Reset: Working parents, pay cuts, Covid baby bust

By Kevin J. Delaney

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THE VIRUS

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 67% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging almost 169,000 new cases per day and hitting almost 200,000 daily cases; over 2,000 people died of Covid in the US on Thursday alone. Pfizer submitted its vaccine to the FDA for emergency use approval, which could result in the first Americans receiving it next month (and broad availability in spring 2021.) The AAA estimates that 50 million Americans will travel in the days around Thanksgiving, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exhortations to stay put. Hundreds of thousands of college students are heading home this week, raising concerns that they’ll spread the virus.  


The business impact: JPMorgan forecasts that the US economy will contract again in the first quarter of 2021. CEO optimism about the business climate 12 months from now fell sharply in November, seemingly because of concerns about higher taxes and regulation and more Covid lockdowns under a Biden administration. Programs expanding unemployment benefits will expire at the end of the year, leaving millions without such support. A national eviction moratorium and suspension of payments on student debt will lapse as well. Panic buying is leading to new shortages of products ranging from bacon to toilet paper. "My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away," was Bill Gates’ forecast this week for work after the pandemic. 

FOCUS ON WORKING PARENTS


This (hopefully last) wave of the pandemic is brutal for working parents, as schools and childcare close again, winter weather limits outside activities, financial stress intensifies for some, and everyone is burned out waiting for the crisis to end. What do we know from the pandemic so far that can make a difference for working families at this point? What can employers, friends, and colleagues do? For answers, this week I spoke with Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who has been studying the experiences of working mothers as a coauthor of the Pandemic Parenting Study. Here is an excerpt, lightly edited for clarity:

What can organizations do to support working parents? 

There are three key categories of things that employers can do. On the one hand is reducing, recognizing, and more adequately distributing work. Essentially there are steps that organizations can take to eliminate basic bureaucratic hurdles, paperwork, busy work initiatives that can be put off until after the pandemic. They can identify those places where work is being asked of employees that doesn't need to happen right now. Beyond that, recognizing more effectively the work that employees are doing. Research tells us that women within organizations and also other workers from systematically marginalized groups are often doing a great deal of unpaid or unrecognized labor for their employers.

Things like mentoring, new hires, things like serving on committees or coordinating events that could be incorporated into their titles or at the very least more adequately compensated. Or employers could hire more workers to do some of that labor in order to ensure that employees aren't being overtaxed and undercompensated for the labor that they're doing. Then also redistributing tasks more equitably, potentially hiring more workers during the pandemic and potentially after that as well, to offset the burden on people with caregiving responsibilities, to reduce the workload, ideally without reducing salaries in the process. 


The next big category of things is really supporting workers with caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic. Paid time off is huge right now. If employers are able to provide those benefits for their employees, and especially if they can either shift work around to be distributed more equitably or to hire new workers to reduce that workload. Also things like childcare benefits in terms of many families. If their schools are closed right now or if their childcare centers are closed or if they're keeping their children home because of concerns about health risks then they are taking on tremendous amounts of extra work. Being able to hire a caregiver to help with some of that during the day is a way to kind of reduce the burden. 

The third, big category of things that employers can do right now is lobbying state and federal legislators to enact policies that would benefit all workers, including things like mandatory paid parental leave, mandatory paid sick leave and personal time off, affordable, universal health care and childcare, increasing funding for public education, even to make sure that schools are able to reopen safely right now. The Cares Act provided $13 billion for public schools and the best estimates suggest that it would cost $254 billion to be able to safely reopen public schools. So just making it possible for schools to reopen safely right now would reduce a huge amount of burden on caregivers. Also things like expanding unemployment benefits, making sure that they are getting the support that they need to take care of their families in the interim until they're able to be rehired in the process.

What are some examples you're finding of work that doesn't need to be done right now, and which organizations should put off until after the pandemic?

I'm part of what we call the Care Caucus here at Indiana University. One of the basic things that we recommended was eliminating letter of recommendation requirements for internal grants and for internal fellowships and awards. Many of our grad students, for example, apply for funding from the university to go to conferences or to get money for their research. And those applications normally require letters of recommendation from faculty. So we said, why are we doing this? It's really silly. We're just writing letters to ourselves. We should just be able to check a box and say we verify or we vouch for this person. That would potentially eliminate hours of work for each individual faculty member and potentially thousands of hours of work overall. So it's thinking strategically and thinking creatively like that about ways to reduce the work that we often take for granted as part of bureaucratic processes that can help to streamline what we're doing right now and potentially into the future as well.

What structural changes do you think are needed, such as social welfare support and policies companies should lobby for?

I would also see a shift in the culture around the way that we treat work and motherhood and parenthood more generally. There are reasons that those norms exist, and that they benefit capitalism. They benefit the patriarchy. They are powerful in the sense that if we have workers who are fully devoted to their jobs, that means that they are more productive often at less cost in the salaries that employers have to provide to them. If we have mothers who are fully devoted to this idea of intensive motherhood, it often means that they will take a backseat to men in terms of their advancement in the workplace. They are more dependent on their husbands, if they’re in different-sex relationships, in terms of who is the primary provider within the home. We have to think about why these norms exist and what they serve. Changing those is challenging. But it means changing the structures of power in our society. Some of those big policy changes have the potential to change the norms by shifting the balance of power. But it’s not an easy shift to make.

You can read a full transcript of our conversation, where we discuss additional issues including ways to offer flexibility to working parents so that they don't still feel that they're falling short of expectations.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

The happiest time of year? Over 40% of Americans face mental-health issues stemming from the pandemic—and the holiday blues could make it worse. Businesses need to help employees cope. See what can make a difference.

