Spotify Cafe Singapore
A Spotify office in Singapore is an example of how workplaces could be reconfigured. Credit: Courtesy Spotify

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 Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 38% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 97,000 new cases per day. That’s less than half the new daily cases at their peak in early January. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that by April all Americans should be eligible for the vaccine, and that current vaccines “seem to do well” against the UK variant. Based on an analysis of vaccination rates, JP Morgan analysts concluded that there would be an “effective end” of the pandemic in the US in 40-70 days, meaning a “strong decline” roughly by the end of April. 

The business impact: New unemployment claims have begun falling, boosting hopes for a shift from layoffs to new hiring. The number of job postings on jobs site Indeed are up slightly from a year ago, having recovered from their May low. Consumer sentiment fell this month, as lower-income households were less optimistic. Just 55% of small businesses say they believe they can continue operating for more than another year, compared to 67% in a survey during the fourth quarter of 2020. 

Focus on Remote and Hybrid Work

Almost a year later, what do we really know about how to manage remote work better? And how can we best prepare for the hybrid work arrangements that many businesses are anticipating post-pandemic? For answers, I spoke recently with Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who studies global, virtual workforces and has a book called Remote Work Revolution due out in March. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

Why do you think that remote work is a skill that people need to learn?

This is a type of work scholars and experts have been studying for almost 50 years—remote work is not new. Yet because of the circumstances under which most people migrated to remote work, for some workforces wholesale, this shift was sudden. It was in the middle of a crisis and it introduced a radical change in systems, processes, and structures. Remote work, for many organizations around March 2020, was a radical change in the middle of a crisis. People did the best they could, and have been surviving without deliberate planning and thinking about how to be effective as a remote worker or a leader of remote work. That’s what I mean, that it’s actually a learned skill versus the surviving that people have been doing.

Do you recommend any tactics for when organizations are operating in hybrid, distributed fashion, as is the most likely scenario for many companies post-pandemic?

One thing to do is to make sure that there’s active messaging, that no matter where you are we’re part of the same organization. So psychologically you have to create that circle, that bubble, no matter where people are. The other thing is you have to make sure people feel like they’re pointed in the same direction, that there’s some kind of superordinate goal that they’re all after. What are we rallying around? It could be some performance metric. It could be something else, depending what the group is. 

The other thing is employees themselves have to be adept at being inclusive with their coworkers. Sometimes it’s making sure you’re reaching out to others who are in different places, just to build bridges and connections. But that’s one of the problems that we’re going to see in this hybrid world. From the many experiences that we know about when you have a distributed workforce, it’s this ‘us versus them’ dilemma.

The best practice seems to be also that if people are remote, their in-office time overlaps, so that they make maximum use of that.

Yes. Especially the relevant people, right? And you want to coordinate around that, which is why you don’t want to say two days a week is what we’re going to do. Because it might be three to make sure that Kevin’s and Tsedal’s schedules align and they’re meeting to collaborate. That’s why you have to remain flexible.

Over-communication is key?

It’s over-communication, but it’s not even me saying ‘I trust you.’ It’s me being present. It’s you getting updates. By the way, even big-picture updates to help people understand what’s going on in the company win a lot of points for leaders. Because people feel insecure otherwise, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.

Just saying thank you, too. There’s another survey where the majority of workers felt like they weren’t appreciated by their managers.

So important! And to digress a little bit, when people send an email, it could be even an FYI email—you better acknowledge it, in a remote environment, and say thank you. ‘Got it. Thanks.’ It’s something so small, but it conveys that I hear you. I see you. I appreciate it. To send out emails, or some emails, people have labored to generate it. And there’s no acknowledgement for it. It’s a big fail. It’s okay in an in-person environment where you see people. You’ll run into them, you’ll have lunch, you’ll have meetings. But in a remote environment where you hardly see people, that is unacceptable. Some people say, well, I can’t handle saying thank you. And to all these people: if you have digital tool usage issues, then that’s a whole other problem. But our etiquette has to be different in a remote environment in order to instill confidence in others.

