Featured in today's newsletter:
- What changes to flexibility and pandemic support mean for parents.
- The return of the cubicle.
- Why it’s ok to be bad at things.
The latest virus forecast: The US had a 29% decrease from two weeks earlier, with about 62,000 new Covid cases on Friday, bringing the country to the lowest level of new cases since early May. World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently declared that “the end is in sight” for the pandemic. With flu season approaching, some health experts believe a combination of increased travel and returns to pre-Covid social norms will make this a worse year of flu than the past two.
The business impact: The core consumer-price index, a measure of inflation that tracks the cost of goods and services other than energy and food, rose more quickly than expected in August, with month-over-month growth twice what it was in July. The 2021 Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, released earlier this week, shed new light on how the pandemic has shaped the US labor market: The share of entertainment and hospitality employees in the workforce dropped from 9.7% to 8.2% as the pandemic took a toll on those industries, while the share of self-employed workers increased from 5.8% to 6.1%.
Focus on Support for Caregivers
Some companies are rolling back the more generous parental-leave policies they implemented over the past two years. Others are considering or doubling down on return-to-office mandates, a blow to the flexibility that can make work more sustainable for parents and caregivers.
To better understand the impact of the latest developments, we reached out to Lauren Smith Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester and author of the book by the same name. Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
It’s been reported that some organizations are resetting parental leave back to their pre-pandemic norms. Are you seeing any similar rollbacks right now of institutional support for caregivers?
I wish the headline on those stories had been, ‘We really need federally protected paid leave because it shouldn't have to be on the private sector to determine this.’
The numbers are real, but there are nuances that haven’t been discussed in the media reports about the decreasing availability of parental leave that paint a more accurate picture. What’s also happening—and it's important to say that is not an excuse, but it is an explanation—is that employers are becoming more sensitive to making their policies inclusive. As people are making their policies more inclusive of different ways to build a family, and trying to be more inclusive of the different stages of caregiving, including elder care, including benefits for parents who have older children, children with disabilities, spousal care, self care, surrogacy benefits, egg freezing, the money's all coming from the same pot. They’re trying to make things fair and inclusive for everybody, but they’re not doing it with more funding overall. And ultimately it's not good for parents, because we know research shows that the inflection point of becoming a parent is really a make-or-break point for a lot of people in their careers about whether or not they're going to keep going in the workforce.
The big point I want to make is that when you claim that you are diminishing one group's access to a benefit for equitable reasons, because you want to even things up, that's fine if that group already had or exceeded the amount of humane benefit that they needed. But in reality, we know that all of the research shows that six paid months is the minimum that protects mom's mental health, mom's physical health, partner’s bonding with the baby, baby's likelihood of getting all their vaccines on time.
As a culture, 12 weeks is the number that we've normalized because of FMLA, which stipulates that you have the right to an equal job to be held for you for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. When you look at the states that have started to roll out paid leave, and when you look at the companies that have adopted it or have rolled it back, everybody seems to coalesce around 12 weeks. And 12 weeks doesn't mean anything developmentally in terms of what's happening with the baby or what's happening with the birthing parents' body. Babies aren't built to be sleeping by then. The new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations would have birthing parents offering breast milk until two years. They have a recommendation that the baby sleep in the same room as an adult for the first six months.
And yet everyone's like, ‘Did you get your whole 12 weeks?’ If I hear that phrase, it just makes me want to throw something, because it's made a whole generation of mothers think that something's wrong with them if they don't feel back to normal by like 12 weeks plus one day. And in reality, very few people can actually afford to take three months of unpaid leave. So they're taking a whole lot less and it's having all kinds of bad health outcomes for families.
On the other side of things, are there any gains in employer support from the past two years that you see sticking around for the long haul?
Two main things. The childcare industry crisis is terrible, but the attention on it has really helped employers see so clearly that without childcare, their employees can't operate at full capacity. There’s a return on investment of offering a childcare stipend, backup childcare, all kinds of things that sound like bells and whistles, but that are actually vital for parents to be able to have in order to do their paid work effectively. They're not standard yet, but in some fields like big law and tech, if you don't have a backup daycare, you're behind. You're not going to attract and retain employees who are fantastic. Your number of women in leadership is going to plummet.
