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The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 32% decline from two weeks earlier, with about 35,000 new cases on Friday, and about 60% of US adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
The business impact: Retail sales were roughly unchanged in April from March, with Americans continuing to spend down their stimulus checks. Restaurants and bars saw spending gains, while sales at apparel and book stores declined. Over two-thirds of CEOs say they expect to increase hiring over the next 12 months. CEO confidence dropped from last month, amid concerns about labor and material shortages, inflation, and possible tax increases.
Focus on Harassment in Remote and Hybrid Workplaces
When Project Include released a report recently on harassment and hostility in remote workplaces, its core finding initially surprised me. A significant number of the 2,800 people surveyed across different industries experienced an increase in workplace hostility or harassment during the pandemic.
More than 25% experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic. About 10% experienced an increase in race- and ethnicity-based hostility. And 23% of those 50 years old or above saw increased age-based harassment or hostility.
What seemed counterintuitive was that such toxic behavior should rise when people weren’t in physical proximity.
To better understand the findings, and their implications for remote and hybrid work, I spoke with Ellen Pao, CEO of Project Include, a nonprofit focused on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity.
What have you seen in terms of discrimination by race and gender over the past year, especially its nature and frequency?
We surveyed almost 3,000 employees and workers, mostly at tech companies, but we found very consistent results across many industries. We found that racism and sexism showed up in many different forms—we saw additional harassment and additional hostility around race and gender lines. Asian, Black, Latinx and Indigenous employees were more likely to have experienced increases in harassment and hostility than white coworkers. Women and non-binary people were also more likely to have experienced increases in harassment and hostility since Covid-19, as were transgender employees. And people over 50 years of age were more likely to have experienced increases in age-based hostility.
Can you talk about some of the scenarios that were responsible for that? Given that people have been physically separated, on some level you'd think there would be fewer opportunities for discrimination and hostility.
It is really interesting. Some people did experience less discrimination, because there was no proximity. But for others—the big learning we had is people will harass people and be hostile to people no matter what the environment. They will find a way. We had thought that there would be some tool-oriented problems; certain tools would be worse, or certain specific features of tools would make them worse. But really it was individuals who were finding ways to harass. They didn't care if they did it in email. You have this written record of hostility, harassment, and bullying, but they didn't care. For them, it was easier to harass remotely, because there was so much privacy in those interactions. I don't have a colleague next to me while I'm yelling at somebody, so nobody is seeing me or overhearing me being a harasser. It made it easier in many ways, because they could text or they could chat. All of a sudden, these one-on-one communications became normal, and you could invade somebody's privacy in their own home in a way that you couldn't do at the office.
What are some of the recommendations for organizations to address this, or to reduce the opportunities for this to take place?
We know that before the pandemic, there was a lot of racism. There was a lot of sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, and all sorts of systemic bias in the tech sector, in business sectors generally, and in individual companies. Covid made it worse—it didn't magically solve those problems. You're going to end up going back into an environment where these problems have worsened, so our core recommendation is to fix those problems. Take the time to really think about your systems and your structures. This is an opportunity to experiment, to change the way you're doing things. You're going to be doing it anyway: there is a big demand from workers for hybrid workplace environments. This is a huge change. Companies are moving headquarters, and are really transforming how they've done things.
So this is an opportunity to fix all those problems. Don't bring them with you! Take the time to think about systemic harms and biases, train your employees, but also just get it out of your system. How are you doing recruiting? How are you doing promotions? How are you setting up these rules? Who is allowed to take the days off that you're recommending for all employees? Who feels comfortable doing it, whose managers are allowing them to do it, and who's being punished for doing it?
It's not just saying you have a day off, but then keeping the same workload, so they're working 25% more on the days that they don't have off. It's thinking, how do I reprioritize the work that gets done? How do I make sure that the day off is a real day off, and I'm not still trying to get work out of the person?
We spoke with Leanne Williams, a Stanford professor who's an expert in psychiatry and wellness, and her recommendation is that people need time for their brains to heal what we're going through. All this anxiety around Covid-19—and I would add, the anxiety from the police brutality we've been seeing and thinking about, and trying to protest and end and all of these climate impacts, like raging wildfires or storms down South. We've got people who are uprooted; we have family members who were uprooted. It's this massive, massive trauma.
