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The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 19% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging about 232,000 new cases per day. The US hit a record number of daily deaths again this week, and is nearing 400,000 total deaths. About 10.6 million people in the US had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Friday, well behind original targets. The CDC forecast that the new faster-spreading Covid variant discovered in the UK could become the dominant strain in the US by March—heightening concerns about a major surge of infections before most people are vaccinated. “Our enemy is getting better and we are not,” one scientist told the MIT Technology Review. 

The business impact: Weekly filings for unemployment benefits rose to the highest level since July—and job postings on the Indeed employment site were 10% lower as of the end of 2020 than a year earlier. Nearly 30% of Americans say they are very concerned about losing their job. Industrial output in December was just 3.6% lower than a year earlier. Economists surveyed in January by The Wall Street Journal forecast the US economy will grow 4.3% this year—up from a prediction of 3.7% last month.

Focus on Coaching and Captaincy

I’ve been hearing people studying workplaces in this moment talk about the need for managers to be more like coaches and less like bosses. At a high level, the experts are suggesting that managers need to be even more hands on, giving feedback and focusing on individual motivation and performance—rather than giving orders from a distance. 

That led me to think about lessons from great sports coaches that we might be able to learn from. For help on this question, I reached out to Sam Walker, a longtime sports journalist and the author of The Captain Class, in which he discusses a common ingredient of the most successful sports dynasties. While researching the question for over a decade, Walker found that virtually all instances of sustained performance involved an exceptional captain. 

Rather than being more like coaches—who in sports often are at some distance from the players—Walker suggests that managers be more like team captains, players with leadership roles exercised in the locker room and during the run of play. We spoke about this idea this week—here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

What does it mean to lead an organization like the captain of a sports team?

I have a very clear definition of what I think a captain is. That’s not the definition you would apply in most cases to a CEO. Sort of team-oriented behavior, the desire to be behind the scenes, not in the spotlight, pushing things, pushing rules and norms to the edge, almost to the breaking point in times when it’s important. All the things I outlined in the book don’t necessarily seem like typical CEO behavior. But what people don’t really understand is that captaincy model can be really effective. Because if you’re thinking about your company as a team, then you stop thinking about yourself orbiting around it or not being part of it. You start to think more about your behavior and your influence and all the ways that impacts people.

That helps to change your perspective. One thing that people get wrong about coaching and they get wrong about captaincy is they think there’s a certain element of avoiding conflict, of trying to bring people together, creating this idea of harmony and unity and always being agreeable, putting on a good public face. That’s really not what great captains do. You don’t have to be nice all the time or in a great mood. You can push back, you can create conflict. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, you create conflict inside the team. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend. That’s not what a great captain is. And a great communicator is not someone who gets people to like them and want to follow them because they like them.

It’s about the ability to form a working plan for everyone you’re engaged with and figure out a communication pattern and style that works for them. It’s about correcting problems the minute they happen and not waiting and not ignoring things and being very proactive in your communication and sharing a lot and being very transparent. The idea of a CEO—the words imply this insulation around you, and that it’s really about how you build insulation from the group and how you control it from somewhat of a position of removal. The captain is in there with sleeves rolled up, working relentlessly all the time, showing the effort, communicating intensely with everyone, not giving speeches and grand pronouncements and making big spectacles. You’ve got to do that to some extent, but it’s really about volume: volume of communication, volume of time, the relentless, ceaseless effort.

If the captain model is the right model for how to lead, what are the keys for doing that when right now you’re not even in the same room with people?

It’s tough. As I discovered with these captains, so much of leadership requires a kind of deep humility, but it’s also a performance. There’s a performance element to it. So much of it is showing your relentless effort, showing your emotional control, that non-verbal communication, which is so powerful. And it’s hard to do that now. But the thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of carrying water, and I’ve seen this working in remote settings now. It’s that idea of helping people.

It’s just going to your people and just saying, what’s hanging you up right now? What is the thing that you just can’t get to? What’s really holding you back? And I think in a way that is almost so much easier to do in this context, and so much more meaningful. You can do that when we’re all together and it’s not as visceral to people. But we’re all sitting in our rooms and I’m looking around my room, I see 10 ops things that I need to do that are just big obstacles. But there are things in your inbox and in your work—there are these things that are just killing you. And we’re not going anywhere, so it’s killing us even more.