We’ve seen that this change has taken a particular toll on female workers. And it seems to be impacting workers of color and other people who are not in the dominant group. From where you sit, what are the best practices to counteract that?

So important. Two groups affected, for two different reasons, are female women of color and millennials. With women of color, the reason that you see them opting out is because organizations are not embracing one of the greatest gifts that comes with remote work, which is called flex time. Flex time is when we need to be able to cut up our workday in a way that’s conducive for our world now. Which means I may work from 6am until 8pm and get my children ready for remote learning for 8:30am. And then I’ll be back online at 9am, or 9:30am. And we should not schedule meetings for the team between 8am and 9am, because when you do that you’re building into the work of these people of color, women of color, indignities that are very hard to overcome.

Millennials are facing professional isolation in disproportionate ways, because some of them may not be in households with other people. They’re profoundly isolated and increasingly becoming companies’ problems, not individuals’ problems.

People say that with remote work creativity suffers, because it’s hard to do that when you’re on your own. Have you seen any organizations or teams particularly effective at nurturing creativity?

I haven’t actually seen any empirical evidence that says that creativity is affected by virtuality. One of the things that I tracked are groups like agile teams that are used to the in-person who no longer have it. How do you maintain innovative work and creative work, et cetera? You use tools very differently. Even when you brainstorm, there are things that you do. How do you disarm people so that they can be very creative and relaxed in a brainstorming session? You do icebreakers, you do different things, you share meals if you’re in-person. 

How do you do that remotely? Well, a deceptively simple tactic is you have people make funny faces as an icebreaker on Zoom. You say, okay, what we’re going to do next is I’m going to make a funny face and say ‘My name is Tsedal.’ And all of you have to make that same funny face and say, ‘Hi Tsedal.’ And by the time the eight people have done this, not only are they laughing but they’ve embarrassed themselves in this kind of fun way. You’ll have the best brainstorming session you’ll ever have. 

My sense is that there also isn’t evidence that suggests that remote necessarily means that there’s lower productivity, right?

There’s a lot of evidence that says there’s higher productivity. In fact, people have been surveyed recently—and even talking decades, the first study that came out around productivity and remote work was around 1993. Productivity goes up with remote work, not down. What I’m worried about nowadays is actually hyper productivity, where people are getting burned out because companies and organizations are seeing, wow, this is exceeding our expectations of kind of raising the bar. And people are getting burned out. And the boundaries between home and work are getting increasingly blurred. Even yesterday, I was with 200 leaders and I polled them about productivity. Has productivity increased? These are all top leaders of organizations. Consistently, over 90% said it’s increased. And this is exactly what you would find.

All of the surveys suggest that employees are feeling burned out, that there’s a mental health toll. Are there any specific measures that organizations can put in place to to deal with that?

You have to face it fully and reduce people’s hours, and model the behaviors that you want to see. Burnout is happening because of this hyper-productivity excitement that people are facing. But now you’re seeing Google and others are saying, please take time off, take Friday off, because they’re seeing people’s well-being is being undermined. This is where employee assistance programs need to be dialed all the way up. Managers need to lead people out of this issue. This is what I mean, remote work is a learned skill. People are burning people out because they’re seeing higher productivity.

You can read a transcript of our full interview here. You can pre-order Neeley’s book Remote Work Revolution.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Get ready for the reset. After 2020 disrupted lives and livelihoods, leaders, innovators, and changemakers can make a telling difference in #America2021. Starting Monday, McKinsey will roll out a memo a day for five days to contribute to the discussion. Bookmark this page to follow the series this week and throughout the year.

What Else You Need to Know

WFA is the hot new acronym. Spotify this week announced a new Work From Anywhere (WFA) policy, joining the ranks of companies rolling out detailed options for employees once the pandemic subsides. 

  • Spotify is letting staff choose between whether they want to work mostly at home (dubbed “home mix mode”) or in the office (“office mix mode”) and have flexibility around their geographic location. The Swedish audio streaming company has extended its Work From Home (WFH) arrangement for everyone until Sept. 
  • “Work is not a place,” said chief human resources officer Katarina Berg. “It is something that you do.”
  • As I wrote on Wednesday, Salesforce this week announced new flex working policies that will have most of its staff in an office three or fewer days per week post pandemic.
  • Some experts warn that there are risks for companies shifting wholesale to such policies, given that it would be hard to reverse them if it turns out that productivity, culture, or collaboration suffer with WFA approaches outside of pandemic times. 

