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Back in the Office and Covid-safe: Five Things to Know

CapitalG
16 Nov 2021
Back in the Office and Covid-safe: Five Things to Know

As more businesses start shifting away from all-remote work, how should companies handle vaccine exemptions? How do you avoid the Great Resignation? And what can we do to increase company cohesion?

In the latest edition of our ongoing Return-to-Office series we brought together leaders from across the CapitalG portfolio to discuss these questions, as well as how we solve for connection, collaboration, and innovation during the pandemic. Alongside our businesses, we heard from three experts:

Dr Karen DeSalvo, Google’s Chief Health Officer

Brooke Weddle, who leads McKinsey’s OrgSolutions portfolio

Steven Aronowitz, Dean of McKinsey’s Organizational Agility Forum

A lively and frank discussion yielded plenty of insights. Here are five which we think leaders everywhere can use.

Covid is here to stay

As Dr DeSalvo said, “we’re all starting to adjust to a reality where a zero-case environment is not realistic”. Covid’s high transmissibility, and the fact that there are probably animal reservoirs of the virus in the wild, mean that we can’t put this genie back in the bottle.

Eventually, we’ll start to see Covid in the same terms that we see influenza. That doesn’t mean it’s not serious; tens of thousands of Americans die from the flu every year. But it does mean that Covid will stop feeling like an emergency, and instead look like a dangerous, endemic disease for which we accept a certain level of risk. For businesses, that means two things.

First, each organization needs to figure out what its own risk tolerance is. Although vaccines are highly effective, breakthrough infections will continue, so companies need to maintain layers of Covid protection, at least until there’s a good therapeutic available in pill form. These layers can include vaccine requirements, low-friction Covid testing regimes, and measures for harm reduction, like masking, social distancing, and de-densification of work spaces.

Workplace worries & solutions

CapitalG’s companies are all looking forward to the opportunities for collaboration and connection that being back in a physical workplace will provide — but are also conscious of the messy practicalities that the transition will bring. For example, varying cultures and expectations in different states and for customers or partners might require several approaches to rules within the same company.

While there’s no blueprint for tackling these questions, Brooke Weddle advised linking your approach back to your company’s vision and cultural values. For instance, a company that prides itself on developing talent might take that into account when deciding on in-person events, given how important they are for mentoring junior colleagues.

The issues of vaccine requirements and verifications, remain fraught not just for governments, but business leaders too. Dr DeSalvo was careful to point out that there are virtually no valid medical reasons for vaccine exemptions — but that companies may still wish to take a flexible approach.

Culture & well-being

The technicalities of being back in the office are only half the story. As Steven Aronowitz noted, we need to feel safe, as well as be safe, in order to bring our full selves to work. That means companies are continuing to prioritize communication, employee well-being, and mental health.

Covid has made it even more important for CEOs to model the tone and behaviors that organizations need to succeed in the transition back to the office. If every video call starts with a pressing business concern — rather than checking in on to see how employees’ kids are coping with back-to-school, for instance — then the rest of the team will take their cues accordingly.

Some employees will struggle with coming out of hibernation; others may still be feeling the effects of social isolation. Dr DeSalvo cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach, and that programs to support generalized well-being will not prevent mental health stressors. As she put it, “yoga won’t work for everyone”.

‘The Great Resignation’ vs company cohesion

2021 has already become noteworthy for millions of Americans having quit their jobs, and an unprecedented number of roles remain unfilled. But the phenomenon isn’t universal, and there are some predictable patterns as to why some people leave while others stay committed. Brooke Weddle highlighted data that shows employees’ sense of connection and community with their co-workers is the most important factor determining how your company will fare. It outweighs financial rewards, and work/life balance.

Companies that have prioritized continuous dialogue with their employees report higher levels of belonging, and less burnout. There’s a clear implication that the Great Resignation isn’t inevitable; businesses that meet their employee’s needs for purpose, values, and connection can buck the trend.

Change creates opportunity

“We have an expression in medicine,” Dr DeSalvo said: “‘Respect the pathogen’. We’re learning to respect Covid.” The pandemic remains dynamic and hard to predict. This continuing uncertainty presents both opportunities and challenges. Brooke Weddle argued that the best-performing companies combined a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation — encouraging creative approaches to ambiguity — with an emphasis on process-based capabilities, which help lock in efficiency gains rather than let them drift.

Weddle also argued that companies should still take proactive, measured risks. She cited the example of a D.C-.based company looking to experiment with full virtual working. They tested this approach by hiring a remote lead for digital transformation. The decision to go with a remote hire was not opportunistic; it made sense for the business function.

The way ahead

When we began our CEO series last June, we knew our role was to help our companies grow during the pandemic, not merely survive. That goal requires collaboration: no one of us is better than all of us together. The fact that leaders from such portfolio companies as Duolingo, Notarize, and RobinHood continue to prioritize these conversations, and share insights with their peers, affirms the value of this approach.

We’re grateful to our experts Dr Karen DeSalvo, Brooke Weddle, and Steven Aronowitz for sharing their time and wisdom, as well as our portfolio leaders for their honesty and openness in their questions.

Finally, we plan to share some additional resources on managing a safe and effective return-to-office soon. Watch this space.

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