It’s Not Just Flexibility: 15 CEOs Share How Work Will Change Post-Covid

It’s Not Just Flexibility: 15 CEOs Share How Work Will Change Post-Covid

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The shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic forced Corporate America to embark upon a massive work-from-home experiment that presented many unknowns: How do we keep workers safe? Can we stay productive? What’s the best way to communicate and collaborate? How long will we be out of the office?

A year and a half later, corporate leaders have learned some valuable lessons. One big takeaway: flexibility. Expecting workers to commute to the office five days a week will largely be a thing of the past at many companies – at least for now. While some companies will embrace a fully remote model, others are opting for a hybrid work plan that gives employees more control over their schedules while still maintaining some in-person office time. And, of course, there are some companies that want everyone back in the office.

Still, it’s a work in progress. And company leaders will need to fine-tune their strategies as they take on new challenges, like employee burnout, a tightening labor market and the prospect of new Covid-19 variants.

CNN Business asked CEOs at more than a dozen major US companies to tell us about the lessons they’ve learned during the pandemic and what they think the future of work will look like. Here’s what they had to say:

(The following responses have been edited for clarity and length.)

Chobani Citi Dropbox Drunk Elephant Edelman General Motors LinkedIn Mailchimp Mastercard New Balance NRG Energy Petco Slack Stanley Black & Decker Zillow Chobani

Chobani

Hamdi Ulukaya
founder, chairman and CEO

The future of work must include fair and equitable compensation, part-time options…robust benefits packages, parental leave, extensive health and safety programs, and a positive and inclusive environment — these elements should no longer be revolutionary, but the norm”

What are the biggest changes you have made to your workplace policies since the pandemic?

When the pandemic first started, we determined that a majority of our employees are essential workers, so we immediately mobilized to ensure their safety and well-being. At the same time, our office workers shifted to working from home. There were valuable lessons for every area of our business:

• Companywide conversations about mental health are long overdue. Everyone needs support, from entry-level employees to the executive leadership team. Chobani started offering access to free counseling and life coach sessions, which have been extremely popular and will remain as a benefit.

• Child care is often an added stress, even when there isn’t a pandemic. When schools and daycare centers closed, Chobani launched a subsidy program to give parents special funding for emergency child care on their workdays. We relaunched the program for our essential employees when schools and child care centers reopened with modified schedules, and it is still in place today.

• For our office workers, we can be more flexible. It became clear that working from home works, so many of our office employees will be returning to a “hybrid work model.” We believe this will allow our employees to enjoy a flexible and empowering way of working.

What are some of the biggest hurdles you face as your employees either return to the office or embrace a new type of working model?

I envision a work environment where employees come to the office to collaborate and be together — not to travel miles and miles into our office to have the same setup they have at home. This will require honest conversations with our managers and trusting our employees along the way to ensure the vision is met and overall productivity is enhanced. I’m sure there will be some growing pains, but this new model will truly have something for everyone.

What do you think the future of work will look like?

The future of work is here. We must trust our employees and also continue to harness the power of in-person collaboration. The future of work must also include fair and equitable compensation, part-time options (which we’re starting to explore for our manufacturing teams), robust benefits packages, parental leave, extensive health and safety programs, and a positive and inclusive environment — these elements should no longer be revolutionary, but the norm.

When business treats its employees well, it’s good for business. For example, last year, Chobani increased our minimum wage rate to start at $15 an hour, which pushed our average hourly wage to be approximately $19 an hour. I’m glad to see other companies beginning to do the same.

Photo: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Citi

Most of us will be on a hybrid schedule that requires us to be in the office at least three days a week… Hopefully, this flexibility can keep the doors open to people who have traditionally found it difficult to maintain a career in our industry.”

What are the biggest changes you have made to your workplace policies since the pandemic?

If there is one silver lining, the pandemic has forced greater attention across the business world on the importance of employee well-being.

Because of the new challenges in balancing our family lives, we subsidized backup child care, offered nanny placement services and provided discounted tutoring and college prep. And to help colleagues cope with the strain of the crisis, we expanded health and wellness programs, offering additional access to telemedicine visits, mental health resources and medical prescription delivery at no charge.

Earlier this year, it became clear that the relentlessness of the pandemic workday was just not sustainable. The blurring of lines between home and work, the nonstop Zoom calls, the late-night emails — they were taking a toll on everyone. A colleague suggested to me that we designate Fridays as a day when we turn off our cameras on Zoom. I’ll admit, I originally was against the idea. But after talking to others, I realized it needed to happen. We’ve also tried to set some boundaries around scheduling calls outside of what had been traditional working hours pre-pandemic, and we gave everyone a mandatory day off in May to relax and recharge.

We’ve also introduced new programs for colleagues to spend time on their passions outside of work. We now offer a 12-week sabbatical program for employees to pursue personal interests, as well as a program that allows employees to spend two to four weeks working with a charitable institution. At the same time, we’ve thought about how to support our colleagues looking to create their family and enhanced our reimbursement of expenses related to adoption or surrogacy to $30,000.