All of that is having a huge impact on the parts of our brain that are responsible for executive functioning. The brain is an actual muscle and you need to let it recover. An analogy that professor Williams used is if your body is used to run a marathon, you need to give your body time to rest and recover—we need to do that for our brains as well. It was fascinating, because another piece of brain recovery is connection with people. If you can form connections, those interactions are very healing. But we don't have that in this pandemic. We don't get that from Zoom calls, and we don't have that same kind of casual conversation—the so-called water-cooler conversations—anymore.
What considerations should companies that are heading towards flexible and hybrid working arrangements be examining right now?
In terms of the harassment, hostility, and discrimination, you have to realize and acknowledge that it's happening and that it's gotten worse. You can't go back to an office and expect people just to not acknowledge it. And I've seen people say, since the George Floyd murder, that they don't want to come into an office and pretend everything is okay. They don't want to not address the discrimination that they experienced, and they're not going to anymore. So are you prepared to deal with people reporting these problems in a way that you haven't had to deal with in the past? It's going to be very interesting, because many companies made a lot of statements in June and haven't lived up to them. They haven't really had a transformation to truly address these issues.
And they can't put it off any longer. People are going to come back to the office, and you are going to have interactions that are uncomfortable because we haven't addressed the racism, sexism, and all of these biases in our society. If you haven't addressed it in your workplace, they haven't gone away. They've gotten worse. The things that people can do are to figure out how to create a system where people can actually have these problems resolved. What we found in our research is that people don't trust HR, because they've been—to use their words—trained by HR that you shouldn't report. They've learned that the person who reports is treated as a problem, and the problem doesn't get solved except by punishing the person who reports. So they don't report again.
For CEOs, how are you going to retrain your HR function to actually take these problems and treat them as systemic? Trying to resolve them longer-term is going to solve so many of these short-term problems, and will prevent deeper problems in the future. When you have this problem, you don't want to prevent the reporting; you want more reporting, so you can limit more of the behavior. Part of that is figuring out how you are going to hold people accountable—that's the biggest piece that we're missing. You need to hold people accountable. You need to make sure that they're not part of your workforce, or that they're being trained not to continue that behavior, and then going back to make sure that they haven't continued the behavior. It's holding people accountable and then making sure it actually works.
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of how to better train managers and the state of discrimination in Silicon Valley.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
#StopAsianHate. As Asian Americans seek equity in the workplace, the COVID-19 crisis has created additional challenges. Six insights show how the pandemic has affected this group. Look closer as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month continues.
What Else You Need to Know
The Great Unmasking has begun, and businesses are scrambling. The surprise recommendation that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in most settings, issued Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, triggered rule changes throughout the country.
- Costco, Publix, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart were among the first retailers to drop in-store mask requirements for vaccinated customers, and in some cases staff, subject to state and local regulations.
- CVS, Gap, Home Depot, Target, and Nordstrom are among the retailers keeping mask requirements for now.
- Some public health and labor leaders expressed concern that front-line workers would inevitably be exposed to unvaccinated shoppers flouting the continued requirement that they wear masks. Businesses are using an honor system and not requiring proof of vaccination from maskless shoppers.
There are additional reasons some organizations are holding off. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet to issue any revision to its guidance around workplace mask wearing. And some states, including New Jersey and Hawaii, have yet to drop their indoor mask mandates.
Hybrid workplace skeptics emerge. Hybrid approaches, where workers split their week between an office and working remotely, are a popular option with a lot of organizations. Taking a contrarian stance, this week the Boston Globe published an op-ed titled “The hybrid workplace probably won’t last.”
- The piece by author Jon Levy posits that trust and belonging are weaker among colleagues who aren’t physically in proximity.
- “Given all this,” Levy writes, “is it possible to have a well-functioning workforce that is largely but not entirely remote and only occasionally comes together? Only with a great deal of effort.”
- For starters, it’s a straw man argument—the common conception of hybrid work involves workers coming together several times a week, not “only occasionally.” Levy is correct that it will take effort by organizations to adjust to hybrid work—but he doesn’t acknowledge the advantages to employees and employers of remote days when they can do focused work and avoid commutes.
- A Wired piece by Jaclyn Greenberg titled “The case for letting people work from home forever” makes the opposite argument from Levy, contending that offices are distracting.
The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull this week made the case for going hybrid in an article headlined “There’s a perfect number of days to work from home, and it’s 2.”
Remote staff work more hours but are less productive. That’s the conclusion of a new research paper studying over 10,000 employees at an Asian IT services company during the pandemic.
- Researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Essex found that workers increased their total hours by 30%, including an 18% increase outside of the workday. But average output was unchanged, meaning the rate of productivity dropped by about 20%.
