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The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had at least a 17% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging over 165,000 new cases per day. The CDC forecasts another 30,000 Covid deaths by mid-December. Urgent care clinics don’t expect long lines for testing to ease. Outbreaks in Europe appear to be slowing. Americans could start getting vaccines next month, but they likely won’t be widely available until the second quarter at the earliest. 

The business impact: The number of shoppers in US retail stores fell 52% on Black Friday from a year earlier, while online spending rose 22%. Goldman Sachs predicts immunization will drive a sharp increase in economic growth starting in the second quarter. US house prices rose to a six-year high in September, even as 18 million adults live in houses that are behind on rent or mortgage payments. 

Focus on Employee Engagement

I found Twelve, a book based on Gallup’s worldwide study of employee engagement, very useful years ago when I was a new manager. The 12 elements that Gallup identified in high-performing teams range from clarity about what’s expected to team members having a best friend at work. Many of them seem obvious, but the Gallup research and related case studies provided me with clear principles and structure for how to lead a team. 

With employee engagement a central preoccupation for so many of us, I reached out to Gallup to hear what it’s seeing. This week I spoke with Jim Harter, a coauthor of Twelve and chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at the company, which has used extensive surveys to build a database of 43 million workers across thousands of organizations.

Here are some takeaways:

  • Employee engagement, normally fairly constant for a team, rose this spring and then dropped dramatically before rising and stabilizing again. Gallup recently found that about 35% of employees were engaged, meaning they “are highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” People who worked close to fulltime from home pre-pandemic had lower burnout than colleagues—but now during the pandemic remote workers are experiencing greater burnout. 
  • Managers are burned out too. “We’ve seen that managers report higher stress and burnout than the people that they directly manage,” says Harter. “It’s hard to think about how a workforce can be highly engaged if the managers and leaders are having trouble.” 
  • Lower-burnout teams have managers who are highly engaged with workers. Harter says managers need to be more like coaches than bosses: “Involve people in goal setting on a continuous basis, check in with them regularly in a way that’s individualized, and make sure that each person has meaningful feedback at least once a week. That means you’ve got to know something about the individual, their strengths, their goals, and then have a system of accountability.” 
  • Workers need to have at least one meaningful conversation with their manager every week. At its simplest that could be a few minutes to discuss “Is there anything urgent that’s coming up? How’s your day going?” Harter says it’s especially important with remote work to have these conversations to see whether there is anything they need your help with. Also, “recognize them for something you’ve seen them do recently,” he suggests. “Just be in touch with what they’re doing.”
  • Organizations are struggling with how to measure performance and hold workers accountable. Harter believes accountability is critical for low performers to know how to improve, for high performers to get recognition, and for managers to have credibility. He thinks performance reviews should happen at least twice a year: “If you have the other conversations that you’re supposed to be having, it’s very developmental and very much about the future. And it doesn’t feel like a threat. Nobody should have a performance review and be surprised by what they hear.”
  • Organizations can lay groundwork now for after the pandemic. “One thing is to take note of what in this big experiment has worked and what hasn’t,” says Harter. He says that when workers feel they have autonomy, they’re more likely to be engaged. Even prior to 2020, Gallup had found that flexible time was the perk most desired by employees. So organizations can use this time to figure out where specific roles “can be on that continuum from 0% remote to 100% remote, and what works best.”

You can read more from our conversation, where we discuss issues including what individual contributors can be doing now, and how people can play to different types of strengths while work is remote.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Feel the burnout. Workers everywhere are toiling under extreme stress—especially healthcare workers. Nearly 50% of the US doctors we surveyed say they’re burned out. Here’s what they told us is weighing on them, and what might help.

What Else You Need to Know

A daring CEO died tragically young. Tony Hsieh, 46, who led Zappos until August, died Friday from injuries sustained in a fire. Hsieh evangelized for the importance of happy employees and customers, and in an especially bold move in 2013 the online shoe retailer adopted a holacratic organizational structure with “no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy.” 

  • The Amazon-owned company later quietly moved away from holacracy. But Hsieh’s embrace of the radical approach epitomized his own desire to rethink traditional practices and power dynamics. It also highlighted elements such as holacracy’s approach to weekly update meetings—which a team I was on once adopted and found worked really well. Hsieh took a modest $36,000 salary and sat in a cubicle among his staff. 

Another CEO who took a stand is retiring. Dick’s Sporting Goods chief executive Ed Stack and his management team decided to stop carrying assault weapons and limit sales of other firearms after selling a shotgun to the shooter in the 2018 Parkland school massacre. The company calculated that the decision jeopardized at least $250 million in annual sales, some employees quit in response, and politicians and gun lobbyists attacked Stack. 

  • Dick’s subsequently removed guns entirely from most of its stores. “Even after it had cost us a lot of business,” Stack said, “we all decided unequivocally, we’d do it all over again.”

Events organizers are starting to place bets that conference-going will return to normal next year. The Web Summit has booked its Lisbon venue for next year and aims to attract 70,000 in-person attendees next November. 

  • The tech conference has hundreds of speakers for its virtual event this year, and can host 100,000 attendees online. Its approach for next year will be hybrid: On top of the return of the in-person conference-goers, it expects up to another 80,000 will join online.
  • Events planned for the first half of 2021 are still scrambling. The World Economic Forum is reportedly considering sites outside of Switzerland less affected by the pandemic for its May 2021 meeting, which had already been rescheduled and relocated from Davos to Lucerne. 

