In this third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies large and small are slowly returning to business as usual. But what defines “usual” has changed, and both employees and managers are struggling to make sense of the shift. Employees are demanding more flexibility, better pay, and greater work-life balance. Meanwhile, executives still need to mind the bottom line while dealing with fragile supply chains, capricious consumers, a tight labor market, and increasing social and political pressures.
These tensions were the focus of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Wharton Center for Leadership, the Wharton Center for Human Resources, and the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. The discussion, titled “The Great Return to Work: Ensuring Individual and Organizational Well-being in the New Normal,” was moderated by Wharton management professor Katherine Klein. The panelists were Lindsey Cameron, assistant management professor at Wharton; Dr. Joe Loizzo, psychiatrist and founder and academic director of the Nalanda Institute; Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Emotional Intelligence; and Darrell Ford, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for UPS.
“For me, the most important part of return to work is the intentionality and thoughtfulness of the kinds of things we’ve been talking about,” Klein said after listening to the panelists. “You will not get this done and have this smooth return to work without a great deal of thoughtfulness and intentionality.”
Watch the 90-minute discussion here or keep reading for key takeaways from each of the expert panelists.
Daniel Goleman: “Don’t dictate.”
The pandemic’s work-from-anywhere experiment has yielded one indisputable fact, according to Goleman: “Work gets done.” The internationally renowned psychologist said the traditional model of five days a week in the office is now “a dinosaur,” and companies need to consider flexibility.
As a former science journalist for The New York Times, Goleman worked in a hybrid model for years and found that the balance was important. But it’s not the ratio of office-to-home days that really matters to employees, it’s about how they feel about the workplace. That point is part of his research on emotional intelligence in leadership because managers set the culture.
“The boss is very important,” he said. “That dimension, the emotions, the sense of belonging is really critical to include in the whole matrix of decision-making.”
Goleman offered a simple roadmap for managers to create emotional intelligence in the workplace. First, be very clear about goals, expectations, and the work that needs to get done. Second, trust employees enough to let them reach their goals. Goleman said it may seem counterintuitive, but bosses must give room for employees to be innovative, creative, and agile. Third, give immediate and constructive feedback, which will establish a “continuous learning loop” that will help the organization and its members improve over time.
“I didn’t say how many days you need to be in the office. You need to figure that out,” Goleman said. “Let that emerge. Don’t dictate.”
Lindsey Cameron: “Take a mental snapshot of when you’re thriving.”
Feeling a sense of belonging at work has long been elusive for many women, minorities, and others in marginalized groups, said Cameron, so it’s understandable that they are among the staunchest advocates for remote and hybrid work.
“Even before the pandemic, work wasn’t a place where they could bring their whole self or they felt really comfortable,” Cameron explained. “In some ways, being away from the office and being able to foster connections that are close and more meaningful for people has made these groups of people want to stay at home.”
It’s great if companies want to offer remote flexibility, but Cameron cautions leadership to be extra careful about ignoring issues of inclusion. Out of sight should not be out of mind, especially for employees from underrepresented groups. “Those who tend to stay at home are going to be systematically disenfranchised, so I think there’s a bigger question as we’re thinking about the great return to work: In what ways might it exacerbate existing inequalities, and what might be ways we can mitigate or stopgap that?”
When asked how women and minorities who work remotely can ensure they aren’t penalized for less face time, Cameron acknowledged that it’s a tough question because there isn’t a lot of research yet. She said the burden lies with managers to be aware of their own blind spots with remote employees.
“The anecdotal evidence talks about creating very open lines of communication and being very consistent about how you’re having those checkpoints in with your manager, so you are still part of the team even if you’re not physically there,” said Cameron, whose research focus includes the gig economy.
The professor has had her own contemplative practice for 20 years and offered advice to help workers maintain their own sense of well-being and avoid the grind. She said good mental health empowers workers to make positive changes for themselves and for others in the organization.
“Take a mental snapshot of when you’re thriving, when you’re grounded and feel clear and connected, and who those people are that you’re with,” she said. “That’s your community. That’s your group to go out and do the activist work — whatever that looks like for you in your organization.”
Darrell Ford: “The long commute is overrated.”
Ford was hired at UPS during the pandemic and didn’t meet his boss, CEO Carol Tomé, until after he began working at the Atlanta-based headquarters. That experience — a video job interview without an onsite visit — has been typical for many office workers who changed jobs during the pandemic, and Ford said it continues to inform his work as the head of human resources.
He said the pandemic’s “grand experiment” has been a great opportunity for businesses to redefine success under difficult and unexpected circumstances. As Ford pointed out, “business got done,” and the workers who got it done aren’t afraid to speak up for themselves. They want flexibility.
“The long commute is overrated. I think people are voting with their feet in not only choosing careers but also lifestyle,” he said, adding that balance between work and office is needed because vital social connections fray when everything is virtual.
“At the end of the day, we’re still human beings, and the need for connection, the need for belonging, is important,” Ford said. That’s why UPS is taking a different approach to managing its 500,000 employees. The executive team has created a playbook that guides individual managers to make decisions about remote and hybrid employees based on the unique aspects of their teams. The playbook, which has been in place for about 18 months, requires building trust that flows from the top down and the bottom up. It’s been successful so far, and Ford encouraged other companies to find what works for them.
“For me, it’s no one size fits all,” he said. “These are bespoke solutions to your organization, your company, your business model, and how you think about how work gets done.”
Joe Loizzo: “We need a complete cultural shift.”
Loizzo, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and Buddhist scholar, said the pandemic has pushed business and society to a pivotal point, and it’s clear that change is in order. Businesses won’t thrive unless their people are thriving — and that means everybody. He encouraged looking at problems through a much wider lens so that changes are inclusive for workers at all skill levels and from all backgrounds.
“I think we need a complete culture shift — not just in specific organizations but in our own mindset and in our whole society — to put the human being and our common humanity back at the center of the way we think about things,” he said. “Are we really helping people develop the capacity to sustain the complex, challenging lives we live while feeling grounded and being at ease?”
He said the pandemic has been “democratizing” because it allowed employees to prove their high productivity under extreme stress and even working remotely. That success has empowered workers, and they want to continue feeling a sense of value and contribution, rather than feeling controlled and dominated.
Loizzo has co-created a balanced leadership program that he said can be used by workers at all levels to help build a new, human-centric economy.
“Our business culture, and culture in general, has sort of glorified stress as this necessary energy or fuel. What we’re learning now is performance, creativity, innovation, teamwork, and flexibility are all much more tied to the thriving qualities that emerge from our social brain,” he said. “The science and the psychology are there to really help business deliver on some of these shifts that are needed.”