Featured in today's briefing:
- How workplaces can improve worker happiness.
- Diversity reporting for corporate boards.
- The watercooler’s comeback.
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The latest virus forecast: The US had a 6% increase from two weeks earlier, with about 40,000 new Covid cases on Friday. Public-health officials are keeping an eye on several emerging “Deltacron” variants of the virus that have the aggression of the Delta variant with the easy transmissibility of Omicron.
The business impact: The Supreme Court last week decreed that the TSA can enforce a mask mandate on planes and other forms of transit. The ruling comes as non-holiday air travel surpasses pre-pandemic levels for the first time. Amid a modest slowing of the US economy, average hourly earnings rose 4.7% in October from a year earlier, slightly less than the 5% rate in September.
Focus on How Workplaces Can Make You Healthier and Happier
Robert Waldinger is director of the Harvard Study, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the book The Good Life, which is due out in January. We previewed Waldinger’s upcoming book, which has a chapter on the keys to thriving in the workplace, and asked him what at work really matters for health and happiness. That’s a question many organizations are interested in answering, amid concern about burnout, employee wellbeing, and the different challenges of remote and hybrid work.
Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
The Harvard Study focuses on what really matters to people's health and happiness. What matters in the workplace?
What we find and what now many other studies find is that relationships matter a lot in the workplace. Gallup has done a lot of research that finds—and many other studies do as well—is that the question, 'Do you have a friend at work? Do you have someone you can talk to about your personal life?' is hugely important. Only 30% of people say they have a friend at work. And those people are so much more likely to be engaged in their jobs. They're so much better performers, they're less likely to leave the jobs they're in.
People often care about friendships, but also about mentors. Is anyone watching out for you? Is anyone trying to help you find your way as you go through?
And then many of our people, when they looked back on their lives and asked what they were proudest of—say, when they were in their eighties—said, 'I was a good mentor at work. I really fostered some young people's careers.'
Do you have any advice for how to encourage friendships at work?
One thing is physical spaces. It's why the watercooler became this iconic place, why the coffee machine, the snack bar, as well. What the research shows is that if people have repeated casual contact, they'll often strike up personal conversations and gradually, perhaps with a few people, have more meaningful conversations. So it's repeated casual encounters—you can set up spaces physically to encourage that.
The other thing I think is that you can literally do things in meetings that promote it. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, has a staff meeting where every time one person starts the meeting by sharing something about their personal life, what they love or a hobby or something cool. He found that step is their favorite part of the meeting. You could build it into your meetings: What is something you love that most people don't know about?
You identified physical spaces as a key ingredient. Are there equivalents that can fill that function virtually? Or does it instead reinforce the idea that people do need to spend time together regularly, even if it's not five days a week?
Nobody really knows the answer to that question yet. There's a lot of research that needs to be done on this. We know that in-person interaction provides things that you don't get virtually. If you think about it, emotion is contagious and so much of emotional communication gets filtered out in remote meetings.
What we do know is that companies are bringing together their workers at least sometimes because the in-person interaction seems to make people feel more bonded, more like a team. It's harder to feel like a team, to feel like a tribe on Zoom. Maybe you do things like the Vivek Murthy thing of, even on Zoom, for the first five minutes Kevin's going to tell us about this cool thing he does when he's not at work or he's going to tell us about his kids or whatever it might be.
There's a persistent burnout epidemic that people link to their work. What does your research say about how organizations can address that and try to prevent it?
Our research doesn't address it directly. But I can tell you about the conditions of human thriving that are probably relevant to burnout.
We know that people talk a lot about boundaries, that this culture of always being on, of you'll respond to my email at 10pm or on Sunday morning—that culture is a recipe for burnout. Because we know that everybody needs to step away from work.
We know from our study that people need these times to replenish, where they know they are not at anybody's beck and call. We know there's this culture in some organizations that the person who's last to leave the office is the most dedicated, the hero, the strongest worker. And we know that that does not correlate to better performance. In many cases it's the reverse, that the people who can go home at 5pm and replenish are often better from nine to five.
So a lot of it is looking at workplace cultures and seeing, is this really the unspoken standard that we're setting that you want to be the last to leave, you want your boss to see that you're staying late?
Charter Pro members received early access to this interview. Reach out to us here to request an invitation to become a founding member. Members also benefited this week from exclusive briefings on research-backed approaches to communication with distributed teams and Election Day in the workplace.
What Else You Need to Know
The Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings on affirmative action at universities will likely impact workplace diversity efforts. The Supreme Court heard arguments this week for two affirmative action cases, involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Court’s conservative majority is expected to overturn established precedent that allows universities to consider race in admissions to increase educational diversity.