At a lot of companies, there’s still uncertainty about basic questions around when or how employees will return to the workplace. Over 40% of workers surveyed by the Conference Board recently said they were unclear on what their company’s plans were for how they would return to the office. Just 21% expected their workplace would reopen by June. 

Company boards could face new lawsuits for not making progress on diversity. A Micron Technology shareholder this week sued the Idaho tech company and its board for not making progress on their stated commitment to diversity. 

  • The suit notes that Micron has no Black directors, and its staff and senior leadership have not grown significantly more diverse since the company publicly committed to diversity in 2018. 
  • Micron Technology is listed on the Nasdaq exchange, which would make it subject to new Nasdaq board diversity guidelines if those are approved by the SEC. Legal experts say the litigation Micron Technology faces could foreshadow a new wave of such suits.

Nike has agreed to equip workers in its California stores with transparent masks. The move is part of a proposed settlement to a lawsuit filed by a deaf college student who argued that opaque masks muffle sound and block the ability to see a speaker’s mouth and facial expressions. Under the settlement, Nike would make sure that workers in its stores would have access to masks with transparent windows around the mouth area. 

Vice president Kamala Harris described the exodus of women from the workforce as a “national emergency.”  In a Washington post Op-ed making the case for the Biden administration’s stimulus package, Harris noted that about 2.5 million women have lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce over the past year. “Our economy cannot fully recover unless women can fully participate,” she wrote.

An update on earlier coverage of sexist and unempathetic remarks: Yoshiro Mori resigned as the head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, following outcry about his comment that women speak too much in meetings. KPMG UK chairman Bill Michael has stepped aside while he’s being investigated by the firm for reportedly telling colleagues to “stop moaning” about working conditions during the pandemic. 

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

  • Work a cardio workout into your day. Research shows that cardio exercise such as running or cycling boosts your working memory and ability to switch between tasks. It also helps you respond more calmly to stressful interactions. But the benefits decrease as time passes from the workout.
  • Review resumes with gender and racial identifying information excised. Researchers found that organizations reviewing resumes for candidates in STEM fields rated them lower if their name or other information suggested they were female or a person of color. Redacting such information (like gendered language around sports teams) before hiring managers screen resumes could help reduce bias. 
  • Reconnect with your work friends. A lot of us have people we miss not seeing in the office every day. You can send an extra message to check on them or say hi. One approach to having more meaningful conversations when you do connect is to take turns sharing a thing you’re feeling good about, and something you’re finding stressful. 

Coda

Americans are slacking off when it comes to washing their hands. A January survey indicates 57% are washing their hands six or more times a day, compared to 78% last April. 

  • Just 53% of Americans say they wash their hands after returning from outside their home, down from 67%. 
  • And fewer than in April said they were washing their hands for 20 seconds or longer, as the CDC recommends. 

These survey answers are self-reported, so the lax handwashing could be even worse in reality.

Shorter commutes mean greater ingenuity. Researchers found that every 10-kilometer increase in the commuting distance of an inventor led to a 5% decrease in the number of patents they filed and a 7% decrease in the patents’ quality. That suggests companies should incentivize inventors to live close to their workplaces. The researchers said it’s unclear how working remotely affects inventors’ productivity.

The pandemic has been good for breakfast cereal consumption. Kellogg this week said it couldn’t keep up with increased demand for Frosted Flakes cereal, and Post Consumer Brands has struggled to ramp up production amid Grape-Nuts shortages

  • Cereal sales had been declining in recent years, as people increasingly ate breakfast on the run or skipped it entirely. Now analysts estimate that cereal consumption increased by more than 10% last year. 
  • The pandemic has benefited breakfast in general. Home consumption of pancakes, for example, surged a mighty 25% last year, according to estimates. 

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.