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Return to the Workplace is an FFT Moment

Within minutes two articles appeared on my desktop this weekend.

One declared The office as we knew it is dead and described how the “coronavirus crisis has proved that companies can remain productive over Zoom,” and that remote work will become more common than ever. It cited CEOs from big companies like Morgan Stanley and Barclays who “questioned the need for their pre-virus office square footage,” and may capitalize on the success they’ve witnessed running their businesses totally remotely.

The second advised Why you feel exhausted from endless Zoom calls, and told me not only why I’m tired, but also all the reasons why Zoom is inferior to in-person interactions. The article cited many studies which claim, among other things, that we are less trusting and understanding while videoconferencing, more cautious in our communication and much more self-conscious and less certain in our interactions.

There are a lot of predictions about what the future will hold for our return to the workplace (don’t say return to work…it’s HR faux paus de jour…many of us have been working). Executives at companies have been spending a lot of time on this and creating exhaustive checklists for a return. CHRO’s we’ve been talking with weekly are telling us they are looking at a variety of options to make it physically safe in the office – from temperature checking, to phased work schedules to reconfiguring the office. More draconian: up to a quarter of companies are exploring digital contact tracing apps as part of their back to office strategy, creating what is expected to be a brand new multi-billion dollar industry. And in case you are wondering, it’s likely legal for private employers in the United States to mandate that employees use a contact-tracing app as a condition of employment.

But all of that is assuming companies want people to come back at all. An executive at a Fortune 100 company told me a few days ago that the CEO announced internally he’s a convert to working from home – never done it before – but now plans to downsize office space as a result and move as many people to remote work as possible. That same scenario is playing out in thousands of companies worldwide as executives have a new understanding of the work-from-home experience. With schools, camps, day-care and eldercare in various states of closure, employees may have no choice but to work from home for the foreseeable future.

While all of this plays out over the next several weeks and months, all executives need to heed the brilliant Brené Brown’s reminder: this is an FFT (f***ing first time) for all of us. FFT’s are times of anxiety and susceptibility. “This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.  We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves,” advises Brown.

While companies roll out a myriad of new policies, logistics and mandates, keep in mind two important elements:

  1. The psyche of the workforce.  It’s more fragile today than it’s ever been before. Attention to emotional and mental well-being should be viewed as important as physical safety.
  2. The importance of agility.  Everything you are rolling out now is susceptible to change – some of it rapid and drastic – so preface that aspect to your employees. Collectively we are doing the best we can right now, but we don’t have all the answers.

On Sunday CBS’ 60 Minutes did a segment on Amazon’s treatment of its workers during the pandemic. Amazon’s business has exploded while everyone shelters in place, but there’s increasing concern over the health and safety of warehouse workers at Amazon facilities across the U.S. The segment took viewers on a tour of a warehouse near Seattle, to show where some of the $800 million the company says it has spent on worker protections thus far has gone. They have installed thermal cameras in many of their locations, provided masks, on site cleansing stations, misting disinfectant guns and onsite testing labs they are reportedly spending additional hundreds of millions of dollars on for employees to self-administer a coronavirus test. They are even working on enforcing social distancing by videotaping employees and using artificial intelligence to study their movements.

Regardless of Amazon’s efforts, it was a scathing segment. Many Amazon warehouse workers have reportedly been diagnosed with COVID-19. Dave Clark, Amazon’s SVP of Worldwide Operations, was on the hot seat as Lesley Stahl grilled him about this. After many awkward answers to pointed questions, Clark wrapped up the segment by saying:

“If anybody walked into this with a perfect playbook for how to execute…continuing to…to send essential goods to people in the middle of a pandemic, I'd love to see it.  You know, do I wish we were perfect from day one?  Of course.”

His basic point: it’s an FFT. Nothing will ever be perfect. 

-         Kevin Oakes, CEO, i4cp

Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.