The other thing that I'm seeing is that people are starting to adopt ramp-up programs and ramp-down programs for people to come in and out of family or medical leave, which is where you protect someone's income, knowing that their deliverables, their output, however you measure it is going to be prorated as they steer step back into their job.
We’re now past the Labor Day inflection point that a lot of organizations were using to kickstart their return-to-office plans. What guardrails can teams or leaders put in place to make sure that any existing culture of flexibility for parents is preserved in the move back to in-person work?
Helping everyone on a team understand the terminology. Giving people a term like proximity bias helps you look out for it. Ten years ago, people weren't talking about implicit bias. Now we know what that is, so you're likely to be more sensitive to it and thoughtful about it. So some of it is really about education and assuming that we're all biased, and we all need to help people understand that they should be open about the mistakes that they make.
The other lesson is to start measuring and rewarding anything that your employees do that is retention-building. If they're involved in employee resource groups, give them resources and reward them and make sure that that comes up in their annual reviews. When you have a new parent leave, when you add up the cost of replacing them, what often doesn't get measured is the morale. What happens to everyone they work with? How do you avoid having everybody then take on so much more work and get burned out, especially in a time when they know the word burnout and they're really sensitive to it? The investment in keeping someone and in rewarding your employees for retention-building, mentoring, all of the soft-skills stuff, really will pay off.
For employees, be deliberate about figuring out what parts of the last two years worked for you. You're not going to be able to hang on to every single one of them, but you can prioritize a list of two or three or four that let you, at the end of the day, feel like you had a satisfying day in both your unpaid and paid work. You are the one who's going to know best what it is you need. So you have to see it as part of your job to actually communicate those needs.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including how to incentivize participation in employee resource groups and how leaders can better understand the needs of caregivers on their team.
What Else You Need to Know
Cubicles are back in style. As employees return to in-person work, a growing number of companies are ditching open office plans and hotel desking in favor of layouts with more privacy.
- One increasingly popular office-design feature is “seated privacy” cubicles, in which low walls give a sense of solitude while sitting but allow for easy conversation while standing.
- Some workers are finding that the same amenities added to entice them back to the office have created a bustling environment that makes it difficult to actually get work done.
- A private, quiet place to focus was among the things employees said would make them want to come back to an office, according to a recent survey by Steelcase.
- Janet Pogue McLaurin, an architect and global leader of Gensler’s work sector practices and research, has suggested that workplaces include a space like a university library, a quiet zone where focused work is the norm.
Labor-force participation still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic. While the number of people in the US workforce surpassed the pre-Covid total for the first time last month, the proportion of Americans either employed or looking for work remains lower at 62.4%, down from 63.4% in February 2020.
- Declines are steepest among older workers, many of whom retired earlier than planned during the pandemic, and men aged 25-54.
- Wendy Edelberg, director of the Brookings Institution’s economic-policy initiative The Hamilton Project, told The New York Times: “It’s my sense that the most important reason that the labor market feels so hot right now is that we have so many fewer people in it.”
- An estimated half-million people left the workforce because of Covid-related illness, according to a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, which found that people who had missed a week of work for health reasons over the past two years were 7% less likely to still be in the workforce a year later.
Layoffs are the latest flashpoint for racial inequity. Latinx workers are disproportionately vulnerable to job cuts in a recession, according to a recent report from Wells Fargo, due to their high representation in industries such as construction and hospitality that are hardest hit by economic downturns.
- Past research has shown that when organizations use layoff strategies other than evaluating individual employees—such as “last in, first out” or cutting by department—their gender and racial diversity suffers. One 2014 analysis of 327 companies’ layoffs between 1971 and 2002 concluded that “downsizing has often meant the institutionalization of unequal, rather than equal, opportunity.”
