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The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 12% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging about 68,000 new cases per day. About 35% of US adults have received at least one dose, with 3 million being vaccinated every day. Michigan’s public health system is “overwhelmed” amid a surge in cases, including outbreaks linked to youth sports.
The business impact: Hiring is gaining steam, with 7.4 million US job openings as of the start of March, the highest level in two years. A record 42% of small businesses say they have jobs they can’t file. The number of restaurant diners is down just 18% from normal in April, compared to 48% in February. Economists forecast 6% US GDP growth or higher this year.
Focus on Race and Returning to the Workplace
Only 3% of Black workers who are currently working remotely want to return to the office full-time post-pandemic—compared to 21% of white workers, according to a recent Slack Future Forum survey. The Future Forum’s analysis is that for many Black workers, remote work is preferable because it requires less code switching than going into the office physically.
What’s the best way to navigate the dimension of race as we contemplate returning to the workplace? I reached out to Chad Sanders, the author of a new book called Black Magic, which recounts his own experience working at Google, YouTube, and a tech startup, as well as the experiences of other Black leaders working in predominantly white environments. Brené Brown describes Black Magic as “required reading.” Sanders, now a screenwriter and director, last June published the New York Times op-ed “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends.”
Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited lightly for space and clarity:
What do you make of the Future Forum survey data, and what do you think the implications are?
Checks out to me. Who wouldn't want to be somewhere where they get to choose the design of the environment, or at least where someone who resembles them or is similar to them has chosen the design of the environment? Most Fortune 500 companies—and probably most Fortune 5,000 companies—have been built by founders who are white, boards that are mostly white, majority shareholders that are mostly white, c-suite executives that are mostly white. They're basically houses built for white people by white people. I don't know that I have anything profound to say about it other than—I would assume Black kids that go to predominantly white colleges are less excited about going back to Virginia Tech and Duke and Harvard and Stanford than the kids that go to Morehouse and Spelman who are probably dying to go back to school right now, to be around kids that look like them. I do think sometimes these things are profound in their simplicity.
How do you see the racial dynamics of workplaces playing out in the context of remote work and Zoom?
Working on Zoom is also a disaster, which actually gives me more perspective on the statistic you just shared, which is to say it's pretty telling that people would rather be Zoom fatigued, lonely, at home—which is pretty isolating and pretty uncomfortable as we've found in the last year and a half—than to be at work where they feel subject to othering and microaggressions, in some instances outright racism.
A counterexample is I'm working on a show for HBO right now called 'Rap Shit.' I'm writing in that show, and the room is 12 writers altogether; there are nine Black people, there are nine women. There are zero white men—and obviously it comes with its own sort of conflict of creativity and voice. But by and large, it's more harmonious, more kind, more empathetic, more open, more real, more creative, than any other work experience that I've had, especially in corporate America and technology. Maybe there's something there in that.
Something there in terms of the diversity of the group that you're working with?
What I have seen from working using Zoom, both in that room and otherwise, is there's even more deference to the socially dominant person—whether a white person, a man, the richest person—to that person's voice because it's even easier to go dead behind the eyes and let somebody filibuster. Why I think the 'Rap Shit' room is interesting is because there's very little of that. There are obviously still some forces at play. There's a boss and hierarchy, and some people are more experienced. But because it's a show about Black people and the boss is a Black woman, and most of the writers are Black and under 35, there's just a different democracy of voices in that room on Zoom. I don't know how that would play out in person, because we haven't been able to congregate in person, but that's how I've seen it.
Companies that are operating remotely are focusing now on what it's going to be like when they return to the workplace, and in the process of doing that they're touching a lot of their policies—what is their structure, how do they organize work, what are people's schedules, etc. What should they focus on fixing?