So how can people get rid of those things? And showing them that you’re committed to doing that for them. Because it helps the group collectively, not because you like them, or you want to be liked—it’s because you want to help the group collectively. I think that’s a really great step.

In this moment, there’s a lot of focus on the importance of feedback. Are there any learnings from sports?

I’ve only seen one communication model that works. It’s not about having a way with words. It is about the volume of communication. It’s just about constant, practical, real-time communication with people. Everyone’s talking about feedback, like oh, well, every other week we’re going to sit down and talk about it. No, that’s bullshit. Just every day.

They should know exactly where they stand. You have to be blunt. That’s the thing. And it’s related in a way to empathy because a lot of people are interpreting empathy in this environment as trying to maybe hold your tongue or ease off a little at times because people are going through hard things. But those two don’t work together. If you actually communicate with people and you’re very transparent and you do not hold back and you talk to them immediately, the minute something goes wrong. It’s so important to do it right away. Don’t wait, don’t take a note and say we’re going to get to this later. Go right in. It’s really about how you do it and how you criticize, because you’re criticizing.

In a lot of cases, you’re also congratulating. You’ve got to be right there in the moment with the praise. But when you’re criticizing the key is that it’s a conversation. You have to remember that for this to go well, I’m going to listen as much as I talk. If you’re not listening in that critical conversation as much as you’re talking, you’re doing it wrong. That’s the thing, that’s the magic thing they all do, which is they listen. So when you come out of that, you feel as if you’ve been heard, you know you fucked up, but you feel as if you’ve been heard. You also have heard what you need from your leader, which is, this is the standard and this is why you didn’t meet it. That’s what you want a leader to tell you.

Then your part is, well, this is why it happened. I want you to know that I’m not making excuses. I just want you to know that I’m not lazy. I’m not dumb. This is why it happened. So once that’s happened, the standard has been upheld and the person who has been criticized feels pulled back in. What that does is create over time a talkative culture. That’s why I loved the San Antonio Spurs so much. They just talked more than any team I’ve ever seen. And it’s because they had Tim Duncan—this is his communication style. But over time you create that. Once you’ve done this long enough with a team, it’s automatic, it’s like everyone’s talking. And so everyone’s correcting everyone in the moment.

The burden on the leadership actually declines, because everything is addressed. Everything is brought up, immediately discussed and tabled. Everyone feels accountable to the group, but they also know they’re going to be heard. And they’re going to have a chance. They’re not just going to be told what to do and told, shut up, which is not productive. So that is a culture that builds over time. But that’s how you have to do it in terms of feedback. 

You studied super successful teams and the captains that have driven them. Is there someone who really stands above the rest? Who’s the best captain?

If you think about the best captain, just in terms of raw achievement, it’s Bill Russell. [Russell was the Boston Celtics’ captain and then player-coach in the 1950s and 60s.] He kind of came out of nowhere, just completely subverted all the expectations of him in order to do precisely the kind of things that would help his team win. And the idea that you could have 10 titles and be like, yeah, I still need to win another one—can you imagine?

Walker is now the leadership columnist at The Wall Street Journal, where he and I got to know each other years ago, and a leadership consultant. You can read additional excerpts from our conversation here

For more about the intersection of coaching and business, he suggests reading Trillion Dollar Coach, the story of the late Bill Campbell, a Columbia University football captain and then coach who went on to coach Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and numerous other Silicon Valley executives. And then there’s also Sam’s book, The Captain Classwhich is a thought-provoking and fun read.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Are today’s skills enough for tomorrow’s jobs? Automation will leave few roles untouched—and whether you’re in customer service or healthcare, it’s time to start thinking about the future. Get going with this episode of the McKinsey Talks Talent podcast.

What Else You Need to Know

President-elect Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic relief plan unveiled Thursday includes key provisions for workers and employers. Among them:

  • An increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 from $7.25, where it’s been stuck since 2009. Biden’s plan didn’t specify a proposed timeline for the increase to go into effect.
  • A surge in resources to support child-care, critical for allowing parents, especially mothers, to remain fully in the workforce. Biden’s proposal includes funding to help prop up struggling child-care centers and an emergency one-year increase in the tax credits families can claim for child-care expenses.  
  • Up to 14 weeks of emergency paid leave when workers or their family members are impacted by Covid.

