COVID-19

A New Kind of Labor Day

By KIM BELLARD

This is probably the strangest Labor Day in decades, perhaps ever.   Tens of millions of workers remain unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many of those who are still working are adapting to working from home.  Those who are back at their workplace, or never left, are coping with an array of new safety protocols. 

Those who work in the right industries – like the NBA – may get tested regularly but most workers have to figure out for themselves when to quarantine and when to get tested.  For many workers, such as health care workers, people of color, and workers with underlying health issues, going to work is literally a life-or-death calculation. 

No wonder that experts, like Dr. David B. Agus, are calling for companies to have Chief Health Officers. 

Labor Day was originally intended to celebrate the labor movement, but these days labor unions don’t have much to celebrate.  Only around 10% of U.S. workers belong to a labor union; both the number and the percent of unionized workers has been in steady decline over the past few decades. 

Now Labor Day is mainly an extra day off for most, the unofficial end to summer, and, this year, possibly the springboard to a new surge in COVID-19 cases, due to holiday celebrations.  Dr. Anthony Fauci warned:

We don’t want to see a repeat of the surges that we have seen following other holiday weekends.  We don’t want to see a surge under any circumstances, but particularly as we go on the other side of Labor Day and enter into the fall.

Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, explained to The New York Times:

People are getting tired of taking these precautions and of having their lives upended.  They’re missing their friends and family, and everyone wishes things were back to normal. That’s totally understandable, but unfortunately we don’t get a say, really.

It doesn’t help that many schools have reopened, with colleges and universities already seeing mass outbreaks.  One estimate found at least 25,000 such cases, in 37 states.  Labor Day parties and gatherings could send that number soaring.  No one is going to be surprised by photos of swarms of beachgoers, pool parties, and crowded bars, and no one can be surprised if this fall sees the consequences of that in more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Many wonder if the nature of work will change as a result of the pandemic.  Most companies have been pleasantly surprised to find that productivity hasn’t suffered by work from home.  A survey by Mercer found that 94% of employers said productivity was the same (67%) or even higher – and 73% said they expected at least a quarter of their workforce would remain working remotely. 

Workers are generally happy too.  For one thing, they’re saving the equivalent of “billions” of dollars in avoided commuting time, not to mention actual costs such as gasoline, parking, and mileage.  Some see “digital nomads” as the future.  A June PwC survey found that, even post-pandemic, 83% of office workers wanted to work at least one day a week from home, and 55% of employers thought most of their workers might do so. 

Not everyone is a fan of remote work.  Reed Hastings, founder and co-CEO of Netflix, called it a “pure negative,” citing the benefits of getting together in person.  Still, even he concedes the new balance might be four days in the office, one day virtual. 

Mr. Hastings is not alone in his concerns about the benefits of in-person interactions, the so-called “water cooler” or “hallway” effect – serendipitous encounters that have been linked to creative thinking.  “These ties are critical to our well-being because they end up giving us the opportunity to vent, confide, brainstorm, and discuss things that we think are important,” says Mario Luis Small, a Harvard sociology professor. 

‘The water cooler as a place to build relationships just evaporated when everybody went remote,” Dan Manian, CEO of Donut, told The Wall Street Journal.  Professor Eddie Obeng also told The Wall Street Journal, “employees are using tools and methods that weren’t designed for the current world in which we are living.”  Donut is one of the companies trying to provide solutions for this problem. 

Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom are also trying to do the same, as are less well known companies like Hallway, Miro, Qube, Sidekick, and Spatial.  .

We need to be thinking bigger.  As Dr. Agus said in a May interview with Salesforce:

I want companies to have a program where they think about their employees’ productivity and health every day. And, then, if they’re customer-facing, how do they convey that same message to the individual customer? We have to think differently in that way.

Some companies and other organizations are starting to take Dr. Agus’s suggestion seriously, such as Bowling Green State University.  Cambridge Health advisors, which aims at retailers and restaurants, urges: “New C-level leadership, a chief health officer, is needed to establish a vision for chainwide public health and to ensure store level initiatives are executed timely and effectively.” 

Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Theaters, says frankly:

The single biggest issue facing businesses in the United States is how do we manage our way through the coronavirus crisis.  The CEO of every major company in the country is going to have to make public health the single top vision of the company.”

Imagine that.

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to greatly increase remote work.  It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for companies to think about their employees’ productivity and health every day (and to weigh those at least equally).  It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to make public health top-of-mind for CEOs of every major company.  But it has, and, even now, it’s not clear how many companies will actually change long term.

It’s been about six months now since the restrictions/quarantines/lockdowns started, with the resulting job losses and economic havoc.  We’ve learned a lot, at a terrible cost, but it’s anyone’s guess about what the next six months will bring (especially as flu season is about to start).

So, let’s celebrate Labor Day – responsibly! – and hope that we’ve learned the right lessons.   

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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