My truth is that they need to fix leadership. I've worked on diversity and inclusion initiatives and in those departments the policies are kind of meaningless. The people that matter are at the top of these companies. They're the people who have most of the ownership in the companies, most of the equity, whether those are the c-suite execs or the people who are majority shareholders in those companies. The culture filters down from them. It doesn't really matter what's written in some repository or some ledger on a company website about what their policies are, or in the HR division—these are companies that are made of human beings, and if the people at the top foster a culture that serves only the people who look like them, then that's going to pass down regardless of how they reorganize their company constitutions. For our country, that's been clear. I don't have a tinkering answer to that. If anything, I've become less hopeful in the tinkering and more bullish about the fact that we need a redistribution of ownership and leadership across the tops of these companies.
Do you see a path to get there?
The best solution that I can see is executive hiring quotas. You need 25%, 13%, or some representative number of your chief executives to be Black, Asian, or Latinx; we can run the gamut of identities. We need private investment and also federal investment in companies that are being built and run by people of color. This is an ownership problem. I don't have an answer to racism or micro-aggressions or any of that stuff. But what I can say is that Black people have a median wealth of like $1,400 to $7,000, depending on the year. And white families have a median wealth of maybe around $150,000. [Note: Black families have median wealth of about $24,000, with white families at around $190,000, according to government data.]
That's a damning discrepancy. That is an insurmountable discrepancy for Black entrepreneurs, for Black people who need to pay back student loans, for Black people that are trying to escalate at companies where you have to be in certain country clubs, certain groups that are expensive to join, in order to rub elbows with the right people to get promoted. These answers boil down to Black people needing investment—and we also need free money. Some people call that reparations, but we keep score with money, that's what we need.
Companies made a lot of statements about race nine months ago following the killing of George Floyd. How optimistic are you that they'll amount to something meaningful in the end?
Meaningful is so subjective. If some Black person got a promotion, a raise, or an exciting new project at work because of what happened there, it doesn't reset all the ills of our time and of our country's history. But it's real and meaningful to that person. I don't want to take that away at a macro scale.
To me, if these companies want to enact and propel real change and momentum and impact, call some Black people and give them an opportunity to do it. Share the wealth, share the leadership, share the decision-making. That's the only thing, in my opinion. A lot of the other stuff is PR or wheel-spinning.
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, which touches on topics including how to think about code switching and Sanders’ education in business from a young age.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
The post-COVID consumer. In 2019, were you buying groceries online or visiting your doctor virtually? Are you now? While some pandemic-related shifts could stick, others may be fleeting. Find out which in this new McKinsey Global Institute report.
What Else You Need to Know
Summer vacation-palooza. American workers generally don’t get many vacation days, and they’re not good about using all the ones they have. But that could change this summer, as vaccinated Americans are suddenly freer to travel, flush with accumulated savings and unused time-off carried over from last year.
- Some businesses, already struggling to fill open positions as the economy surges, could find it challenging to choreograph staff vacations. Some are asking staff to consider taking time off now, offering a bonus day for those who do so or warning they might not get approval for their desired weeks this summer.
- PricewaterhouseCoopers is offering incentives up to $1,000 for employees to actually use their vacation time, amid concern that they need to unplug after this intense year. (Research supports the idea that work performance improves with rest and time off.)
- Also likely is that “bleisure”—working while on holiday—will rise this summer for people who can effectively do their remote jobs from vacation destinations.
- Nearly 60% of Americans expect to travel for leisure in the next three months, with July emerging as a peak month for travel this year.
- The outlook for a recovery in international travel this summer remains very subdued.
Workers will have more power as the US economy booms and the labor market tightens. How will they choose to exercise it? Some possibilities:
- Switching employers. Surveys show that about 40% of American workers anticipate looking to switch jobs once things normalize.
- Demanding scheduling and location flexibility. A majority of workers wants to be remote at least one day per week, and about 30% say they will likely switch jobs if their employer adopts a fully in-office approach.
- Seeking better benefits and wages. Over 60% of companies already plan to increase their existing child-care benefits.
- Pressing management on diversity, social and political issues, and corporate values. A large majority of American workers wants their employers to take stands on social and political issues.
- Pushing for less punishing work hours. Remote workers are clocking more hours than when they were in the office, and junior bankers’ recent success pushing back suggests employees have some leverage.
