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The business impact: Nearly four million people quit their jobs in April—that’s the highest number on record and suggests that workers are confident that they have better options. A retail trade group forecast as much as a 13.5% increase in sales this year, saying it expects the fastest growth since 1984. Consumer prices rose 5% in May from a year ago, the biggest inflation jump in about 13 years, amid greater demand and labor and materials shortages. Entry-level lawyers at some corporate law firms are now making $200,000, thanks to a boom in legal activity.
Focus on What We All Can Learn from Working Parents
I recently was introduced to Lauren Brody, a former executive editor of Glamour magazine and author of The Fifth Trimester. She’s an expert in creating workplaces where working mothers can thrive, and coaching parents to that end. Brody mentioned that there are parallels between the return to paid work by mothers after a parental leave and the return to the workplace that so many workers—whether parents of young children or not—are now on the cusp of. I followed up and asked her what we could learn from the best practices for the return to the office from parental leave. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What can we learn from the return from parental leave that's applicable to the broader return to workplace now?
There are lots of things that businesses can do to help support that transition back to paid work. Many apply directly to what we're seeing with offices reopening, people having hybrid situations, and needing to still take care of family. For instance, kids who may not have their regular summer programs, but mom and dad are expected back in the office. It's a lot of negotiating around personal life needs, which can feel like the highest stakes possible at a time when we're all ready to work hard and get back into the groove of our new, hopefully exciting economy. It's very similar to what it feels like as a new parent coming back to work after being home on a family leave and needing to re-engage. We get to know people, get back up to speed, but do it in an entirely new and different way that probably will be ongoing. Some of it is transitional and some of these changes we're going to want to keep permanently. That all feels really similar.
Research shows that (unshockingly) one thing that helps with retaining women in times of transition (like after a parental leave, or coming back post pandemic) is if people feel valued for their contributions. That's not earth shattering, but it's something that can make a huge difference when used as a tool by managers, especially with groups of people, like parents, who might fret that they have underperformed using our old measures of time, dollars, and facetime. I encourage both managers and employees to rethink their measures of success in a more nuanced way.
One practical approach is for managers to reward any retention-building work that employees did over the pandemic. They might not have worked the most hours, or brought in the most business, but did they take time to mentor someone? Did they participate in an ERG that makes the org a more attractive place to work? Did they make a useful introduction? These are highly valuable contributions that deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded.
What other practices can organizations draw from the return from parental leave? What allows working parents to thrive?
On-ramping more than anything. It's on-ramping for your employees, perhaps letting them operate at a reduced hours schedule or even reduced duties schedule without taking away pay. But it's also acknowledging that our children's caregivers need to on-ramp. Our kids themselves need to get used to being back in an educational environment, or back in a social environment with kids, if they're doing camps back out in the world.
There's a lot of adjusting that has to happen. Unfortunately, often the employee who you're talking about is kind of the last piece of that puzzle. They have to have on-ramp their caregiver, on-ramp their kids, before they can effectively dive 100% back into their work.
So it's being patient with that transition, particularly with what's happened in the caregiving industry and the anticipated recovery of that industry. Whether that is one person in your home helping care for your family or a daycare center or some cobbling together of grandparents helping and partners, moms, dads taking different schedules at work—that has to happen first before the employee will be able to be totally fully engaged.
However, what we also see about the return to paid work after baby is that people come back much more efficient, much more deliberate, much less likely to put up with things that are a waste of time and simultaneously do that in not a cold way, but actually a pretty nurturing way.
Could people return to the workplace more efficient than they left it?
Absolutely. More efficient, more deliberate. And this is going to sound negative and I don't intend for it to be—more able to be comfortable with their compromises. They're not wasting a lot of energy on feeling guilty and torn—there's just not time for that. You have to be really judicious about what you spend your energy on when so much of your energy is taken up by your family's needs as well as your paid work's needs.
If you were to measure the time that you spend moving from one project to another project, that's much more compressed when they come back to paid work after having been on a maternity leave. A lot of people like to say that they're better able to say no. That's true, but I also recognize the flip side, which is that they're better able to say yes in a committed way. If you’ve done the compromise math on, ‘Can I take this project on, can I stay late? Can I steal from this part of my life to serve another?’ and you get to a yes, that's a really real yes. It's been deliberately decided upon.
Many of us have been operating in what I refer to as a defensive crouch. We've guarded resources, whether that means trying to not spend a lot of money or trying to be very protective of our mental health, our energy levels, our reserves of what we have.
And there's a scarcity mode that can be something that we need to overcome as we go through this transition back. When you look at who succeeds in their careers, who moves forward, it's people who are always willing to stretch a little bit and take a little bit more of a risk. Research shows that women are more hesitant to take risks than men are. There was that study showing that men apply for jobs they're only 40% qualified for, whereas women have to tick off 100% of the job qualification boxes before they'll apply. So it's that kind of risk taking I'm talking about. It's stretching and going a little beyond. We have been so trained over the last 14 months to be protective of ourselves that we have to be very conscious of making an effort to take some more risks.
The way employers can foster that is simply by talking about it, by saying 'I know that we're going to come back and have to try things a little differently. Can we all guinea pig this together? I need you to tell me what's working, what's not working. I need you to tell me what you need in your life in order to be able to continue with your job. Because I can't read your mind and I'm also a person with a personal life who's just gone through a pandemic.'