Biden’s relief plan will need to get through Congress, and the minimum-wage hike especially could face stiff opposition amid conflicting claims over whether the higher cost to employers would inhibit job creation. “No one working 40 hours a week should live below the poverty line,” Biden said.

Public trust in businesses increased in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer global survey, putting them ahead of nonprofits, government, and media. Business is the only one of those institutions seen as both ethical and competent.

  • 86% of those surveyed said they expected CEOs to speak out about societal issues.
  • 50% of workers said they were more likely than a year ago to engage in workplace protest or voice objections to management. 

It’s honestly troubling to see that people surveyed trust information from their employer more than they do the government or media organizations—though it suggests companies should proactively help undermine misinformation around key topics like the election and vaccines.

A majority of Americans believes that corporate political donations are harmful to democracy, according to a new Just Capital/Harris Poll. About 40% of big-company CEOs surveyed by Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld said businesses should halt all political donations in the wake of the effort to overturn the election results that culminated in the Capitol attack. 

  • Charles Schwab was among the companies that went farthest, announcing it would close its political action committee. Dozens of corporations and trade groups are pausing political contributions. 

There’s now precedent for paying employees to get the vaccine. Dollar General is offering its almost 160,000 employees a bonus equivalent to four hours of pay if they get vaccinated. The retailer said the payment was meant to offset any costs such as child care or transportation related to an employee getting the vaccine. The company will likely benefit from reduced hassle and expense of Covid-related worker absences.

Even as the outbreak surges, employers see a return to the office on the horizon. 75% of US executives expect that at least half of workers will be back in the office by July, according to a new PWC survey. About 60% of workers expect to spend at least half their time in the office by July. 

  • 55% of workers want to work at least three days a week from home after the pandemic. Almost 70% of executives believe employees should be in the office at least three days per week—and more than 50% predict their company will need more office space three years from now.
  • There’s a concerning gap between how executives and workers perceive companies’ support for child care. Over 80% of executives say their company has been successful in extending benefits for childcare—while just 45% of employees agree.

Workers at 45% of US employers have a paid day off tomorrow for Martin Luther King Jr. Dayaccording to a Bloomberg Law survey.

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

  • Ask people to give you feedback on a scale of 1 to 10. Then ask them what it would take for you to raise the score by a point, suggests Massella Dukuly of LifeLabs Learning. This invites them to give you candid advice on what you could improve in whatever you’re asking feedback on, such as a presentation or facilitating a meeting. And it focuses on a micro change you might be able to easily implement. 
  • Imagine what your replacement in your job would do. Then do that. It’s an exercise for self-honesty about what you know you should really be doing, but are stuck on.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask sensitive questions when appropriate. Researchers found that when asked sensitive questions—such as ‘What is your salary?’ or ‘Have you ever gone to therapy?’ or ‘Have you ever cheated on a partner?—people aren’t as uncomfortable as the questioner might imagine. The researchers’ takeaway is that when you need to ask such sensitive questions it’s better to do so directly, and it might even create a bond between you and the person you’re asking. 
  • Feed your colleagues. “Gifts need not be expensive as much as meaningful, and food literally nurtures,” explains media executive Mitra Kalita, who sends colleagues meals and gifts such as plants or candles during intense times. “Well-fed people who feel connected to you might actually heed your vision.”


The best windows to open in a taxi or car service for virus safety probably aren’t the ones you think. Researchers found that when the driver and passenger opened the windows across from them, rather than beside them, it was most effective at flushing out the aerosols they each exhaled. It creates “a strong wind region” in between the passenger and driver, the researchers told The New York Times.

The death of the PC was apparently exaggerated. Thanks to the explosion of remote work and schooling, global personal computer shipments rose 11% last year, the fastest growth in a decade. The number of laptops sold surged 44%, while desktops declined 20%.

Women are better at pandemic precautions than men. Researchers analyzed practices among different groups globally and found that women were 23% more likely to social distance than men. 

It’s now fashionable to wear your pajamas out of your house. Sleepwear aficionados say a good pair of PJs can look much sharper than the typical pandemic-era uniform of sweatpants and a tshirt. “If [your pajamas] are great-looking, you can wear them anywhere,” one fashion editor told The Wall Street Journal. One bit of advice before heading outside in your PJs: bedhead isn’t so fashionable, so you might want to first brush your hair.

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!