A First-Hand View: How to Return to Work
NACD Private Company Directorship
A First-Hand View: How to Return to Work
October 25, 2020
By Mike Lorelli
As soon as the US Center for Disease Control issued guidelines, Accent Foods—a private-equity backed microcap company in Austin, Texas, where I was CEO when COVID-19 hit—immediately moved to a rotational physical work schedule for critical functions.
The senior team came in over the weekend and moved work stations six feet apart, retrofitting conference rooms with workspace cubes and desks. On July 28th, Google announced that it would allow employees to work from home until at least July 2021. Many companies originally pegged return-to-work plans to Labor Day, then moved the peg to January 2021, then spring, and now many are following Google’s lead.
So, let’s take stock of what we know about workforce facts and notable opinions as they relate to operating in a safe environment within your respective board company, as well as to the substantive implications for private (and public) company directors.
Here is what CEOs and human resources experts are telling us:
- Not only did the unfathomable everyone-but-essential-workers-work-from-home happen in record time and prove that such arrangements can work, but employees also prefer it. Some employees, in fact, have remarked that they would take a pay cut if allowed to work-from-home permanently. The saved commute time, cost, and wear and tear have a bonus tag indeed. Could this become the next recruiting perk?
- Only a minority of the workforce today is spending every day in the office. (I feel horrible for my dry cleaner and the commercial real estate agent.)
- According to a Fortune magazine article, some 50 percent of employees say they are afraid to return to their offices. At Accent Foods, our COO and CHRO taped a five- minute amateur video, showing employees what to expect as they returned to the newly configured office and safety protocols: temperature checks upon arrival; a COVID-19 related questionnaire to be answered before entering the office; six-foot distancing between workstations and many workstations moved into conference rooms; six-foot markers on the floor in common areas such as the break room. A tour of the space was shown on a Zoom call with all employees the day before, so employees got to see what to expect, and to provide reassurance that management was taking their safety seriously and following CDC guidelines.
- Six-foot distancing allows for 25-60 percent of staff to physically fit in an office space—exactly the opposite of a sardine can, you might say.
- Elevators are a bottleneck. The magic passenger count seems to be two if you pay attention to the floor markers.
- “Density monitors” will be the new Big Brother. (Remember George Orwell’s 1984? He may have been off by a couple of years, but he certainly was right about cameras).
- Work-from-home employee satisfaction hinges on having a dedicated workspace.
- The average length of meetings has declined. (The upshot? Less coffee clutching before and after the substance.)
What This Means for Operations
Put yourself in your team’s shoes. Some of the agenda items that make up the new-fangled workday may include operating in a rotation where each employee works in the office two days a week.
Start to think in three buckets: employee safety, client safety, and legal and liability issues. Why not be on the leading-edge and share your own employee safety best-practices with your customers?
Other likely outcomes:
- Expect employee turnover to increase. It is easier to terminate remote employees, and the ability to work virtually means employees can seek new opportunities outside of their home geography.
- Implications for human resources will include a complete rewrite of programs to manage, reward, and advance employees.
- CEOs should be thinking about corporate retreats to keep managers and workers aligned.
- Companies are hiring chief health or safety officers. Korn Ferry just started a health officer recruitment practice.
- It will be easier for competitors to steal your customers because of the weaker personal, face-to-face contact.
So, if you are a private-company director, put on your best “noses in, fingers out” hat and talk to your CEO about the following topics (with a caveat to private equity: your actual mileage may vary. PE directors and officers are expected to be more involved).
- Are integrated public health considerations in the business plan?
- Virtual board meetings challenge directors to develop and deepen their relationships with each other: insist on the visual (i.e., camera on) element. Your company has the same headwind with customer relationships.
- The uptick in the usage of board portals reveals an increased reliance on every board member’s comfort and acumen with technology.
- The board should focus on and set goals for immediate and either long-term or permanent shifts in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.
- Research shows CEO transitions during a recession decline. In volatile times, boards seek stability.
- The time required of board members can increase by more than 50 percent during a crisis. Perhaps it is time for each and every board member to consider whether they have the energy and bandwidth to really commit to service on that third or fourth board.
- Communication among board members may have been tested by the virtual meeting environment, but that has been shown to work well.
- The virtual environment presents other challenges. To look your best on virtual calls, consider a “circle light” to improve your appearance and so that your background looks professional ($79 on Amazon) and buy a professional headset to improve audio quality. (Quick tip: Plantronics Voyager Focus ($202) is my favorite.)
- In-person meetings and long-haul business trips may never go back to their prior frequencies.
So, yes: It’s a whole new world. “The old way” is never coming back. The new normal is now the normal. Microsoft, another mega publicly traded company, announced on October 9th that most employees could work from home half of their regular schedule, indefinitely. Microsoft Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan said in one statement: “Work schedule flexibility is now considered standard for most roles.”
Private and smaller-cap company directors and officers can and should still take cues from the giants because our employees will expect similar announcements from us. Google was prophetic.
Mike Lorelli was a PepsiCo president, twice, followed by five private-equity CEO engagements. He serves on several boards, including NACD’s Connecticut Chapter. Reach him at MKLorelli@gmail.com.