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The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 25% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging about 208,000 new cases per day. Roughly one-fifth of Americans might have been infected by this point, according to an Economist analysis; the official tally is just 5%. Merck’s CEO forecasts at least six more months of mask wearing and social distancing, given the expected pace of vaccinations. Indoor dining is banned in New York City starting tomorrow because of the elevated rate of new infections.

The business impact: Economists are generally less optimistic about US economic growth and hiring in the first quarter of 2021, but believe both will accelerate significantly in the second quarter. More than half of CEOs polled expect their companies will increase hiring over the next 12 months, and 73% expect revenue to rise compared to the past 12 months. CFOs on average say they will hit 88% of the revenue they had budgeted for 2020. Consumers have spent more from their Bank of America accounts so far this year compared to 2019, as home improvement spending has offset declines elsewhere. But almost one-third of Americans polled by CNBC plan to spend less this holiday season because of lost wages or income.

Focus on Chief Medical Officers

As chief medical officer at Salesforce, Dr. Ashwini M. Zenooz used to spend most of her time focused on Salesforce’s clients and offerings in the health care and life sciences area. But Dr. Zenooz now spends much of her time on how the company itself is navigating the pandemic and its own practices around workplace safety and employee health. 

The crisis has highlighted the role of chief medical officer at the companies other than health care companies that have one. To get a better sense of what the role does and whether more organizations should hire one, this week I spoke with Dr. Zenooz, who is also a practicing radiologist and previously worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity. 

How has the role of chief medical officer emerged this year?

Companies started to recognize that they need to have people who actually understand public health. If they had people inside the system who had clinical backgrounds, they said, ‘Hey, can you help us understand and help translate what’s happening out there?’ Suddenly during this pandemic, when I talked to other chief medical officers in different companies, the roles have been elevated and they’re talking to a whole different group of people that they didn’t really talk to on a daily basis or weekly basis before.

The different group of people is the c-suite and the board?

That’s right. Or other public health officials, representing the company. Talking to government officials, trying to understand the data, sitting in on CDC calls. These are not things that, for example, a person who sits in a technology company traditionally does outside of understanding regulatory and compliance, if you’re going to sell something as a medical software product. There are people on my team that are now actually talking to folks in these organizations trying to understand what are the types of vaccines that are coming out? How does that impact us? Where’s the regulatory authority, what’s the EUA [emergency use authorization] process? How is it different globally? How is this going to impact our employees? 

Have you come to a view on whether, where it’s legally permissible, companies should require employee vaccination once it’s available?

I don’t think we’re there yet. This is still evolving. Clearly at least in the United States, the FDA is looking at emergency use authorization for two of the vaccines. [Editor’s note: The FDA granted EUA approval for the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine late Friday, after this interview.] If you follow federal guidelines, you’re hoping that they look at safety measures much deeper than somebody on the outside would, and you’d follow their precautions. But at the end of the day people have a choice in the US, so this is still something that we’re thinking through. 

I could see a company saying you can opt to work from home, but if you are going to come into the workplace, we will require that you are vaccinated for the foreseeable future. That way it gives people an option. But I think it would be really difficult until we work through all these issues to think about mandating it for everybody in the United States.

For companies that don’t have chief medical officers, what are the issues that you’d advise them should be on their radar now?

I would say, then get yourself a chief medical advisor. Every company is a health-care company today and I don’t see it not being one for the next few years. So I think it’s really important. I’m not saying a person who has a medical background can evaluate all of the complexities of what’s happening today in a pandemic. But at least they have better guidelines. You want to take advice from somebody that can translate some of the information. I’m a radiologist—and I’ve also been in public health before so I happen to have that background—but at least I have a clinical background, and I can liaise with other people who have public health backgrounds and understand, because I’ve trained in this.

It doesn’t need to be a chief medical advisor—get yourself an advisor or two that can help you think through employee strategy. What you may find is these folks could be more beneficial than you think beyond just the pandemic. When you’re looking at employee health benefits, employers share a brunt of the burden in paying for insurance for their employees. So there are a lot of other things to think about where there are price transparency rules coming out, insurance companies requiring things. So having somebody with a background in clinical and public health can also help you think through other aspects of how you care for your employees and how to cut down costs, but also provide it in a way that incentivizes your employees to stay with you. There are so many other things that you can work with these folks on.

From where you sit, are there best practices or specific areas of focus in terms of employee mental health that are particularly meaningful right now?

I don’t know if I would say that it is an employer’s responsibility to care for mental health. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility. Government should be engaged in this and thinking about this. We should be incentivizing people with payments. We should have easy access to tele-mental health. These are all places that employers can work to ensure that their employees have access to these things. But I don’t know if I’d make it their sole responsibility, because that’s not really fair. There’s so much going on right now, I haven’t really focused on any one best practice. But I would say every company hopefully has this, but employee assistance programs are core.

If they’re going through any changes in their life, the pandemic has had other repercussions, with people feeling stressed, [getting] divorced, having anxiety. So there are things beyond suicide prevention. Giving the opportunity for employees to discreetly talk about how they’re feeling is really important, whether it’s through employee assistance programs, through tele-mental health programs, giving people time off so that they can rest and recuperate like wellness days. We do a lot of that here at Salesforce where we block off days where we say no meetings on this day, just take it off and be with your family. 

