Featured in today's briefing:
- Reassessing work practices with a sustainability framework.
- Monkeypox plans for the workplace.
- “Paid celebration recovery leave” benefits.
The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 15% decrease from two weeks earlier, with about 106,000 new Covid cases on Friday. Newly relaxed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols dropped the recommendation that those exposed to the virus and not up to date on vaccination quarantine for five days.
The business impact: Consumer sentiment improved in August to a three-month high and inflation slowed to a 8.5% rate in July, thanks to falling energy costs.
Focus on How Sustainability Changes How You Approach Everyday Business Questions
One of our ongoing questions is how workplaces and work practices can be transformed to contribute to reducing climate change. We’ve looked at internal carbon pricing efforts at companies that factor in the carbon footprint of activities such as business travel, and how you can use punch lists to proactively pursue sustainability.
A new book called The Sustainability Scorecard by Urvashi Bhatnagar and Paul Anastas offers a framework for our everyday work, arguing that sustainably designed products and processes are actually more efficient and higher-quality than many current approaches. They propose making decisions by factoring in waste prevention, maximizing efficiency and performance, renewable inputs, and safe degradation.
We spoke recently with Anastas, a chemistry professor at the Yale School of the Environment and director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
For people who are not chief sustainability officers, how can we best integrate sustainability into our everyday work?
When people struggle with what this sustainability stuff is and how to support it, I would say if you don't have a good understanding of what sustainability is, I'm pretty sure you have a good idea of what unsustainability is. And that's what we're doing now. If we took the design framework from 100 years ago, it would have been—either explicitly or implicitly—'How do we create tremendous amounts of wealth for a small sliver of the population while destroying the resources that we use to create that wealth?' That's what we ultimately have realized right now.
So if we start thinking about all we have to do in order to support sustainability and what our roles in that can be, we should look for the absurdity.
The absurdity can be found in how we generate, store, and transport our energy, the fact that we're still burning rocks and goo for our energy. When we look at some of the largest material manufacturers—whether it's plastics, polymers, ceramics—and you ask what their major product is, the true answer is CO2. It's not their intended product, but if you ask what you actually make versus what it is that you want to make for so many industry sectors, the product is CO2. Over 90% of all of the materials that go into manufacturing wind up directly and immediately as waste.
So when I say, ‘Look for the absurdities and then you know where to spend your time,’ you just need to look at what it is that your company is doing. Is it doing it in ways that make common sense? Because so many of our business and economic drivers are not aligned to sustainability. They are using flawed and antiquated models, which have carried out that design framework of 100 years ago.
Sustainability is often discussed in a business context as something that brings additional cost or slows growth. Is there another way to think about it?
Yes. John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying that 'the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.' So the great myth that sustainability costs more and things don't work quite as well is luckily being belied every day. Because what we have is a system that is basically about quarterly reports and about pleasing Wall Street analysts and this short-term thinking. So when we say, 'Sustainability costs more,' we are geared toward privatizing gains and socializing losses.
If you look at who is paying the cost for the degradation of our atmosphere, the inability of our natural ecosystems to purify water, purify our air, preserve habitat, preserve biodiversity, those are real costs. If we had sensible economic models, they would make their way onto the Excel spreadsheet. But instead there aren't even columns on an Excel spreadsheet for the ecosystem services that are being degraded by our common business practices in many places.
How do you make sustainability a key design element rather than being just about compliance and risk avoidance?
You want to look at the 12 principles of green engineering and the 12 principles of green chemistry. Basically I could boil them down to three key things. Right now our society and our economy are based on materials and energy that are toxic, depleting, and degrading of the environment. The green principles are that you want to make them helpful rather than toxic, renewable rather than depleting, and restorative rather than degrading of the environment.
For anybody to argue that waste is a good business model, that is pretty ridiculous. We should recognize that waste is a human-made concept. In nature, there's no such thing as waste. Every time a waste product is generated an organism evolves to utilize that waste. This concept of circularity, where every bit of material and energy is reused in a way, just makes good business sense.
If you were to go into an organization and try to shift their way of thinking about their business along these lines, what would be the main things that you would say and what would be the main things you would change within that organization?
I actually do this with a lot of Fortune 100 companies. What I'd probably do is start by holding up a mirror so that they actually understand what it is that they're doing. When I say a company's main product is CO2, that is not how they think. They're going to give you a very different answer, even though the reality is their main product is CO2. Or with agricultural processes, they'll tell you that they feed half the world when 4% of the inputs into agriculture actually make it into someone's body. Often the main products because of the agricultural runoff are dead zones in the oceans around the world.
So you start off with a harsh reality and with a recognition that nobody actually wants to do that harm. It runs counter to their morals and ethics and they want to change. So then you start saying, 'What do you want that changed end state to look like?' You have them outline what some people call sustainability goals. Then when they say, 'Yes, that's a vision of what we want to be,' then you start saying, 'Okay, but right now all of your measures, metrics, rewards, incentives, and drivers are not aligned with that.' How do you align all of those things, your performance metrics, your KPIs?
What are you most excited about these days in terms of sustainability innovation or practices?
There are more and more examples of where we're turning the world's biggest problems into the world's biggest opportunities. I'm hoping that 50 years from now, when people look back at the beginning of the century and say, 'What were the greatest achievements?' one of them might be that we converted one of the world's biggest problems, CO2 emissions into a wide range of products, materials, fuels, and building materials. And people are going to make a lot of money from the idea of changing the direction of the vector from problem to solution.
I'm lucky enough to be involved with a company called the Air Company, in Brooklyn, New York. It's based on some of the research where you split water into hydrogen and oxygen, you take CO2, and you can make ethanol. With that, you can make a luxury vodka that is winning prizes all over the world for its taste. So this idea of turning great civilization-wide problems into tremendous opportunities and productivity and performance and function, that's what excites me.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of what sustainability says about work-life balance and how common sustainable approaches are in industry.