What are some of the biggest hurdles you face as your employees either return to the office or embrace a new type of working model?

When Covid broke out last year, we dropped everything and moved quickly to make sure all our people were safe and set up to continue doing their jobs from home. The way back in is going to be more measured, more deliberate, and it’s not going to be the same for our various markets around the world.

Starting this month, we plan to have colleagues back at our NYC HQ and some other US offices for at least two days a week. We are requiring colleagues to be vaccinated and wear masks to help ensure a safe workplace. We continue to make these decisions based on data, not dates, and if the data changes, we absolutely will adjust our plans accordingly.

I know there’s going to be a lot of anxiety about returning. It will take some adjustment. Consider all the things we did without thinking twice that will now give us pause… Can we shake hands? Can we hug? Is it safe to meet in a conference room? Is it okay to keep my lunch in the office fridge? We each have our own risk tolerance – and it’s up to me and my team to make sure that our offices are not only welcoming but are also safe and provide a comfortable environment for everyone.

There are also new challenges in a hybrid working model that we are just beginning to confront. For instance, how do we make sure the right people are in the office at the same time so they can collaborate? How do we balance conversations in which some participants are in person and others are on Zoom? How do we integrate all of the people who have joined Citi during the pandemic and been working remotely almost exclusively? It’s essential they feel they belong to the team and to the firm and that we invest the time and provide the experiences for them to feel like true Citibankers.

What do you think the future of work will look like?

I was in London recently, where many of our traders are back in the office, and the joy I felt being around others after such a long time away struck me to the core. The banter, the debates, our warmth, even our endearing quirks — you just don’t experience them the same way over a Zoom screen. At the same time, banking is an apprenticeship business. The feedback from an impromptu conversation after a meeting or coaching from your manager walking by your desk after watching you in action — these moments are so important to everyone’s professional development.

So we are planning for the majority of our people to be back in the office when it’s safe, but they will have more flexibility. Most of us will be on a hybrid schedule that requires us to be in the office at least three days a week, which will be a time to foster collaboration, learning, mentoring and contributing to our culture. We believe this more flexible way of working is important to our colleagues and is not only compatible with running a successful and competitive bank but, in many ways, will provide a competitive advantage with talent. Hopefully, this flexibility can keep the doors open to people who have traditionally found it difficult to maintain a career in our industry.

Photo: From LinkedIn

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Dropbox

Dropbox

Drew Houston
co-founder and CEO

I see the 40-hour office workweek — an artifact of factory work — finally becoming a thing of the past. Employees will escape grueling commutes and gain more control over their day.”

What are the biggest changes you have made to your workplace policies since the pandemic?

The abrupt shift to working from home was disruptive for everyone. But we also recognized that it presented a unique opportunity to entirely re-imagine how we work for the better. We went back to first principles, reconsidering what the workweek ought to look like, the purpose of the office, and how we use technology to support us in this new way of working.

We spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to approach this, including studying what our industry was doing and asking our employees how they felt. We found that most people preferred working remotely and that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. So in October 2020, we announced that we were becoming a Virtual First company. This means remote work is the primary experience for our employees. But we still believe that there’s no substitute for the in-person experience. Getting together face-to-face is hugely important for teambuilding and maintaining company culture.

Given these shifts, we decided to completely reimagine our offices as entirely collaborative spaces that we call Dropbox Studios. When it’s safe to do so, we’ll be able to get together in real life for important meetings, events, trainings and more.

What are some of the biggest hurdles you face as your employees either return to the office or embrace a new type of working model?

It’s still a challenging time — the pandemic is far from over. Not being able to see our colleagues in person over the last 18 months has been tough for all of us. We’ve been focused on finding ways to help our team to manage their work-life balance and recapture a sense of human connection even though we’re all working remotely.

We’ve also taken care to support our employees through this transition with resources, such as our Virtual First Toolkit, and even created a team that’s dedicated to all things Virtual First. Studios also play a key role, and once it’s safe to do so, we anticipate planned in-person gatherings.

One thing we all have in common is that no one really knows how this is all going to work. We need a level of humility throughout this. Instead of focusing on hitting the bullseye on the first throw, we’re learning and adapting as we go.

What do you think the future of work will look like?

2020 was the tipping point. The ramifications of this will be enormous — I believe we’ll look back on this shift as the most significant change to knowledge work since that term was invented back in 1959, and its impact on our industry will be comparable to the rise of mobile and the cloud. Distributed work will unlock the potential of these technologies in the same way the highway system unlocked the potential of cars and ultimately reconfigured modern life.

I also see the 40-hour office workweek — an artifact of factory work — finally becoming a thing of the past. Employees will escape grueling commutes and gain more control over their day. The workplace will now be wherever work happens, and the workweek will be whenever work happens best for each person. Companies will grow stronger as they integrate dispersed talent with diverse perspectives. And opportunity will spread far beyond exclusive urban clusters.

