One way to fight Zoom fatigue. Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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 29% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 69,000 new cases per day. There’s been a small increase in daily cases over the past week, raising concerns that the decline is stalling amid the spread of variants. The US has administered about 70 million vaccine doses, and with the FDA approval of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine yesterday, there should be enough vaccines delivered by the end of March to fully vaccinate 130 million Americans. Bill Gates predicts that by late spring or summer “you can look at changing your behavior in a significant way,” though he expects to continue wearing a mask into the fall, despite being vaccinated.

The business impact: Consumer income rose 10% in January compared to the month before, thanks to the last round of stimulus checks. Consumer spending rose 2.4%, and household savings is almost triple what it was a year ago. Economists predict the expected new round of stimulus plus the pent-up savings will unlock a post-Covid boom. The surge in e-commerce and housing activity is already creating a shortage of blue-collar workers in some areas. 

Focus on Trust and Return to the Workplace

There’s evidence that trust between colleagues has diminished over this past year of remote work. Managers are anxious about whether staff are adequately focused on work, and employees feel underappreciated, burned out, and, in cases, clumsily monitored and assessed by company leadership. In the flexible and hybrid arrangements many companies are contemplating for their return to the office, trust will become an even more critical factor.

For thoughts on this, I reached out to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, authors of a 2020 book called Unleashed that focuses on this question of how to build trust. Frei is Harvard Business School professor and former senior vice president of leadership and strategy at Uber (brought in to fix things), while Morriss is a leadership coach. Here are their joint responses to questions I put to them this week:

How do you define leadership?

The practical definition of leadership we use in our work is that leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence—and making sure that impact continues into your absence. Your job as a leader is to create the conditions for the people around you to become increasingly effective, to help them fully realize their own capacity and power. 

What role does trust play in leadership?

Leadership is a sacred exchange that’s impossible without trust. I’m willing to follow your lead and put my wellbeing in your hands because I trust you. Because of this dynamic, we describe trust as the very foundation of leadership.  

How would you assess the state of trust between colleagues and leaders and their teams right now?

Over the last decade, we’ve helped tens of thousands of leaders wrestle with trust challenges, from millennial entrepreneurs to leaders of disruptive, multi-billion-dollar companies. While we’re hearing a lot more about trust right now, we see something positive in the fact that this discussion is front and center. I think we’re finally talking about the right thing: without trust, this whole leadership equation doesn’t work. Does trust need to be built and rebuilt, now more than ever? Yes, but that’s also because the scale and complexity of our challenges is higher than ever. We need more and better leadership to solve them, which means we’re going to need stronger foundations of trust.  

What do organizations and managers need to be doing now?

Here’s the basic formula for building trust as a leader: people tend to trust you when they think they’re interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they believe that you care about their needs and success (empathy). We call these three drivers the ‘trust triangle.’ Leaders succeed when all three are steady and strong. 

Most leaders generate a relatively stable pattern of trust signals, but in moments when trust is broken, it’s usually the same driver—authenticity, empathy, or logic—that causes the break for each of us. We call this pattern a trust ‘wobble.’ When a trust driver wobbles, a small change in behavior can often go a long way towards limiting and repairing the damage. Our advice to leaders is to figure out your trust wobble and do the work to steady it. This is not as hard as it may sound. For leaders with an empathy wobble, for example, the work can be as simple as asking better questions or putting away your phone. 

Do you see hybrid and flexible work post-pandemic as a positive for leadership?

Absolutely. Significant parts of your workforce place enormous value on flexibility and autonomy—working moms, for example. Being responsive to that need is part of being a trusted and effective leader. If you want your people to be fully engaged in the work, to advance the mission and drive value, then you have to create the conditions where they can reliably thrive as three-dimensional human beings. 

Are you concerned about any specific challenges related to the return to the workplace in general, or given a shift to more hybrid and flexible arrangements by many companies?

There are challenges, to be sure. Employers have to ensure that the workplace is safe—full stop—both physically and psychologically. Until you solve those problems, don’t bother working on any others. That said, we see increased flexibility as an enormously positive development. One of the magical things about trust is that the more you trust your people, the more likely they are to trust you in return. 

How will we have to alter the playbook for leadership given the changes to work arrangements post-pandemic? 

I think we’re going to be dealing with the trauma of this horrific virus, as well as the cracks in our society that it exposed, for a significant period of time ‘post-pandemic.’ There’s going to be a cleanup phase, on everything from massive loss and trauma to a racial reckoning that’s been a longtime coming. I think there’s going to be a need for leaders to understand the experience of their colleagues, to be deeply and truly empathetic, for the foreseeable future. In our work, we call this ‘radical presence.’ 

What should leaders be doing now to prepare for the return to work?

Talking to their people about what they need to thrive. 

You can order a copy of Unleashed by Frei and Morriss. You can watch Frei’s 2018 TED talk about trust, which has been viewed about 5 million times.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

What’s holding Black workers back? As Black History Month draws to a close, check out our new report on how companies can address the needs of Black workers facing system-level challenges, such as underrepresentation in fast-growing industries and barriers to their advancement. Go deep on what it will take to drive real change.

What Else You Need to Know

Zoom fatigue is now a subject of academic research, and looking at yourself seems to be part of the problem. A Stanford researcher identified “nonverbal overload” as a reason for why extended videoconferencing is exhausting. 