What Else You Need to Know
Companies are starting to create monkeypox plans. With more than 10,000 cases so far in the US, employers are now scrambling to develop messaging for their workers around prevention, workplace safety, and protocols for infected employees.
- While the Centers for Disease Control hasn’t declared monkeypox a workplace hazard, workplaces nonetheless need to consider their sick-leave policies, isolation policies, and procedures for disclosing diagnoses to human resources.
- Companies also have a role to play in combatting the spread of misinformation around the disease, particularly as it relates to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and harassment.
- A case of monkeypox typically lasts two to four weeks. Among workers who have a set number of paid sick days, just 4% have more than two weeks available to them, with an average of eight days per year. Some 21% of US workers have no access to paid sick leave.
The gender pay gap is emerging almost immediately among young workers. In a new Wall Street Journal analysis of 1.7 million college and advanced-degree graduates, male alumni in 75% of programs outearned their female counterparts within three years.
- Last year, women working full-time earned 83.1 cents for every dollar made by male full-time employees, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Among both full- and part-time workers, that number shrank to 77.3 cents.
- Other data paint a more optimistic picture about the state of pay parity: A report from Payscale earlier this year found that when comparisons control for years of experience, job level, industry, and hours worked, women earn 99 cents on the dollar.
- Several states now have pay-transparency laws in place. Other Payscale research has found a direct link between gender-based pay parity and women saying their organizations are transparent around compensation.
- The pay gap is smaller in states that have more robust child care and paid family leave programs, in part because unpredictable schedules exacerbate pay inequality, with women more likely to forego additional or more lucrative shifts because of caregiving obligations.
A four-day workweek may be better for the planet. Experts point to a number of factors: fewer commuting hours, altered energy-consumption patterns, and increased free time to make more sustainable choices in daily life, such as walking over driving and cooking at home over ordering delivery.
- Economist Juliet Schor, who studies work and climate change, told the Washington Post: “The one thing we do know from lots of years of data and various papers and so forth is that the countries with short hours of work tend to be the ones with low emissions, and work time reductions tend to be associated with emission reduction.”
- Some 60 US companies are currently enrolled in a six-month trial for a shortened week, run by the 4 Day Week Global. The same organization is behind the UK’s current pilot, the largest four-day workweek trial to date.
- The rise of remote work is one indication of how a 32-hour week may affect carbon emissions, which decreased dramatically in the early days of the pandemic. But research on the environmental impact of remote work is mixed, in part because companies lack a standardized way to measure energy usage among their employees.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Some 46% of companies are using half of their available office space or less, according to a poll of 247 workplace leaders from hybrid-work platform Robin.
- The year-over-year increase in office-building foot traffic has roughly held steady for the past few months, according to an analysis of buildings in six major cities, suggesting that the office return may be hitting a plateau.
- Many companies faced with disappointing second-quarter sales are placing blame on the lower number of office workers in central business districts. Brands that have cited the negative impact of remote work include restaurants popular among office workers, such as Shake Shack and Sweetgreen, as well as makers of consumer products used in offices, including Clorox and Kimberly-Clark.
- In Asian business hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo, smaller apartments, efficient transportation systems, and vibrant business districts have drawn workers back to the office at higher rates than their U.S. counterparts. In Tokyo, occupancy rates are an estimated 60% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to less than 50% in the US.
- Author Malcom Gladwell recently criticized remote work during a podcast appearance, asking, “I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?” In response, critics pointed out the many times Gladwell has come out as a fan of remote work in his own life, having publicly stated that he “hates desks” and has worked in coffee shops for “much of my adult life.”
- A recent internal survey at Dropbox found that 78% of employees say remote work has made them more productive. In the company’s Virtual First program, employees work remotely at least 90% of the time and use a newly downsized office (which no longer includes individual desks) only for group activities.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Vent into a voice memo. Immediately launching into a frustration-fueled rant or confrontation can create more problems than it solves. Before you let your feelings out in front of someone else, work through them privately by recording a voice memo. Then, listen to it and reflect on how to move forward.
- Schedule a regular skip-level. These meetings, which take place between an employee and their manager’s manager, can lead to better information sharing, communication, and career advancement across the team. Having regular skip-levels on the calendar can strengthen relationships between senior management and more junior employees, while avoiding the perception of a junior team member going over a boss’s head.
- Create opportunities for “squiggly” advancement. In conversations about growth and development, encourage employees to think of their career as a portfolio of skills—including those developed through experiences outside of work, such as caregiving and travel— rather than a ladder to climb. This framing, in turn, can help workers and employers alike to craft less linear trajectories that are more tailored to people’s specific interests and strengths.
Hangover leave—excuse us, “paid celebration recovery leave”—is the perk workers want. That’s according to a new tongue-in-cheek poll from YouGov and compliance-software company Trusaic, which also found demand for other unorthodox employee benefits such as breakup leave and premium dating-app subscriptions (not a bad idea for a package deal).
Note to CEOs: It might be better to skip the crying selfie. It’s a lesson that one startup executive recently learned the hard way after receiving backlash for a tearstained photo posted to LinkedIn, accompanied by a caption about his experience of laying off employees.
“No one wants to work anymore” has a long and storied history. The lament has been cropping up more and more amid the current labor shortage, but a recent viral Twitter thread documents how bosses have been decrying the death of the work ethic since time immemorial, or at least the past 125 years.
Squinch for the camera. Some professionals are paying over $1,000 for professional LinkedIn headshots. For one headshot photographer, the secret is to “squinch:” a facial expression that involves raising the lower eyelids in a modified squint, not too different from model Tyra Banks’s famous smize.
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.