But it will require a new social contract and shift in mindset for employers and employees. Companies will need to rely on managers to find the right policies and behaviors for their teams. They’ll also have to trust employees to get their work done without constantly monitoring face time, and people will have to take more accountability for their results.

While we’ve gone through a one-way door, the way we experience work physically and digitally in the future is still largely to be determined. What is so exciting about this moment is that we get to decide how we want to work and reinvent it for the better.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Drunk Elephant

Drunk Elephant

Tiffany Masterson
founder, president and chief creative officer

I think some people will want to come into the office while others will continue to stay home, and we will make it work. There’s no harder working employee than a happy employee and we want people to feel safe above all else.”

What are the biggest changes you have made to your workplace policies since the pandemic?

Over 60% of Drunk Elephant’s workforce had already been working remote, so we weren’t too disrupted by our offices closing from an operations perspective. I’d say we were very blessed and fortunate to be able to keep working from home.

Our way of coping was to go about business as usual during the days to maintain a sense of control and normalcy in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety. We were able to send products out to over 50 hospitals for over 4,500 frontline doctors and nurses and medical workers as a token of our appreciation for all they do. We remained focused on the business and our customers throughout and will continue to do so.

What are some of the biggest hurdles you face as your employees either return to the office or embrace a new type of working model?

Making sure that everyone feels safe and secure is a big one. Also, transitioning back to the office from the comfort and convenience of home is going to be a shocker for some. We’ll let people ease in and allow them to start back two days per week and go up from there as it seems fit. Some people work better from home and I expect we will be very understanding of that… I’m not one to talk because I prefer working from home by far and have always worked from home!

What do you think the future of work will look like?

I think some people will want to come into the office while others will continue to stay home, and we will make it work. There’s no harder working employee than a happy employee and we want people to feel safe above all else.

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Drunk Elephant

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Edelman

Edelman

Lisa Osborne Ross
US CEO

The post-pandemic future of work is one rooted in flexibility, transparency and accountability… This includes recognizing that our ongoing dialogue is a two-way conversation, not us communicating on high. I want to hear directly and regularly from my employees via town halls, surveys and one-on-one conversations.”

What are the biggest changes you have made to your workplace policies since the pandemic?

It’s hard to say it, but in many ways the pandemic has actually made our work better. We’ve been forced to find the talent that is the right fit for our clients’ needs, regardless of geography, sector or practice, which has allowed us to unite teams in previously unexpected ways.

We have 60 offices across the globe, but sometimes we found ourselves reverting to regional silos. Employees are now increasingly able to explore new skills and partner with new colleagues across the network in order to spearhead amazing, purpose-driven work.

And even though we are far apart, it brought us closer. It created a new level of intimacy that let us get to know one another in different ways. We’ve seen each other’s homes, pets, children, and even each other’s aloneness. This increased insight, especially during such major crises, has made us more empathetic about each other’s situations and more comfortable reaching out to one another, both personally and professionally.

What are some of the biggest hurdles you face as your employees either return to the office or embrace a new type of working model?

Let’s be honest, we lost some of our muscle memory when we stopped going into the office. If it takes 30 days to create a habit, just think about the past 500+ days of habit-forming related to working at home. We will have to relearn how to make that shift back and start recalibrating our minds and our bodies for that change.

Whether it’s reacclimating to commute times or adjusting to mask mandates in the conference room, we know it will take time and sustained employee listening to develop best practices that set us up for success and allow us to bring our best selves to work — either at home or in the office.

One of the biggest hurdles for me personally was just accepting that it’s okay to not know. It’s hard to resist the urge to plan six to nine months ahead, but there is freedom in that acceptance.

The next biggest challenge will be making sure we don’t simply flip a switch and attempt to return to business-as-usual overnight. There were a lot of hard lessons learned over the past 18 months that need to be factored into any future workplace decision-making.

What do you think the future of work will look like?

First and foremost, it’s a workers’ workplace.

The post-pandemic future of work is one rooted in flexibility, transparency and accountability. It is beyond clear that a company’s most important stakeholder is its employees, and we must do our part to keep our workforce engaged and fulfilled. This includes recognizing that our ongoing dialogue is a two-way conversation, not us communicating on high. I want to hear directly and regularly from my employees via town halls, surveys and one-on-one conversations, and I’ve made it clear that this is a culture where we will always openly discuss our needs, desires, fears and concerns.

The reality is that high-skilled American workers have more choice than ever before when it comes to career opportunities. They want to feel connected to their work and valued by their leadership, and CEOs play a major role in communicating that appreciation.

All our decisions must be grounded in our corporate purpose – if you don’t have a sense of what you stand for beyond profit, it’s hard to communicate anything to your employees or any other stakeholder, especially in today’s purpose-hun

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It’s not just flexibility: 15 CEOs share how work will change post-Covid

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