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW


Companies have been pressing staff not to be unsafe over Thanksgiving, and to inform them if they have. An employer can’t restrict how workers spend their time off. But that hasn’t stopped businesses from urging their employees to follow health guidelines discouraging holiday travel and gatherings with people outside of their immediate household.

  1. Many organizations will ask staff to quarantine afterward if they do travel or celebrate indoors with large groups. Ferring Pharmaceuticals, a New Jersey drug maker, is offering two-week paid quarantines where warranted. 

  2. Chipotle is shifting some staff to be better prepared in the event of post-Thanksgiving outbreaks. 

Meanwhile, cost has emerged as a barrier to broader workplace testing. As I’ve written before, it costs companies about $120 to $180 per test. And 28% of businesses surveyed recently by Arizona State University and the World Economic Forum said cost was a reason they chose not to test workers. Other concerns cited were complexity and questions about accuracy and effectiveness.  

Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat said the tech giant has increased coaching of more junior employees in recent months. She confirmed that the company saw a productivity dip after staff started working from home, but said that it’s now back to pre-Covid levels—at least partly because senior staff began working more intensively with junior employees.

When Zurich Insurance added six words to its job postings, applications by women for management roles jumped 20%. The words were “part-time, job share, or flexible working,” as the company highlighted the possibility of flexible work arrangements. Zurich hired 33% more women for senior roles as a result of the initiative, which also involved ensuring that job posting language was gender neutral. 

  1. Germany now plans quotas for women in senior management at public companies. Top management teams with more than three members in the future will be required to have at least one woman. “We are putting an end to women-free C-suites in big companies,” said Franziska Giffey, minister for families and women. 

  2. Institutional Shareholder Services, the influential proxy advisory firm, strengthened its guidelines advising that shareholders vote against male directors when there are no women on a company’s board.  

Roughly one-third of companies expect to cut pay for workers moving to lower-cost locations. The finding is from a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson

  1. Two-thirds of VMWare employees who relocated under a new flexible working plan saw their pay drop, up to 18%, while one-third got a pay increase.

  2. Stripe staff get a 10% pay cut if they move to somewhere besides San Francisco, Seattle, or New York. Though the financial technology company offers a $20,000 payment to help finance any move. 

Chief diversity officer is the fastest growing c-suite role. Hiring into that position is up over 50% from last year, according to LinkedIn analysis. It’s still a relatively uncommon role, representing less than 0.5% of all c-suite hires. Chief growth officer was the top executive title seeing the second-most, um, growth in 2020. 

  1. Experts surveyed by the Financial Times cited head of health and wellbeing, chief bias officer, head of remote, and reskilling officer as positions they expect to become more prominent in the future.

Some workers are getting paid more, and some are getting access to their earnings on a rolling basis. Employers are using such maneuvers to ease some of the financial strain that low-income workers especially are facing. 

  1. Starbucks is raising barista wages by at least 10% next month.

  2. PayPal is letting employees access their salary as soon as they earn it rather than having to wait for payday, through an app that encourages them to save and budget.

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

  1. Start your meeting with music. You can have it running in the background as people straggle onto Zoom. Columbia University senior lecturer Norman Jacknis was advised to try “strong, percussive music to wake up the students” and found his classic rock selections ignited discussion and connection among students.

  2. Give thanks to your colleagues this Thanksgiving. Over half of employees surveyed recently said they haven’t felt much appreciation for their work. Two-thirds of remote workers said that was making them less motivated. “Thank you” was the recognition most of the survey’s respondents were looking for. 

  3. Keep your writing simple. Research conducted with Stanford University students found they ranked the author of texts with more complex words as less intelligent. “So divide your big sentences in two, omit unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, cut useless transitions, and omit caveats that clutter your message,” advises author Bill Birchard.

CODA

Worst. Managers. Ever. Supervisors at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant allegedly organized a “cash-buy-in, winner-take-all” betting pool to wager on how many of their workers would come down with Covid, according to a wrongful death lawsuit. More than 1,000 employees at the Waterloo, Iowa, plant contracted the virus and at least five died. Tyson suspended the managers allegedly involved and is investigating.

Pandemic fashion trends are all over the place. Regular readers know this is a topic of some interest to me, eg the Zoom collar phenomenon. The latest: apparently men’s ties’ days are numbered, but dressy clothes are making a comeback among people bored from being stuck at home. The polo shirt is having its moment (for the record, I support that.) And leggings are the hands down fashion winner of our pandemic year.

A Covid baby bust looms. Brookings researchers forecast that there will be 300,000 to 500,000 fewer babies born in the US next year as a result of the pandemic. The economic uncertainty and job precarity we’re seeing have historically led to steep falloffs in births. The researchers impressively calculated that there was a 15% drop in births during the 1918 Spanish Flu, noting that decrease came despite the fact that modern birth control didn’t yet exist. 

France’s government has managed the seemingly impossible: rescheduling Black Friday. The shopping holiday will take place a week later in France than the rest of the world. The government got Amazon and other big retailers to delay their discounting so that small businesses, less dominant online and currently locked down through the end of the month,  have a chance of competing.


The UK government has it out for unnecessary emails. As part of their arsenal of measures to fight climate change, officials are examining the carbon emissions tied to online communications. Eliminating email replies of questionable value such as “thanks” and “LOL” could theoretically reduce electricity consumption by data centers and network equipment. One study concluded that carbon emissions would drop by over 16,000 metric tons annually if each person in the UK sent one fewer email daily.

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 weekly by email. Have a great week!

Reset Work

What companies are doing to navigate remote work, reopen safely, and reset their practices for the long-run.