- Time spent on meetings and coordinating with colleagues went up significantly, while uninterrupted work hours decreased. Workers received less coaching and one-on-one time with their managers.
- Employees with children at home increased their hours more than those without, and saw their productivity drop more.
“Our interpretation of these patterns is that employees are less productive during work from home, but still aim to reach the same output or goals, hence they work more until the same output level is reached,” the paper’s authors conclude. Their findings echo those published earlier by researchers at Microsoft and elsewhere.
About half of Americans think business has taken very little concrete action to address systemic racism. But 73% trust their employers to do what it is right when it comes to racism, according to the new Edelman Trust Barometer poll. That compares to 50% for business generally and 46% for government.
- Significantly, 55% of those surveyed said that racism in their workplace has damaged their relationship with their employer, including 45% of white workers.
- And over 40% would not work for an employer who fails to address racism in this country.
- The survey indicates a majority of Americans support CEOs who boycott states over racially discriminatory laws, and that a majority think more highly of companies that address racism.
John Rice, CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, this week wrote that business leaders need to “accept that racism affects your employees’ daily lives inside and outside of the workplace, and accept your responsibility to admit that’s wrong and to advocate for what’s right.”
Are workplaces best described as teams? That’s the metaphor Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke chose in a memo he sent staff last August and Business Insider recently obtained. Lütke was rejecting the idea that Shopify’s staff were a “family,”
- “The dangers of ‘family thinking’ are that it becomes incredibly hard to let poor performers go,” Lütke wrote. “Shopify is a team, not a family.”
- Analyzing Lütke’s memo, Quartz’s Sarah Todd argues that a village is a better metaphor for a workplace: “It’s more egalitarian in nature than the metaphor of the team (which centers management’s point of view in assembling a league of champions) and far less emotionally manipulative than the metaphor of the family.”
Coinbase stopped allowing new hires to negotiate their compensation, adopting a practice that’s considered fairer. The crypto startup announced that all recruits in the same position and location would receive the same salary and equity offer.
- “Negotiations can disproportionately leave women and underrepresented minorities behind, and a disparity created early in someone’s career can follow them for decades,” wrote L.J. Brock, Coinbase’s chief people officer.
- Coinbase also stopped vesting new employees’ stock options over four years, shifting instead to annual grants that vest in one year. It said it didn’t want staff to feel locked in by grants issued years earlier that hadn’t vested, which board member Fred Wilson compared to “staying in a bad marriage for the kids.”
Return to workplace speed round:
- Nike told staff at its Oregon headquarters that it expects them to work at least three days a week from the office once they return.
- Utah tech company Qualtrics is adopting a similar hybrid model, with employees expected to come in about three days per week.
- WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani argued that the most engaged employees want to be in the office at least two-thirds of the time. “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home,” said Mathrani, whose business success, it’s worth noting, relies on people not working from home.
- Software company Snowflake installed sensors to monitor how people use common areas and desks. The California company also will give each employee a personal whiteboard marker and wipe when they return, to avoid needing to share.
- IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said the return to workplace will take as long as 18 months to fully shake out.
- Law firm Ropes & Gray is bringing staff back in phases, with two-days-per-week in office encouraged starting Sept. 13, and a later phase targeting three days per week.
- BlackRock is asking US employees to return to the office in September, allowing up to two days remote weekly as part of a trial.
- Many internships will be remote again this summer.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Take micro breaks. Researchers found that roughly five-minute breaks—to make coffee, stretch, or chat with family—boosted engagement and performance, especially when workers started the day more tired.
- Share ownership with employees. Studies find that when a broad group of workers owns at least 30% of a company, it grows faster, is more productive, and is less likely to go out of business.
- Skip team-building activities and instead pair up colleagues. Since some people dislike compulsory team-building exercises, University of Sydney researchers recommend the voluntary pairing of co-workers to get to know each other.
- Ask job candidates “How do you learn?” The point is to try to understand what their system is for updating their knowledge and skills, arguably one of the most important activities for high performance over time.
Yes, people are doing other things during your video meetings with them. Researchers studying the activities of Microsoft staff found that participants were dealing with emails during about 30% of remote meetings, and in about 25% they were working on files such as Word documents.
- The researchers found that multitasking was less common during meetings that were shorter, in the afternoon, or on Fridays.
Americans have been having mask-themed nightmares. A Harvard dream researcher found a high reported frequency of anxiety dreams where people find themselves without a mask—the equivalent of common naked-in-public dreams. Insects, perhaps a metaphor for the virus, were also frequent pandemic dream protagonists.
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.