Thanks for reading our briefing about what companies are doing to navigate the continued reality of remote work, to reopen safely, and to reset their practices for the long-run. You can sign up here to receive it by email as well.
The latest virus forecast: The US has had an 111% increase from two weeks earlier, with about 108,000 new cases yesterday, and over 75% of US adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Florida accounts for about 20% of new cases, and Louisiana said 1% of its population was infected in the past two weeks. Over 90 million people in the US remain unvaccinated despite being eligible. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health experts are raising concerns about other possible variants beyond Delta.
The business impact: US job growth remains strong amid the recovery, with employers creating over 900,000 jobs in July and the long-term unemployed having notable success in finding work. But there are still about 6 million fewer people employed than February 2020, and people of color remain significantly more likely to be jobless than white workers. Companies have begun citing Delta as a reason for uncertainty about the economic recovery in quarterly earnings calls.
Focus on Work and Caregiving in the Coming School Year
Their kids’ schooling ranks high among the challenges for many workers over the past year. Heading into this new school year, concerns about rising infections and Delta mean continued uncertainty.
As schools begin to reopen for the fall, what’s the outlook and what should employers be doing? For answers, we spoke with Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, and author of the new book The Family Firm. Oster is a proponent of using data to make better decisions as parents. Last year, she set up a database to track Covid cases in schools and became an influential voice arguing that schools could reopen safely. (Read this profile in The Guardian yesterday for more background on Oster.)
Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
We have rising infections and the spread of the Delta variant in the US. How do you advise parents to think about that in terms of both the return to school and return to office?
It's very important for people to keep in mind that even with the Delta variant, kids are very low risk. Serious Covid illness in kids is really, really rare, and we’re getting increasing data showing nearly all kids recover very quickly, and long-term symptoms are unusual.
It's not that there are no risks. It's not that they can't get Covid, but they are fairly low risk. That is also true with Delta. What this changes is the calculus about where case rates are. We had the idea at the beginning of the summer that case rates are going to keep going down and by the time we come back to the fall, Covid rates are going to be really low—at this point, it’s clear that is not where we are going to be.
Even in places with pretty high vaccine penetrations, there's probably not high enough vaccination levels. That means when we come to the fall, we're going to see some cases. The thing that families are going to have to think about is what is the case rate that you find sufficient or too much to put your kids back in school, or to go back to work? I spend a lot of time in what I write helping people try to work through the numbers on that. How do you think about a return to work with a case rate of 20 or 30 (or 100) per 100,000 per day?
For schools in particular: we are continuing to see reopening plans move forward and this makes sense, especially when we take into account the increasing evidence that actually it's really bad for kids not to be in school. So it's a moment of uncertainty, but in the case of schools I do not think we are going to change course now.
Looking ahead at the coming school year, is it going to be more manageable for parents?
Honestly, I don't know. There are places in America where schools were open 100% all year last year, and they will be open 100% full in-person for the next year. Putting aside that set of places, for people whose schools were very disrupted this year, there's been a lot more focus on how everybody needs to be in school, we're going to have everyone in school. So it is likely that most schools in America will try to open with some full in person, and people can be there all the time.
The piece I am very uncertain about is how much we'll see disruptions in the provision of school that will make it even more difficult for parents. It's one thing to plan about the existence of remote school. It's another thing to every two weeks have 10 days of remote school, which I wasn't planning for. We all know as parents, the worst thing is when your kid is sick in the morning. And the quarantine is like an expanded version of the stomach flu. That's the piece I'm most concerned about.
Do you think hybrid and remote work arrangements that companies are talking about are net positive for caregivers?
In some forms, yes. Even before the pandemic, there was this observation that, for parents, for people who are doing caregiving, all hours may not be the same. The pandemic forced us to figure out some things about how we can make remote work possible. I would hope ideally that coming out of that we would have an opportunity to say, 'Hey, I've shown you that I can work from home. So like, maybe it's okay if I go home at 5pm. And then I work at home from 8 to 10 because I've been at home for the whole last year and it's been fine.' There's an opportunity to make that work and to make that work better, particularly for working women. I'm not sure we will take advantage of that opportunity that I would like us to. But maybe.
Companies have introduced caregiving benefits such as tutoring and childcare. Do you have any sense of whether those things will continue, and what should companies be doing?
People struggled to find childcare and so things like backup childcare, things like some flexibility at work when you need it are important benefits. Some of the things that came up, things like tutoring, I'm not sure that my job is the place that I would look for that. Even my job, which has a lot of very nice college students at it. It's important for firms to think about what are the things that I have a comparative advantage to provide.
So in some sense, I'm not sure the firm needs to find me childcare. They could give me the flexibility or the money to get the childcare, but it's not exactly like I want the firm to be my nanny. Sometimes it's important for employers to remember, there are tax benefits to providing services in kind, but sometimes it's probably better to just give them money or give them flexibility.
One of the big things that happened over the last year is that we had millions of women who left the workforce. The pretty clear explanation is that they took on additional caregiving responsibilities, which made it hard to continue working in that context. What do you think it will take to keep women in the workforce and bring those who left the workforce back?
The simplest answer is full-time in person school every day, not just that happens for a week. We need to be a little patient with this because it's going to be a little while before we get to the kind of stability with child rearing that is going to let people return.
