Featured in today's briefing:
- How to keep workplaces safe as the virus comes and goes.
- Signs that hiring is slowing.
- Why work shoes no longer fit.
The latest virus forecast: The US had about 114,000 new cases reported on Friday, up 12% from the level two weeks earlier.
The business impact: Employers could save $206 billion because workers are willing to accept smaller raises in return for working remotely. Business travel is forecast to reach 81% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and 96% in 2023. Consumer spending grew more slowly in May amid rising prices.
Focus on How Workplaces Should Approach Covid Precautions Now
Some 31% of Americans say the pandemic is over. But a roughly equal number believe they’re at least a year away from resuming their pre-pandemic life.
In this in-between, divided moment, what’s the right level of cautious to aim for? What precautions should workplaces still be taking? What’s the outlook for another virus surge this fall?
For guidance, we reached out to epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown School of Public Health. Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What are the trends or patterns right now in how workplaces are approaching Covid precautions?
What's driving it is employee preference. Different people have different levels of risk at this point. People who are fully vaccinated are well-protected against the thing we care about most, which is severe illness. But if somebody's caring for a medically fragile relative at home, they're going to view the risk of the workplace much differently than the healthy 20-year-old who had Covid last year.
From the epidemiologic perspective, taking local transmission trends into account is really important. The more Covid there is in the community, the more likely someone's going to bring it to the office. Unfortunately it’s increasingly hard to get at those trends, because a lot of the health departments are pulling back on the frequency of the information that they're sharing. National numbers don't really tell you what's going on. You could have national declining numbers, but your office could be in a hotspot. If I were running a business, I would want to look at not only where that business is operating, but where my employees generally live as well.
This is also a matter of philosophy. There might be some places where you're really trying to make sure nobody gets sick, or you might just say, ‘Listen, this virus is not leaving us.’ Those conversations are really important to understand what level of control you're aiming for. You may want to say masks are optional but not require them, knowing that that policy introduces some risk to the workplace. Whether that's going to be tolerable is both a business decision and a consultation with employees.
Are mask mandates for the office still a best practice at this point in the pandemic? What about workplace vaccine mandates?
If you do choose to mandate masks, it's worth explaining clearly what the goal of that mandate is. What are you trying to do? Are you trying to reduce the likelihood that people bring the virus into the office and spread it, and then people will be out sick? Are you trying to make your customers feel safer? Are you trying to say, ‘At this time of increased illness, we're doing our part by reducing the likelihood that our business will contribute to additional cases in the community’? Whatever it is, it needs to be clear, because some of the tension around masks has been a lack of understanding and clarity about what the goals are. And then decide, when are we not going to have to wear them? Some articulation of the endpoints is important—ideally in conversation with employees, because people tend to be more supportive of processes and policies that they've had input to.
The challenge is going to be that none of the medical tools we have are going to prevent people from becoming infected. It’s been very commonplace that businesses have mandated vaccines for their employees. Will that prevent infections in the workplace? Probably not. May it decrease the chances that your employees are going to be out for extended periods of time due to severe illness? Yes.
But if we want to bring down that risk of infection, we have to continue to rely on the things we've been using for the past two years, like masking, improved ventilation, trying to limit the amount of congregation that we do. I rapid test when I go to large meetings, because I don't want to be the person that brought Covid to the conference. But more important is making sure that the space is well-ventilated. And if there's any way to open windows, do it.
It feels like part of what's changed recently is that people have moved away from the concept of contact bubbles. Is there a new framework for how we should think about public health in a workplace context?
We have to examine the physical space and whether we're providing tools to help people as much as possible. We have not made enough progress on improving ventilation in our buildings. Businesses should absolutely demand it of the buildings that they occupy. That’s the biggest thing—these out-of-sight mechanisms that operate in the background to keep us safer, that we don’t even have to think about. And sick-leave policies have to change. It shouldn’t be that you’re rewarded for pushing through it and showing up despite being ill.
