COVID-19 Roundtable Recap: Back to Office

May 4, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussions

This summary covers three recent iterations of Executive Networks’ COVID-19 virtual roundtable series. On April 23rd, noted researcher and author Dr. John Boudreau joined to lead a conversation on the longer-term implications of the pandemic. Boudreau has signed to lead Executive Networks’ “Back to Better” Research Project.

On April 28th and 30th members discussed some of the pressing strategic and operational challenges surfacing at this stage of the crisis. Thank you to the members who participated in these virtual roundtable discussions. This document summarizes calls from April 23rd, 28th & 30th. Some approaches discussed may have since changed.

Back to Office

  • Safety and caution: As widely reported on multiple calls, most member companies are proceeding with an abundance of caution when it comes to bringing employees back to office job sites. One member from a company headquartered in a U.S. state that has already “reopened for business” reported “no plans at this time” to bring any more than a skeleton crew back to the office environment. “We’re taking it week by week,” he said.
  • Testing: Several companies have testing—both for the virus and antibodies—as a key element of their return to work policies. One member company based in Europe has already procured 28,000 tests for employees from a supplier recommended by their home country government and has begun testing. Another asked for a preferred vendor in the U.S., but the consensus on the call (April 30th) is that testing remains patchwork and difficult in most U.S. states.
  • Getting to work: Mass transit is a well-known hotspot for viral transmission, leading several member companies to come up with alternatives to keep its employees off of trains and buses. In the April 20th member survey, 8 of 30 companies reported that they are providing some type of shuttle service for workers who normally commute via transit in some markets (see chart on the following page). One member shared on the April 28 call that their company is asking those with cars to drive into work and those without to keep working from home, for the time being.
  • D&I Implications: A member raised an important factor to consider around work and returning to the office for communities of color. In many Western cities, minorities are more likely to rely on mass transit and more likely to live in environments where social distancing is more burdensome. It is important to be cognizant of this and plan for solutions to ensure these communities’ health and safety. Other members expressed that their organizations recognize this as a significant social issue and are looking into potential solutions.

Which of the following safety measures are you implementing as you re-open (or plan to re-open) office worksites in some regions? From EN’s April 20th survey (30 total responses to this question)

Responses from the “other measures” category: Installing equipment for touchless doors; Touchless coffee and vending; Increased presence of medical personnel; Additional PTO for employees who live with frontline healthcare workers; Dedicated PPE disposal; Social distancing stickers, sneeze-guards and other PPE; Health Questionnaires; Social distancing floor markers; Serology and virology tests

Silver Linings and Future Practices

  • Better meetings virtually: A chorus of members reported a sea change in the effectiveness and productivity of large meetings. Engagement and participation has increased with every participant being virtual—as opposed to traditional large meetings with a select few in the meeting room and the rest participating virtually. One member, who already had a significant number of employees working remotely prior to the crisis, reported that hybrid in-person/remote teams have become markedly more productive with everyone working remotely on an “even plane.”
  • Agile is working: As one member company CHRO observed, people have learned to be much more focused and agile while working from home. Time in meetings has been slashed and leaders are learning new ways of operating on the fly. As he put it, “We are preparing simply for a new company—a better company, quicker company and a more nimble company.” A fellow CHRO concurred, adding, “It’s not going to completely offset the economic consequences, but I do think we will see a bump from productivity gains.”
  • Office politics evaporate: Several members reported that they’ve seen long simmering intra-company turf wars reconcile seemingly overnight. Leaders have more individual authority to drive things at speed. Everyone is focused on the things that are truly important.
  • A leadership crucible: Multiple member organizations reported exceptional and unexpected contributions from individual leaders amid the crisis. The flip side is also being reported: ineffective leaders are finding it more difficult to hide. One member CHRO was quick to warn others to be careful about the lessons they are drawing from this: “Wartime generals are not the same as peacetime Generals.”
  • HRBPs are earning their keep: Several members concurred that the best way to manage a business during a crisis is to be decentralized. In a decentralized environment, where conditions on the ground vary widely from market to market, HR business partners are vital to the running of a company. One member reported “overstretched” HRBPs, with HR professionals being redeployed from Centers of Excellence to help their HRBP colleagues.

