- Chief executives say the pandemic has pointed the way toward a near future of flexible work, a more relaxed work-life balance, and more inclusive cultures.
- Once the US emerges from its socially distanced cocoon, the new workplace could address longstanding issues ranging from overwork to a lack of paid leave.
- This feature is part of a series based on conversations with more than 200 CEOs on how business will be transformed by the coronavirus. Read more here.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US and disrupted the world of work, it threw millions of people into a strange new, entirely remote world – CEOs included.
For many of those still working amid a historic wave of layoffs, an online workplace culture has emerged – one with new strengths, giving executives a valuable opportunity to rethink their operations.
It made work more flexible because it had to be, and that flexibility might just stick.
Business Insider recently asked more than 200 CEOs at some of the world’s largest companies how business will be transformed by the coronavirus. Many described a future where some workers can pick when and where they want to clock in; where online tools lead to creative solutions; and where the climate encourages personal lives to be shared with colleagues.
“It’s difficult to draw many positives from a crisis that has had such a significant human cost and that has created such dire economic circumstances for so many families,” Lee Olesky, CEO of the financial-services company Tradeweb, told Business Insider. “I hope we’ll use it as an opportunity to ask some tough questions: Do we need to adjust the work-life balance? How can we make sure the most vulnerable are better protected? Are we really getting healthcare right?”
The post-pandemic workplace could address issues that were quietly mounting for years. Burnout, or work-induced stress and anxiety, became a clinical syndrome in 2019, and a survey last fall found that more than half of American workers said their job had harmed their mental health.
Indeed, Americans work longer hours and take less vacation than workers in nearly any other industrialized country. And the US is the only developed country without guaranteed paid leave for illness and vacation, with a federal minimum wage unchanged since the Great Recession.
Then the pandemic hit, wiping out millions of jobs, particularly those in hospitality and food service.
To be sure, the benefits these CEOs described are likely to primarily extend to workers in office settings, whose jobs can easily be made virtual.
For these white-collar professionals, work may never be the same again.
The flexible-work revolution is here
The conversation about increasing work-life balance had largely centered on a four-day workweek. And that has had some glimmers of success, as when Microsoft cut one day of the workweek at a Japanese subsidiary and saw a 40% boost in productivity. But executives said a separate breakthrough was emerging from the fog of the pandemic: flexible work.
Flexible work allows employees to choose times and locations that suit their personal and familial needs. The CEOs polled by Business Insider were consistent in acknowledging that they saw flexible work redefining their workforces after the pandemic.
Aaron Levie, CEO of the cloud-content-management company Box, said the company would “absolutely” shift to a more “dynamic, real-time” work style, defined by working from home and flexible work hours. Todd McKinnon, the CEO of the software company Okta, said the future of work would likely enable employees to work anywhere without sacrificing benefits like healthcare and volunteer opportunities.
“We used to joke about meetings that could have been emails,” said Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc, “but now we’ll wonder why we can’t just do them in our pajamas with our pets on videoconference.”
Jeff Lawson, the CEO of Twilio, a cloud-communications platform, said that “the virtual model of flexibility will always persist,” adding that “it’s up to teams to decide how they persist if they prefer to work remotely or cohabitate in an office.”
When people do return to offices, Lawson said, “we’ll see a lot fewer people five days a week and more people who will work from home one to two days a week.”
Arthur Sadoun, CEO of the advertising holding company Publicis, agreed, saying that “today, no one cares if the work is in London and the talent that can take it on is in Chicago – everyone is working remotely.”
The new flexibility “will benefit employees and leaders alike by boosting team morale,” said Carolyn Childers, CEO of Chief, a private network for female professionals, adding that remote work is a widely sought-after employee benefit. In a February survey of 1,000 US professionals conducted by Deloitte, 94% indicated that they would “benefit from work flexibility.”
It could help companies save on travel costs and rent, Childers said, as well as increase access to new, diverse talent pools beyond the city where the company is based, potentially transforming the job markets in rural areas.
Tech could overhaul brainstorming and communication
A downside of a mostly remote workforce could be a kind of “Zoom fatigue,” or overexposure to videoconferencing. But online meetings might also benefit employers – with the right technology.
“We used to think that idea-making – to get to the creative part of the business – idea-making had to have a human touch,” said Gail Heimann, the CEO of the public-relations firm Weber Shandwick. “You had to be in the room. You had to be kicking it around. You have to be throwing stuff at each other and eating pizza. But idea-making can completely thrive in this virtualized world.”
Joe Lusardi, CEO of Curaleaf, a cannabis company, said that going forward there would need to be “good justification” for taking business trips for meetings that could have been done on Zoom.
Some research has suggested that brainstorming online might be more effective than booking a conference room and ordering lunch. A 2007 meta-analysis found that 70% of participants came up with more creative ideas when brainstorming virtually than in person.
Harvard Business Review’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has found that while traditional meetings typically have a couple of extroverts dominating the conversation, online meetings give participants a sense of anonymity that allows for more balanced conversations.
“The shift to a more personal way of using digital communications, face-to-face video, and information sharing will definitely continue to be more prevalent,” said Martin Fritsches, the CEO of Rolls-Royce North America.
But a lot is lost in video calls too. As teams rely on chat rooms for day-to-day communication, they can lose nonverbal cues that establish tone and urgency. Clear communication will be one of the hallmarks of a successful organisation “now more than ever,” said Mindy Grossman, the CEO of WW.
“No question about it, streaming video works – but it is not the same,” said David Brickman, the CEO of Freddie Mac. “The experience is different, and for certain functions and activities it does not produce the chemistry and energy that a person-to-person interaction does.”
Videoconferencing could usher in a new wave of company inclusivity – and allow you to bring your whole self to work
Videoconferencing enables colleagues to peek into one another’s homes to discover what kind of books decorate their shelves and how they communicate with their loved ones. Coworkers can see more of each other’s personal lives, which can enable them to bring their whole selves to work in ways that weren’t possible before.
Katia Beauchamp, the founder and CEO of Birchbox, a beauty subscription service, said that allowing colleagues to invite one another into their homes (virtually) had brought depth to relationships at work “that would take months or years to create.”
Jenny Johnson, CEO of the investment manager Franklin Templeton, said that video calls had “naturally become more personal as kids and pets weave in and out of the frame” and that the technology was actually an improvement on much of what came before.
Childers said she had been pleasantly surprised that her prediction that remote work would harm company culture and connectedness “has not manifested.” Many teams are growing closer while working remotely – virtually building relationships with one another’s children, removing the corporate facade, and honestly discussing mental health, uncertainty, and coping, she said. Her team even created something called Camp Chief, where teammates “virtually babysit” their colleagues’ children.
White-collar workforces in the US are still essentially homogenous. In 2019, men and women of colour made up 16% and 18% of entry-level roles at 590 major US corporations, according to McKinsey research, and those percentages diminished further up the management ladder. In a 2019 Glassdoor survey of working professionals, 42% of American workers said they had experienced or seen racism at work. In another survey, half of LGBTQ employees reported hearing or experiencing verbal discrimination.
The pandemic that brought colleagues into one another’s living rooms could be the catalyst that makes this diversity a fact of life.
“Meetings that were once routine are now happening in makeshift offices, surrounded by family photos, interrupted by energetic kids and pets, and opening up a much deeper level of personal connection,” said Lawrence Raffone, CEO of Edelman Financial Engines. “I’m seeing more people be vulnerable and sharing how this crisis has impacted their lives, each in different ways.”