- In both cases, the interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers educational institutions, is in contention. Observers have argued that if the Court overturns Title VI, it may apply the same reasoning to overturn the similarly-written Title VII, the employment statute—a ruling that would require employers to have entirely race-blind hiring processes.
- In recent years, businesses that value diversity within their own workplaces have spoken out in support of affirmative action at the university level, as Charter columnist S. Mitra Kalita pointed out last November. In her column, she cited General Motors’ amicus brief for a 2003 case, in which the company wrote: “In General Motors' experience, only a well-educated, diverse workforce, comprising people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races and ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, can maintain America's competitiveness in the increasingly diverse and interconnected world economy.”
The government may be cracking down on anti-union spyware. Lawyers for the National Labor Relations Board called on the NLRB to prohibit companies from using productivity-monitoring software to surveill employees’ organizing activity.
- “Close, constant surveillance and management through electronic means threaten employees' basic ability to exercise their rights,” general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo wrote in a memo.
- Use of productivity trackers has become twice as common since the pandemic began, with around 60% of large employers now using some form of the tools, including eight of the 10 biggest private employers in the US.
- While companies are currently legally forbidden from surveilling union activity, research from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that union-focused surveillance in other forms, such as using cameras and checking employee social-media accounts, has also more than doubled over the past six years.
Corporate boards are more transparent about diversity, but still struggle to improve. People of color now represent 22% of all board members at S&P 500 companies, up just one percentage point from last year, according to a new report from the Spencer Stuart Board Index, suggesting that recent pushes toward more transparency around board diversity have failed to meaningfully move the needle.
- Some 93% of employers in the S&P 500 have disclosed the racial composition of their boards, compared to 63% in 2021. The increase was driven in part by the Nasdaq rule that took effect earlier this year, requiring all companies on the stock exchange to share a board diversity matrix highlighting the number of directors who identified as women, LGBTQ, or members of an underrepresented racial group.
- The Spencer Stuart report also noted that companies’ commitment to diversity seems to be strengthening: Last year, some 39% had rules in place mandating diverse candidate pools for new board members, a figure that’s now risen to around 50%.
A quarter of executives plan to reduce headcount next year. Some 26% intend to make cuts within the next 18 months, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ latest pulse survey of 657 business leaders.
- Some 81% of CHROs in the survey sample said they were also planning to trim headcount “to a great extent” (though PwC didn’t specify what that entailed) through measures like layoffs, hiring freezes, and not replacing departing employees.
- Lyft and Stripe both announced on Thursday that they would be laying off employees, while Amazon announced a hiring freeze on the same day.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Some 88% percent of workplaces are offering incentives like commuter benefits and free meals to lure workers back into the office, according to a survey of 1,000 business leaders conducted in September.
- When asked to forecast return-to-office plans over the next three years, some 70% of American bank CEOs predicted fulltime in-person work for their employees.
- The value of office buildings continues to fall as demand for office space remains low. In the third quarter of this year, office-leasing volume was 40% lower than pre-pandemic levels in the largest US markets.
- The watercooler is making a comeback as workers return to offices—literally. Bevi, a company that makes smart water dispensers with flavored and sparkling water options, has recently seen usage of its machines rebound to more than 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Put devil’s advocates on the hiring committee. Decision-makers often prefer early interviewees due to a cognitive bias that favors initial judgements. Counteract that bias by arguing the opposite of every decision in the hiring process. After interviewing and ranking all of the candidates, brainstorm reasons highly ranked candidates might not be a fit for the role and reasons lower ranked candidates might be the right choice.
- Picture a stop sign. The next time you find yourself falling into a spiral of negative thinking, try imagining a stop sign or using another other mental cue to interrupt and redirect your train of thought.
- Do day-in-the-life observations. Supplement the information provided via employee surveys or interviews by observing colleagues’ revealed preferences as a fly on the wall. For example, when making a decision about office space, bring in observers to see what kinds of spaces are actually used, and in what way.
- Build some extra time for sleep into your schedule this week. Even though we gain an hour with the end of Daylight Savings Time, the change tends to leave people feeling less well-rested. A 2013 research review in the Journal of Sleep Medicine found that the autumn disruption to sleep schedules leads to a net loss over the course of the week.
A different kind of employee ghosting. The rise of remote work means more people are now home all day to notice strange sounds and sounds they may have missed. That in turn, has led to a spike in people believing their houses are haunted by some otherworldly colleagues.
- Part of the explanation for remote workers being freaked out by unfamiliar noises: when they were in offices, “people weren’t normally around all the time to notice the normal noises of a house as it heats up from the sun during the day and then cools in the afternoon,” an expert on paranormal researchers told The New York Times.
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.