Wellness

  • Combatting fatigue and burnout: Several members are reporting Zoom fatigue and signs of burnout in an “always-on” remote working environment. The line between work and life has blurred. Members are addressing this through communications, training and role modeling. People have to be told to step away—and they’re more likely to work weekends if they are receiving weekend emails from their colleagues. Leadership must consistently reinforce the messaging that employee health and welfare is paramount during this crisis. One member reported a new company-wide rule limiting video meetings to 30 minutes. Another recently launched a new global wellbeing platform.
  • A relief for some is a burden to others: One member company went from a 0% remote workforce to a 95% remote workforce during the crisis—a major cultural change that led to heightened anxiety. The member reported that his company recently announced it will remain 95% remote until at least August. The goal of communicating the August date was to relieve stress and anxiety around a potential return to the office, but he has since heard from workers that the idea of being home for several more months is causing stress and anxiety as well. The company is quickly ramping up its wellness programs in response. Another member shared that her company has instituted a “never lunch alone” program, buddying people up for breaks, meals and check-ins throughout the work week.

Challenges Ahead in the Near-Term

  • A pending PTO glut: Several member companies reported that their 2020 PTO usage is lagging far behind 2019 trends—partly because employees cannot travel for vacation and partly because an “all hands on deck” mentality has people reluctant to take leave. One member shared that their company is encouraging employees to take at least 5 days of vacation while working from home. They’ve also asked employees to widely share what they are doing with their time off to encourage others to do the same. Just as critical: leaders must honor these “staycations.”
  • Sacrificing privacy: Contact tracing, temperature checks, and testing are all central to limiting the spread of COVID-19, and each has significant privacy implications. As one member shared, “I think the balance between health and privacy will have to be reset. And people will mostly pursue health over privacy.” Several members reported that they are not planning on enforcing temperature checks or employee tracking, but one member said her company is already using tech tools to track who will be in the office, for what reason, and during which time period.
  • Some roles will disappear: With work getting done quicker and red tape reduced, some members are beginning to rethink which corporate roles are actually needed. A couple of members talked about making leaders more versatile. As one put it, in an uncertain world, the more you can help people with employability and versatility, the better for the company and the individual.
  • Accommodating new hires: Remote onboarding remains a challenge for many members—especially in companies without much history of remote work. But those with the ability to do so are pushing forward with new hiring commitments. One member in a severely impacted industry reported a business unit by business unit approach: If a business unit can push forward and onboard remotely, do so. If they cannot, push back the start date or rescind the offer. He added that savings in the re-location budget is being diverted to onboard remotely and support new workers. Another member in a less financially impacted industry said that his company is honoring all hiring commitments globally, but with some new policies in place—like unified start dates and, in some cases, deferred start dates with a modest cash stipend.

Macro Challenges on the Horizon

During the April 23rd Virtual Roundtable, Dr. John Boudreau added some context around his four thoughts for a post COVID-19 world.

  • The emergence of the non-institutional employee voice: Citing GE workers taking to social media to demand their production facilities begin manufacturing ventilators as an example, Boudreau predicts the emergence of a more independent, vocal and confident “voice” from the rank and file. “This is not labor unions or work councils. It’s not things HR leaders have put in place, like surveys, 360 feedback and Employee Resource Groups. It is the employee speaking on their own behalf and holding employers accountable to live up to their stated values and purpose.”
  • Alternative work arrangements: Boudreau believes the crisis will have an accelerant effect on the “deconstruction of work and workers.” He calls the gig economy “the tip of the iceberg,” predicting a future with more contract employees, more flexible work arrangements, and the emergence of tools that are much more capable of amassing and shifting workers than the services that are available today. “Everybody won’t just instantly snap back to return to the office. We won’t see people jumping back on planes to go to business meetings.”Several members challenged Boudreau on this point, instead anticipating a flight to more stable companies with traditional and more generous employee value propositions. Some large, stable, global organizations in industries less financially impacted by the crisis anticipate better access to top talent in the post-COVID world. Boudreau countered with the observation that many traditional fulltime workers are now in line for unemployment—seeing that their employers were more exploitative than they had thought.
  • Increased financial scrutiny: One aspect of the U.S. Congress’s response to the crisis stands out to Boudreau because of its unprecedented nature—at least in the U.S.: Fiscal stimulus is being doled out with strings attached, specifically prohibiting funds from being used for stock buybacks and executive bonuses. “The messaging here is that buybacks and exec pay are not for workers. I think workers are paying a lot more attention to the safety net that is being provided by their organizations. Society is beginning to link the money practices of organizations to how they are treating their employees.”
  • A recalibration of both the possible and the prudent: Boudreau notes that collective action is working in slowing the spread of the pandemic. Mass shutdowns of major cities has also ushered in unheard of reductions of pollution. “I think people are getting a hard example of how social action is bending the curve—and I think we may see this bending the curve action on climate change.”

Thank You

Thank you to all who participated for your energy and enthusiasm! We will have more of these Virtual Roundtable Discussions to continue the conversation and send out surveys and resources on specific topics concerning COVID-19.

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

COVID-19 Roundtable Recap: Back to Office

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