You can read a transcript of our conversation, including more on how Dr. Zenooz got to her role, and how she sees the chief medical officer position evolving post-pandemic. 

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

It’s time we talk. Grief and loss are both ordinary and extraordinarily disruptive. They’re also personal—and perhaps not something you’ve talked much about at work before 2020. This McKinsey Talks Talent podcast episode offers tips on navigating the new emotional geography.

What Else You Need to Know

Just how essential are members of Congress? It might be easier to answer if they actually had passed a needed second stimulus package, or fewer of them were supporting attempts to overthrow the result of a democratic election. But there are discussions in Congress about whether they should be moved closer to the front of the line—and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been asked to weigh in. 

  • One argument for giving legislators prioritized access is that their public willingness to get it might increase a too-skeptical public’s confidence in the vaccine. Another argument is that the work of Congress is essential.
  • With the first vaccine starting to be administered in the US for emergency use this week, the question of what types of workers—beyond health care professionals—get priority is intensifying
  • The states ultimately decide, and can choose to follow guidance on this question from the CDC. Recent draft CDC materials suggested teachers, food store workers, police, firefighters, corrections officers, and transportation workers could be among those recommended for the phase known as 1b.  
  • A CDC definition of economically essential workers also includes gun retailers, bankers, and lawyers—though it’s not clear whether they’ll make the cut for the final recommendation. One academic definition of essential workers includes nearly 70% of the workforce. 
  • Uber has contacted state governors and the CDC asking that its drivers be prioritized as essential. 
  • There’s speculation that wealthy Americans will tap their connections to cut the line. 
  • A New York Times tool allows you to estimate where in the order you will fall.

There continues to be a tale of two workforces. As infections have risen again in recent weeks, there’s been an uptick in Americans working remotely. San Francisco office occupancy is just 13% of pre-pandemic levels, according to one estimate, and New York is at 14%. 

  • University of Chicago researchers found that people viewed remote work as a perk worth equivalent to 8% of their salaries
  • But only about one-third of workers can do their jobs from home, a group that overwhelmingly excludes Americans without college degrees. Only about one-quarter of workers without college degrees can work remotely.
  • Commutes are again a source of stress for workers who have to take public transportation. 

CEO churn is down because of the crisis. There were 11% fewer changes in chief executives announced during the second quarter compared to a year earlier, according to Conference Board research. The research suggests that boards of directors were wary of changing corporate leadership in the middle of a crisis.  

Job seekers are also fleeing to perceived safety. Harvard Business School researchers found that candidates searched for jobs at companies that were 25% larger than those they considered before the crisis—shunning startups and smaller companies. The job seekers were 20% more likely to focus on organizations with more than 500 staff. Startups with fewer than 50 employees saw a 14% decline in applications. 

It’s a crummy time to be in business school. The $100,00-plus cost per year for some MBA programs seems less and less worth it right now amid a lack of in-person contact with faculty or other students. Not to mention the suspension of many internships and on-campus recruiting programs key for the economics of such a pricey degree to make sense, in the short-term at least. 

Airbnb IPO winners are allocating part of their windfalls to charity. Over 300 former employees, investors, and current staff of the company—whose shares already have more than doubled from their IPO price this week—have committed to giving away a portion of their gains. It’s linked to an effort, supported by the Founders Pledge nonprofit, to make such commitments common for nonprofit founders.

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

Review and renew your company’s promises around racial justice. Business leaders made lots of commitments this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. What has the followup been in your own organization? Has the momentum waned? It’s a good idea to focus on concrete goals. And know that it’s not always comfortable to keep pressing for progress.

Don’t forget to send a thank you note. It would make your mother proud. But also it has apparently become more important since the start of the pandemic. A large majority of over 300 HR people and hiring managers surveyed recently said thank you notes after job interviews have increased in importance. To be clear, it doesn’t have to be handwritten—a thank you email is fine.


A “Fauci Effect” is driving medical school applications. The number of applicants is up 18% over last year, as would-be med students have apparently been inspired by the health-care mobilization around the pandemic. Stanford’s medical school reports having 11,000 applications for 90 seats, a 50% increase from last year. The phenomenon is similar to the surge in military enlistments after 9/11.

There are places in the world where you could forget there’s a pandemic. Taiwan, where there hasn’t been a locally transmitted virus case in 200 days, in late October hosted a Pride parade with over 130,000 people. Australians are able to go to the theater and cram into packed music concerts. “Everything is basically normal now,” one New Zealander told BuzzFeed. It’s possible in the case of New Zealand because of a strict and effective lockdown earlier this year—and other countries’ use of contact tracing and strict mask wearing allowed them to stop the virus spread to the extent that they’re not worrying now.

People apparently like dating by Zoom. About 20% of single people surveyed had gone on a video date during the pandemic. Roughly 70% said they would continue to do so. “It’s a great way to vet somebody before you spend your money, spend your time, or even get to sex”, Match’s chief scientific adviser explained to the Journal. Video dating also beats another Zoom call for work.

It’s not just trees. Christmas decorations are now in short supply this year, with empty shelves at some retail chains where there normally should be lights and ornaments. 

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. Have a great week!