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of the most important benefits for companies to provide working parents and what to do if your organization’s policies for return to the workplace don’t meet your needs.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
Countering the 'shecession.' The pandemic pushed 2.3 million women out of the US workforce in 2020. To understand nuances around the choices working mothers made, we spoke with a political scientist and former HR executive. See their conversation on what we lose when we lose women in the workforce.
What Else You Need to Know
What to wear back to the office is a question for a lot of people. Anecdotally, getting dressed up is one of the factors behind why more people aren’t taking advantage of voluntary options to return to the workplace already.
- About half of people surveyed recently said they planned to dress more comfortably, with that number at 58% for men.
- Researchers say that women and people of color who dress more casually in the workplace can be taken less seriously, which could affect their ability to get raises or promotions.
- One-quarter of all consumers now wear a different size than before the pandemic, according to Levi’s, because they either lost or gained weight.
A new analysis of individual employees’ contacts with colleagues inside companies suggests tactics for more inclusive and equitable workplaces. Researchers at the Connected Commons research consortium studied interactions between workers at 10 organizations, and found that employees of color who quickly established ties with other colleagues, had broad networks in the company, and had strong mentoring were more likely to be promoted and stay longer. Among the measures that the researchers recommend are:
- Organizing activities that help new employees make key connections and establish trust within their first three to six months.
- Focusing on helping workers connect across functional and geographic lines, and not just to senior people or similar peers.
- Promoting mentoring and feedback from peers or colleagues a level up in the hierarchy. Surprisingly, the researchers found that employees who had more mentoring from senior colleagues had narrower networks and higher departure rates.
“Deficit narratives” have a real-world impact. Researchers found that when white Americans were told about the difficulties of a Black college student, it led them to perceive him as less competent. Whereas when they were told about his resilience in the face of difficulty, they viewed him as more competent.
- The research has implications for companies’ statements and training around diversity, which could inadvertently reinforce stigmas by focusing on the difficulties of specific groups of employees.
- “Organizations should explicitly acknowledge the resilience of stigmatized individuals,” the researchers write. “Doing so may create more respectful environments for stigmatized groups and allow them to thrive.”
Companies are dealing with labor shortages in a variety of ways. Beyond offering perks to lure job applicants, they’re looking beyond local or traditional labor pools or turning to technology instead.
- Some employers are using the current hiring crunch to push for expanded access to immigrant labor, especially for high-skilled workers in the tech sector.
- A number of states are considering “clean slate” laws that would expunge records for many categories of crimes after a number of years, reducing a common barrier to employment for those formerly incarcerated.
- Some companies are using technology to perform tasks traditionally performed by people, such as by using automated voice systems to take drive-through orders.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Employers surveyed by the Partnership for New York City expect 62% of office-based employees to return to the workplace by the end of September. Only 15% plan to require vaccination.
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he plans to work remotely as much as 50% of next year. “Working remotely has given me more space for long-term thinking and helped me spend more time with my family, which has made me happier and more productive at work,” he wrote in a memo to staff.
- Goldman Sachs is requiring US employees to report their vaccination status.
- Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz said it’s letting teams set expectations for when employees need to be in the office, but that any staffer needs to be able to get to the office with a day’s notice.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Celebrate Juneteenth. A number of organizations are making the day celebrating the end of slavery in the US an official company holiday. Other ways to mark Juneteenth include holding celebrations, hosting external Black speakers, and supporting Black-owned businesses.
- Reach out to people you wish you had hired. Make a list of three to five people you would have wanted to recruit in the past five years and who could make a difference to your organization today. Then contact them to see if they’d consider joining you. With people looking around for other jobs, now is a good time to check in.
- When you’re gathering with people again, acknowledge the moment. Priya Parker cites her first in-person yoga class, where the instructor started by saying it was “beautiful and overwhelming” to have students there after over a year on Zoom. Parker also recommends focusing on the physical space. “Don’t underestimate the sheer power of allowing people to come and walk through a space together again for the first time,” writes the author of The Art of Gathering.
- Do walk-and-talk phone calls with colleagues. Researchers found that people so strongly associate their home office setups with work that they need to step away to enter a different mindset for really connecting with other people. They also recommend that companies boost feelings of belonging by offering employees who live near each other money to get a meal or drink together.
- Elevate all of your colleagues, not just a few stars. That’s the approach of M. Gloria González-Morales at Claremont Graduate University, who invited her whole team to participate in a recent interview with a Quartz journalist.
Exposure to sunshine impacts people’s professional judgement. Researchers found that executives were more likely to make over-optimistic earnings forecasts when it was sunnier around their headquarters during the preceding 14 days. The researchers compared the forecasts announced to investors to what the actual earnings wound up being.
Rush hours are different as people resume commuting. The number of vehicle miles during the peak 7am to 8am commuting hours in the San Francisco metro area had fallen by half as of late this winter from a year earlier. But traffic during the 5pm to 6pm peak was down by only one-quarter. Researchers say that workers with remote or flexible arrangements tend to stay home in the morning, and emerge in the afternoon.
- As companies shift to hybrid arrangements, midweek traffic could return to pre-pandemic levels, while Mondays and Fridays could remain lighter.
- Commutes generally are low points in people’s day, making them more miserable the longer the commute. Researchers determined that the ideal commute time is 16 minutes.
Are holograms the answer to Zoom fatigue? Some tech companies are promoting holograms and related technology to produce 3D images of people as a way to improve on videoconferencing. Google and Microsoft are among those working on the technology, and WeWork is installing hologram gear from ARHT Media in 100 of its buildings.
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.