Most of us are working weekends. A survey by staffing company Robert Half found that 68% of professionals who are working remotely are working on weekends. Nearly 50% said they work more than eight hours daily during the week. Working parents were more likely than professionals without kids to be working weekends (77% versus 59%) and more likely to be working more than eight hours a day (55% versus 36%). 

  • Plus anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer people are taking vacation time. Bluescape, a California tech company, found that employee requests for time off dropped by about half compared to last year.
  • Employers are feeling urgency to address overworking and burnout, as remote and hybrid work arrangements likely will be common after the pandemic. McKinsey Global Institute estimates over 20% of the workforce could just as effectively as in an office work remotely three to five days per week. (More than half the workforce is in roles with limited or no ability to do them remotely.)
  • Microsoft recently released a tool that can be used for monitoring remote worker activities. The Productivity Score feature provides a central dashboard that can show how many days specific workers have been using email, chat, and other activities. Productivity Score can rate an organization on a scale of 800, and tracks data such as how often employee cameras are switched on during meetings. Microsoft has said it’s not meant for monitoring staff, but one privacy researcher says it turns Microsoft 365 into a “full-fledged workplace surveillance tool.” Gartner in June said that 16% of companies were using technology more frequently to monitor workers. 

Researchers are experimenting with the best approaches for persuading people to get vaccinated. Wharton professors and Walmart are using this flu season as a test for strategies. Among the promising ideas for boosting vaccination rates: notifying people that they have a specific time already reserved for their shot rather than waiting for them to schedule it. 

The virus risks of Thanksgiving travel were a concern for some employers—Christmas is likely to be worse. The US hit a post-March peak for air travel this week, and public health experts are concerned about virus spreading during Christmas and New Year’s holidays. 

  • The UK announced a suspension of some of its public health rules between December 23 and December 27, with freer travel and permission for up to three households to form a “Christmas bubble.” Health experts acknowledge lockdown fatigue, but say more mingling will cost lives.  

Shouldn’t retailers share more of their windfall profits this year with their workers? A Brookings analysis found that the largest US retailers earned 39% more profits on average so far this year than last year. The 13 companies Brookings studied in-depth raised pay for frontline workers by just $1.11 per hour on average since the pandemic began, or a 10% increase on very modest wages to begin with. (The report is worth reading to understand where exactly retail wages stand, and how employers compare.)

  • Most retailers have phased out the hazard pay they offered at the start of the outbreak. With Covid cases rising again, worker rights groups are asking big employers to pay frontline employees an additional $5 per hour through the end of the pandemic. 
  • Amazon has offered signing bonuses of up to $3,000 to try to lure new recruits for the holiday season. The company has more than doubled its workforce from a year ago, adding 427,300 workers this year through October.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

Ask people you manage how they thought something went. Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly chafed at being asked to score employee performance. “I decided to simply ask people, ‘How do you feel things went?’ — and they would often be harder on themselves than I would have,” Joly said. “I would ask, ‘What do you need from me?’ — and they would tell me. It seemed like a much more human approach to holding people accountable.”

Cluster hiring.  Bringing on multiple hires in simultaneous, coordinated fashion can boost the support and retention of the cohort, and their impact on an organization. The cluster hiring approach, which has been used successfully by universities, could help when companies are recruiting diverse talent. 

Pick up the phone. Nearly 40% of professionals told researchers that they’ve experienced video call fatigue—and even that number seems low. Making an old-fashioned phone call is a good alternative, for one-on-one meetings at least. You’re less likely to have stilted exchanges, and you can move around when you talk. 

Think twice before thanking colleagues for “helping” with something. My former colleague Lauren Brown shared this advice years ago, but this Thanksgiving it came to mind again. Too often women especially are thanked for “helping,” when the helping is doing their work, and the thanks could be better expressed with the word “helping” omitted. “It might be a slip of the tongue, but it makes genuine appreciation sound dismissive and a woman’s effort seem quaint,” Lauren wrote.


It’s not just old-fashioned phone calls—snail mail is making a comeback. Letter writing is booming as Americans try to step away from screens and make meaningful connections. Sales of note cards are up about 2,000% since March at one stationery retailer. In a similar vein, one writer suggests taking families’ mass-distribution holiday letters and personalizing sections of them for the specific recipients. 

A surge in pandemic deal-making is requiring creative due diligence. With virus precautions curtailing travel and in-person meetings, Goldman Sachs is now using industrial drones to check out assets its clients are buying. The bank told CNBC it has done flyovers of chemical factories, shipping ports, warehouses, and retail locations—and expects to keep using drones even after the pandemic is over. Over 95% of the several hundred deals Goldman has worked on since the virus outbreak haven’t involved any in-person interaction. 

  • There were $531.27 billion in deals involving US companies last quarter, more than 50% above last year. Some executives worry that many of the acquisitions won’t be successful in the long-term, given it’s hard for teams to get to know each other virtually before committing.

It’s a horrible time to be a dry cleaner…or a manufacturer of belts. Spare a thought for the unlucky dry cleaner whose business has collapsed now that few people are going to the office. One out of six dry cleaners in the US has gone bankrupt or closed—and continued remote work is bound to crimp their prospects even post pandemic. Meanwhile, Euromonitor forecasts belt sales will drop more than 20% in North America this year, amid less clothes shopping, and more sweatpants.

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 weekly by email. Have a great week!