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A Tale of Two COVID CEOs

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...

The working world has been working its way through a global pandemic since early 2020.

Many companies who thought "work from home" wasn't practical, feasible, or desirable for their businesses were forced to adapt to mandated stay-at-home orders. Work-from-home may not have been ideal, but it was certainly better than a complete cessation of operations.

Yet, to the surprise of many, their worlds did not fall apart.

In fact, some companies realized allowing employees the flexibility to work offsite not only didn't result in any productivity decreases but also enabled a reduction of very expensive office space. The senior leaders at these organizations knew that not every activity was best accomplished via videoconference, and that some in-person activities would likely be required (and even desired) once COVID was behind us. But they were motivated to find a solution that worked given the new realities of a post-pandemic world; a compromise between "in the office all the time" and "working offsite, always", understanding that happier employees and lower company costs would be what was known as a "win-win".

One such enlightened executive, Richard Houston, Chief Executive Officer of Deloitte U.K. (pictured at left, above) was quoted saying:

“We will let our people choose where they need to be to do their best work, in balance with their professional and personal responsibilities... I’m not going to announce any set number of days for people to be in the office or in specific locations. That means that our people can choose how often they come to the office, if they choose to do so at all, while focusing on how we can best serve our clients.”

And yet, other companies began counting the minutes until the world could "return to normal" (whatever that meant) and everybody could be forced back into the office.

The executives at these organizations (who you could imagine always used air quotes whenever using the phrase "work from home") likely believed employees who weren't being carefully watched during work hours were spending all their time binging Netflix, baking bread, and taking online Yoga classes instead of doing the jobs they were being paid to do.

James Gorman, Morgan Stanley Chief Executive Officer (pictured at right, above), is clearly one such executive. He was recently quoted saying:

"If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office. And we want you in the office... By Labor Day, I'll be very disappointed if people haven't found their way into the office and then we'll have a different kind of conversation.

If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York... None of this 'I'm in Colorado...and getting paid like I'm sitting in New York City.' Sorry. That doesn't work."

Except with knowledge workers, Mr. Gorman, it does work.

At least it can.

But only if you believe your employees are hired to solve problems and complete tasks, not warm specific chairs in specific buildings for specific amounts of time each day.

Only if you hire intelligent, responsible adults who don't need constant supervision.

And only if you trust your people to do the jobs they're being paid to do.

The problem for Mr. Gorman (and executives who think like him) is simply this: some employees may have realized the time they had previously spent commuting -- and the money they had previously spent on transportation, "office-appropriate" clothing, and daily takeout lunches -- could be put to better use.

And after reading the comments of their CEO, those employees are updating their resumes and entertaining offers from companies with leaders like Richard Houston at the helm.

Of course, not everybody wants to work from home all of the time. Many don't even want to work from home some of the time.

But completely eliminating the option for those that do will result in an unnecessary exodus of talent that could be avoided with some flexibility. And if enough of your talent decides to leave, what happens then?

Over 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs went extinct after they were unable to adapt to the new conditions caused by a major impact on the planet.

In that case, the impact was literal.

COVID wasn't a giant rock slamming into the Earth, but it also significantly impacted our environment.

The corporate dinosaurs of today would be wise to understand what might happen if they fail to evolve to our new reality.


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