There's an opportunity for companies here, because there are a lot of really high human capital women who left the workforce, who now need to come back in. That is an opportunity. You've got to find them. Maybe there's an opportunity to find them in the short run and say, 'Hey, come. And we'll build in some flexibility at the beginning with this, we'll build in a ramp up expectation. And we will understand that the next six months are really hard to predict, but here's an opportunity to get really good people.' So it's partly going to require firms to be a little flexible with their expectations and see what they can deliver.
Read the full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of what parents can do instead of worrying, and how adults should think about returning to the office. You can buy Oster’s new book here. Read a new New York Times analysis of how more than 1 million American kids didn’t enroll in school amid the pandemic.
We know that the return to the workplace is complex, and many people we’re speaking with still have questions. If we can support you, your team, or your organization in the return to the office or hybrid work, schedule a call with us here, or email us at email@example.com.
Content from our knowledge partner McKinsey:
Got skills? Many companies face large, and growing, skills deficits. A few companies approach skill building in a more integrated way—and they're quietly gaining an edge on rivals. Get future-ready with a new article on three keys to step up.
What Else You Need to Know
It’s all about masks and mandates. The Delta variant and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on masking indoors continue to roll through organizations, which are pushing back reopening dates, requiring masks in offices, and becoming increasingly bold about mandating that employees be vaccinated.
- Tyson Foods is requiring that its 120,000 workers be vaccinated by Nov. 1 as a “condition of employment.” Many others such as United Airlines are instituting or considering similar policies.
- Amazon is mandating masking for all US warehouse employees, including those who have been vaccinated.
Carrots? Sticks? Yes. Vanguard is giving employees $1,000 to get vaccinated. The Cleveland-Cliffs steel company is offering $1,500 if 75% of employees get the vaccine and $3,000 if that hits 85%. CNN fired three workers who went into its offices unvaccinated in violation of a workplace requirement. Some employers are charging unvaccinated workers for testing.
- Even some of the leading voices for in-person work—including Wall Street banks—are reevaluating their policies. JPMorgan Chase, which reportedly has been reassessing its plans, Friday said vaccinated workers need to wear masks in common areas of offices.
- Another prominent advocate of returning to offices, Bloomberg LP, has reportedly faced concerns among Washington, DC-area staff amid new infections in its workforce.
- Other companies such as BlackRock and Wells Fargo are delaying reopening plans.
All of this reinforces the case for hybrid work arrangements, Stanford’s Nick Bloom told Bloomberg. “Delta is probably the final nail in the coffin of the five-day return to the office,” Bloom said.
Nasdaq’s racial and gender diversity requirements for corporate boards cleared an important hurdle. The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday greenlit the plans, which will require companies listed on the exchange to disclose the race, gender, and LGBTQ+ status of their directors, and have two diverse board members or explain why they don’t.
Corporate hypocrisy is alive and well. A new paper by Harvard Law School’s Lucian Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita concludes that the Business Roundtable’s “stakeholder capitalism” manifesto nearly two years ago “was mostly for show and that BRT Companies joining it did not intend or expect it to bring about any material changes in how they treat stakeholders.”
- Bebchuk and Tallarita reviewed documents and practices at the over 130 companies whose CEOs signed the 2019 BRT statement—which pledged to prioritize employees, customers, and community alongside profits—and found little retreat from the idea that serving shareholders is the primary goal.
- “These findings support the view that pledges by corporate leaders to serve stakeholders would not materially benefit stakeholders, and that their main effect could be to insulate corporate leaders from shareholder oversight and deflect pressures for stakeholder-protecting regulation,” they write.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Invite critical feedback. One tactic is an informal 360-degree review, where you have direct conversations with colleagues about areas that you need to improve (formal 360s are generally anonymous.) Ask what they view as your fatal flaws.
- Talk about privilege with colleagues. “Doing so lowers defenses, demonstrates vulnerability, and sets the tone for inclusive behaviors,” writes Lee Jourdan, former chief diversity and inclusion officer at Chevron. Understanding ways that you might benefit from being part of a majority group—whether in terms of race, gender and sexuality, education, or other factors—helps clarify why some colleagues might not fully participate.
- Sleep. UCLA researchers studying new mothers found that sleep deprivation dramatically accelerated biological aging, as evidenced by damage at the cellular level. Those who slept under seven hours per night aged significantly.
“There is a great future in Microsoft Excel. Think about it.” OK, maybe the original quote from “The Graduate” said “plastics” instead.
- But these days, as Bloomberg points out, the rapid economic recovery means that banks can’t hire enough young people with spreadsheet skills.
- The recruiting rampage for the Excel-fluent also comes with starting salaries of $100,000 or more.
Finally! There’s a technology fix for mansplaining. New Cisco Webex features include a "Round Table” option that allots a certain time for each person to speak, making it harder for male colleagues (or others) to dominate.
- It also mutes everyone else in the video meeting while a speaker is talking, which helps prevent people from being talked over.
This was easy to see coming. As more places including restaurants and airlines (not to mention employers) require proof of vaccination, fake vaccination cards are cropping up.
- One California bar owner was arrested for allegedly selling counterfeit cards for $20 each, while fake European certificates have been spotted online for about $140.
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.