  • “On Zoom, behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers,” notes Jeremy N. Bailenson in a research paper published this week.
  • “Zoom users are seeing reflections of themselves at a frequency and duration that hasn’t been seen before in the history of media and likely the history of people,” he writes, positing that “a constant ‘mirror’ on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect.” Prior research suggests the impact could be especially negative for women.
  • Bailenson recommends hiding the self-view on Zoom, reducing how large people you’re interacting with appear on your screen, and reverting to calls instead of video when possible.

Companies are taking very divergent approaches to work arrangements post-Covid. The finance industry is a microcosm of that.

  • Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon this week called remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.” He said he’s very focused on making sure this summer’s new class of employees at the bank doesn’t start work remotely.
  • HSBC announced plans to cut its office space by 40%, with just one desk for roughly every two employees. “We learned that our people could be just as productive working from home as in the office,” HSBC said. Lloyds, Standard Chartered, and Metro Bank are all similarly shedding offices. 

There are a lot of uncertainties about how an aggressively flexible and hybrid approach will affect productivity, culture, retention, and the ability of managers to oversee their teams. 

  • It’s possible that surveys about remote-work options conducted now won’t reflect how employees feel about offices in the fall. 
  • And some note that big tech companies that have announced flexible remote-work arrangements, such as Google and Salesforce, stand to gain from the increased use of their products for virtual work. 

Meanwhile, Americans are making plans to move. Sick of being stuck at home and bracing for more remote work, 20% more people are planning to move this year than last year, according to one estimate

  • Airbnb sees an opportunity in workers traveling while working remotely. “The lines between traveling and living are starting to blur together,” said CEO Brian Chesky.

New research about the experience of Black workers highlights some approaches with promise. The report by McKinsey can be read as an indictment of American companies’ shocking shortcomings on diversity, equity, and inclusion. There are also some actions businesses can take, including:

  • Staffing up in areas of the country where Black workers are concentrated. Less than 10% of Black workers live in the highest-growth geographies. Nearly 60% of the Black workforce lives in Southern states. 
  • Investing in sponsorship, mentorship, and employee resource groups (ERGs). More than 75% of workers McKinsey surveyed said that broader allyship was lacking.

Also, inequality is a structural issue. So the headline “Black Workers Struggle To Climb the Corporate Ladder” on a post by Wall Street Journal writers about the McKinsey report implies, however inadvertently, that Black workers are somehow responsible for falling short. One reader of this newsletter suggested a pointed alternative: “Companies Continue to Only Promote White Employees Despite Commitment to Increase Leadership Diversity” 

A $15 federal minimum wage remains on the table, even as the likelihood of inclusion in the final stimulus package dims. The increase from the current $7.25 per hour level is in the legislation passed by the House of Representatives, but isn’t expected to make it through the Senate, for technical reasons if nothing else. 

  • But some senators are proposing creative approaches to try to make a $15 wage more standard, such as an amendment to the stimulus legislation eliminating tax breaks for big companies that don’t pay at least that rate. 
  • And House speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday vowed that Democrats will separately pursue the pay increase if it isn’t part of the stimulus, saying “We will not rest until we pass the $15 minimum wage.”
  • A significant majority of American voters has historically supported raising the minimum wage to $15. And even that level falls short of providing workers with income sufficient to cover basic expenses in many parts of the country.

Costco raised its starting wage to $16 per hour as of this coming week, from $15. The retailer has long been a case study for how higher wages are a good business strategy, reducing employee turnover and theft, and improving customer service.

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

  • Answer emails with video recordings. My friend Khe Hy of RadReads often replies to questions I ask him by email with short video clips of himself answering recorded using Loom. He says it’s easier to respond more quickly because he doesn’t need to take time to sit and edit his answer—and it’s more personal.
  • Don’t work from your bed. It’s atrocious ergonomically, straining your neck and back. And working from bed also can make it harder to sleep because your brain starts to associate it with being alert.
  • Show appreciation for your colleagues. One CEO drives to employees’ homes to deliver a $1,000 check and trophy to the winner of a monthly award. He drove nine hours roundtrip to drop off one prize. 
  • Make a longer shortlist. Researchers found that when they asked people to come up with six names of candidates to consider for a CEO job, the lists had a greater percentage of women than when they asked for three names. Spending more time on the longer list appeared to free the research subjects to consider alternatives to the traditional gender prototype. 

Coda

The reimagining of office spaces is generating some bad ideas. Among them: creating subsidized apartments for workers connected to their company’s offices. It is perhaps a logical extension of work-from-home to post-pandemic shift to home-from-work. But what about the inevitable HR headaches from having people effectively living in the workplace?  

People can’t wait to cruise. Nearly all ocean-going cruising is still on hold, but bookings are up 30% at Royal Caribbean from a few months ago, and average fares are now higher than 2019 levels. It isn’t yet clear when cruising will start up again, but some cruise ship operators are planning on mandatory crew vaccination when it does. 

Private-jet travel is taking off again. Business aviation travel (which includes private jets) was down just 9%, while commercial aircraft travel was 50% lower in January than a year earlier. Wealthy fliers like that private jets let them eliminate exposure to other passengers—nevermind the much bigger carbon footprint. Private plane makers General Dynamics and Textron say orders are growing. There was even a recent bidding war over the world’s largest operator of bases for private jets.


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.