I also think masks are not going away. If I have cold symptoms and I’m going to be around people, even if I’ve tested myself and know it’s not Covid—we're probably not going to stay home for every single cold, so employees may be encouraged to wear a mask, because nobody wants a cold either. And cleaning and disinfection are still important. Disinfecting surfaces doesn't need to be done hourly or whatever crazy level of disinfection we were doing early in the pandemic, and it’s not necessarily important for limiting transmission of Covid. But it’s important for other viruses that can rip through an office. Norovirus can shut down a business. We have to examine the practices and policies that can just help us generally reduce the amount of infections that come to the workplace.
Are you concerned about another Covid surge in the fall or winter? What would that mean for workplaces?
I do have concerns, but they’re more like: Will we have the tools we need then to combat a surge? I’m worried about the rapid-test production pipeline possibly drying up because of funding. I’m worried about possibly not getting more up-to-date vaccines. Am I worried that we’re going to have large waves of deaths? Not as much, because we’ve seen a ratcheting down of deaths and severe illness.
I’m also a little bit worried about flu returning. While many workplaces have asked employees about Covid vaccines, they haven't done the same with flu vaccines. While you may not mandate it, you could strongly encourage it and incentivize it. Reducing barriers to getting vaccinated tends to work. Maybe you get a half-day off to get your flu vaccine, or large employers may want to consider bringing someone in to offer vaccines to employees.
The overarching theme is the importance of being flexible and being ready to pivot if the local conditions suggest the need to pivot. And flexibility not just at the institutional level of ‘Should we do this?’ but also at the employee level, recognizing that employees have different circumstances and allowing them to make decisions that are best for themselves and their families, and trying to support them in that decision-making process as much as possible.
What Else You Need to Know
Employers remain in the hot seat in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe.
- The list of companies saying they would assist employees who have to travel for abortions is growing. Google and Salesforce said they would move employees who want to leave states where abortion is banned.
- Employers are coming up with a range of ways to address privacy concerns, from ensuring they would never receive information on who used the benefit to having employees go directly to managers specifically trained in handling sensitive information.
- But some states are threatening criminal charges for facilitating the procedure. And while a company is unlikely to get into trouble for having a policy to cover abortion or related travel costs, it is possible employers could be compelled to share information as part of a criminal investigation.
- While many CEOs want to ensure their employees have adequate options, few want to be drawn into the debate. Hundreds of Amazon employees reportedly joined an internal petition calling on the company to use its voice to “publicly and unequivocally denounce this decision.”
- The American Psychological Association warned the ruling and its effects will exacerbate the country’s mental health crisis. The organization noted that poeple who are denied abortions are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower self-esteem.
The job market may be peaking amid sky-high inflation, slowing consumer demand, and rising interest rates.
- Technology, cryptocurrency and real-estate firms have laid off at least 37,000 workers since May, according to tech job-listings website TrueUp.
- Manufacturing overtime hours declined for three months in a row, and the four-week average of jobless claims climbed to the highest level since January.
- Job vacancies are staying unfilled longer as skittish executives slow the recruitment process. It's also getting harder to convince employees to leave their current jobs.
- Still, unemployment benefit rolls remain at their lowest levels in decades. Americans are quitting in record numbers, and a recent survey found that more than half of employees will look for a new job if there’s a recession. While many workers expect a recession, they are optimistic about their position within the economy.
- Top executives are resigning in large numbers as well, tired from the unrelenting stress and pressure. A Deloitte study found that nearly 70% of c-level executives are seriously considering leaving their jobs for ones that better support their wellbeing.
- Some 668 CEOs have quit this year, the highest January-May total since 2002, according to Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
On-screen meetings hinder creative collaboration, according to a new study.
- In-person teams generated 15% to 20% more ideas than their virtual counterparts in a lab experiment conducted at Stanford. The teams also observed more and remembered more about their surroundings, and that correlated with more creativity.