- In an announcement this week that Twilio would be cutting 11% of its staff, the CEO of the cloud-communications firm wrote: “We were particularly focused on ensuring our layoffs—while a business necessity today—were carried out through an Anti-Racist/Anti-Oppression lens” (though the memo didn’t detail the specifics of how that was done).
- As Star Carter, COO of the diversity-data platform Kanarys, has previously explained in Protocol, employers can keep diversity considerations at the forefront of layoff execution by establishing clear criteria for cuts and looking at how the cuts overall will affect the makeup of the organization.
The American public wants companies to prioritize worker treatment. In a new survey by JUST Capital, fair wages, health and safety, training, and work-life balance were among the most commonly cited areas where people wanted employers to focus their efforts.
- Wages were the most popular answer, with 21% of survey respondents saying compensation should be a focus. In another JUST Capital poll from earlier this year, 87% of respondents said employers had a responsibility to ensure pay kept up with the cost of living.
- In Indeed’s latest Work Wellbeing Insights Report, two-thirds of the 5,026 people surveyed said wellbeing at work was a right rather than a privilege, while half believed their employers could do more to foster worker happiness and wellbeing.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Public transportation ridership remains lower than pre-pandemic levels in many cities as would-be commuters maintain remote and hybrid schedules. In New York City, ridership is just 63% of pre-pandemic levels.
- Brian Kropp, vice president of research at Gartner, called RTO policies a “very soft mandate,” with more than 40% of HR leaders in a Gartner poll last month reporting that they didn’t have any attendance-tracking measures in place.
- As workers at Goldman Sachs return to working in the office five days a week, the company is also ending in-office perks meant to encourage attendance earlier in the pandemic, including free coffee and car rides to the office.
- Union members at The New York Times and NBC News defied newly implemented hybrid return-to-office mandates by working remotely this week—an effort to put pressure on employers as the unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements and are seeking higher wages, flexible work policies, and greater investments in DEI.
- Three and a half months after Tesla CEO Elon Musk mandated that all employees must “spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week,” the company is reportedly struggling with low employee morale and a lack of space to accommodate the employees the company has called back.
- The post-Labor Day return to office also meant a return to co-working spaces. WeWork’s card swipe data from the week of September 6 showed a 72% increase in attendance from the same week in 2021, and the number of bookings throughout the week was greater than that of any four-day period in the company’s history.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Let yourself be bad at things. Then, hire people who aren’t. Many of us find it hard to accept that we lack some skill or knowledge related to our work, often out of insecurity—but once you accept your weaknesses, you can address them by bringing on team members who can fill in the gaps of skills you lack.
- Introduce team members by their interests. Use the onboarding process as a way to help coworkers discover points of commonality—and, hopefully, spark friendship—by sharing information with the rest of the team about their new colleague’s life outside of work, such as a hobby, favorite TV show, or birthday.
- Hold a joint offsite with another company. Although offsites are usually meant for the employees within just one team or organization, consider holding one with an equivalent team at a different company to swap ideas, hear new perspectives, and talk through shared challenges.
- Be specific when showing employee appreciation. When recognizing the contributions of team members, move beyond generic praise to describe what the employee did and how it had an impact on others.
You didn’t hear this from us, but office gossip is back. Employees are discovering a hidden upside of going back to the office: the chance to dish with coworkers in person.
- “There’s definitely revealing characteristics that happen in casual conversations that become office gossip immediately,” Kelsey McKinney, host of the podcast ‘Normal Gossip,’ told CNBC. “I do think there is some benefit to interacting with management in person in order to see what they don’t want you to see, like how you treat the people around you, or how you talk about your wife… Those kinds of things are difficult to pick up on in a work Slack.”
Work from home (plate). The Seattle Mariners recently held a “Work From the Ballpark Day,” selling passes for remote workers to set up shop in the ballpark’s cafe during one of the team’s games, wifi and snacks included.
Even the boss isn’t immune to a fake sick day. In an August survey from customer-service platform Moneypenny, half of workers—and nearly two-thirds of CEOs—admitted to having pretended to be sick to skip a day of work.
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.