Amazon won the Bessemer battler, but its war with organized labor continues. Over 70% of workers in the retailer’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted against joining a union, with some saying they didn’t believe that organizing would improve their pay or benefits and citing concerns Amazon would shut the facility in response.
- The vote was a major setback for labor leaders, who have targeted Amazon, the country’s second-largest employer, as being ripe for worker organizing.
- But some vow to continue their pressure on the company, which faces widespread criticism for its labor practices, through walkouts, negative publicity, lobbying, and other tactics.
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recommends that Amazon customers email Jeff Bezos directly demanding better treatment of workers.
Some carbon credits bought by businesses haven’t really offset anything. The Nature Conservancy, which sells offsets to companies so they can claim reductions in their emissions, is conducting an internal review after a Bloomberg investigation found the environmental group was assigning sham credits for trees that didn’t risk destruction.
- Oxford University guidelines recommend businesses avoid such problems by prioritizing reducing their own emissions, and shifting to credits linked to removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Return to workplace speed round:
- UK banking startup Revolut is allowing its more than 2,000 employees to work abroad for up to two months each year.
- IBM expects 80% of its workers to work at least part of three days each week in an office post-pandemic, with up to 20% staying entirely remote. The tech company will probably close a significant amount of its office space and reconfigure the rest for collaborative work.
- JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon says just 10% of the bank’s staff will stay fully remote post-pandemic, with some unspecified portion working in hybrid fashion. The company will move to “open seating” and may only need 60 seats for every 100 employees as a result.
- California will allow almost all sectors of the economy to operate at or near full capacity starting June 15.
- The World of Concrete conference in Las Vegas, which usually has over 60,000 attendees, is proceeding in early June and the business convention outlook for the second half of the year is “extremely strong.”
- Trivago tried bringing staff back one week out of every four, but they found the intense socializing during that week disorienting, so the German travel company plans to shift to two days per week in the office instead.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Set up an auto-reply for emails to protect your time off. “Out of office” might not not make sense, but new alternatives are welcome, such as: “Because of home-schooling I am working flexibly and may send emails at all hours. Please don’t feel you need to reply at once.”
- Use silent pauses when negotiating. Researchers found it was ideal to let three to nine seconds pass before responding, allowing more time to think and prepare. The researchers say that rather than pressuring the person you’re bargaining with, silent pauses could help you reach a more mutually satisfying outcome.
- Start easing yourself back into social interactions. To counteract any anxiety about more intense and widespread socializing as the pandemic eases, you can begin now with small steps. Possibilities include striking up conversations with strangers, or walking or biking with a friend.
- Plan on keeping job interviews virtual even after the pandemic. Using Zoom makes it easier to match job candidates with the right people at a company to interview them, regardless of their location or schedule. And candidates can spread the interviews over multiple days if they need that flexibility.
Adding women to leadership changes companies’ approaches. New research shows that firms with women in the c-suite are more open to change, but also less prone to risk-taking. Those companies shifted from focusing on mergers and acquisitions to investing in internal research and development, which promotes innovation but is less risky than high-failure-rate deals.
- The researchers postulate that to advance in the male-dominated corporate world women executives have to propose novel strategies but also face greater professional costs for making mistakes—hence the approach they bring to the c-suite.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Americans are working out with a vengeance to try to shed pandemic weight gain before they reemerge to hang out with people in public again. Some gyms say they’re busier now than before the pandemic.
- Beauty salons and those offering cosmetic treatments such as botox report booming business as well.
- Fashion retailers are seeing strong sales of more dressy clothes for going out. Seven of the top 10 best selling items for Urban Outfitters are dresses for its Anthropologie brand—compared to one or two dresses at most on that list over the past year.
New York City’s rats are back. As people return to indoor dining and offices, rodents are returning as well. The number of calls to a city hotline were up 80% last month from a year ago, and are higher than pre-pandemic levels. Some rats had migrated to residential areas, but with their shock of the past year easing, they’re shifting back to restaurant and office food sources.
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.