- A separate experiment involving almost 1,500 engineers at a multinational corporation found that in-person teams produced more ideas, and their ideas produced higher ratings for originality.
- Researchers believe that when people focus on the narrow field of vision on a screen, their thinking narrows as well. People who meet in-person get creative stimulation by visually wandering around the space they’re in.
- This doesn’t mean virtual meetings have no value. Teams meeting online did as well, or possibly better, than in-person teams when it came to actually picking the best ideas. And being virtual didn’t affect how well the participants got along.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Yelp is closing its offices in New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. In an interview with the Washington Post, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman called hybrid policies “the hell of half-measures” and said of remote work: “We feel strongly that this is the way forward.” He also noted that the company plans to use employee survey data to determine the future of its remaining office locations.
- Two-thirds of employers in a recent survey said their main priority for an office redesign is now making sure it supports diverse work styles. Some are adding features such as mobile structures that allow introverts to make their spaces feel more private, and light- and sound-reducing spaces to accommodate neurodiverse workers with sensory sensitivities.
- Just 20% of IBM employees are going into the office at least three days a week, CEO Arvind Krisha said in an interview, adding that he doesn’t believe that number will ever get as high as 60%.
- In Asian business hubs including Hong Kong and Tokyo, employees are back to in-person work, with 38% of Asian companies reporting that they expect their workers back five days a week and 24% saying they expect them back most of the time.
- Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., one of Japan’s largest companies, has moved to a remote policy that classifies all visits to the office from anywhere in the country as business trips, with full reimbursements for transit and accommodations.
- Residential buildings hoping to lure new tenants are beefing up their work-from-home amenities, with offerings such as soundproof rooms, communal videoconferencing equipment, and discounts to coworking spaces.
- Happy hours are mounting a comeback, a bars around the country begin to report after-work crowds close to what they saw pre-pandemic.
- Job listings remain a point of confusion, with many candidates applying for roles advertised as fully remote only to find after interviewing that the employer prefers a hybrid arrangement.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Keep your OOO on. After a long vacation, piled up emails and Slack messages can be a headache upon your return. To stem the flow of inbound requests as you ease back into working, set your out-of-office message to stay on while you catch up on those unread messages.
- For DEI programming, ask “Who is this for?” Instead of reacting to the calendar to throw together events for heritage months and holidays like Juneteenth, approach DEI programming by first asking whom the event will serve. Is it to educate those who may not be familiar with the holiday? To recognize the resilience and struggle of an underrepresented community? Or celebrate the traditions and achievements of a particular group?
- Have candidates show off a little. For a more inclusive hiring process, ask candidates to demonstrate their skills instead of talking about them. More traditional personality-based interviews can be biased against neurodivergent candidates or candidates from certain cultural backgrounds that value modesty, while direct assessment lets hiring committees accurately assess candidates competencies.
- Kick meetings off with a pause. Mindfulness practices, like starting meetings with a mindful pause, can help you build more meaningful connections with co-workers, researchers found. The strengthened relationships between colleagues in turn has positive effects on psychological safety, trust, and individual functioning.
- Ask for a raise—now. With a May inflation rate of 8.6% and wage growth at just 5.2%, real wages are continuing to decrease. To counteract falling purchasing power, workers might want to take advantage of the continued strong job growth and elevated worker turnover to re-negotiate compensation before the expected forecasted recession hits.
The shoe has stopped fitting. As many people put their work shoes back on for the first time in years, some are discovering that so much time spent working from home in more comfortable footwear has widened their feet.
How are you actually using your time? The average knowledge worker spends about 20 minutes each day retyping misspelled words, adding up to 180 days over the course of a career, according to a recent time-use survey of workers in the US and UK.
- The study also found that the average amount of time spent logging into various websites adds up to 145 days.
Informal salary transparency isn’t the norm. Just 16% people are willing to tell their coworkers how much they make, according to new LinkedIn data. Some 32% would share with a close friend and 56% would with their parent, child, or spouse.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.