinking the same thing: We’ve volunteered to stay online for another half hour. We have no undone tasks. This guy wants to get trained so he can get out the vote. We quite literally have nothing better to do for America right now than help him. God, he’s difficult.

Ten minutes later, our newcomer had Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V down cold and was chatting up voters a thousand miles from his hometown. As I watched him on his muted webcam, I realized it was me, not him, who had just gotten past an attitude problem. If a coworker is trying to get the work done, from now on I’ll do my job to help them. Gladly.