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Business leaders want nothing of the reopening debate

April 27, 2020, 9:39 AM UTC

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Good morning.

One habit I’ve reacquired during lockdown–after abandoning it a decade ago–is reading print newspapers every morning. And lately, their front pages have been a window into the heated debate over when to reopen the economy.

But once I leave the papers and begin the work day, I find myself talking to business leaders who want nothing of that polarized debate. (As IBM’s Ginni Rometty told me recently: “I don’t get to live in a black and white world, okay? I have to live in a world with shades of gray.”) These CEOs are taking a much more measured, less ideological, practical approach to reopening, focusing on how to balance the business imperative against the health and wellness of employees.

On Friday, I spoke with the CEO of one U.S. financial firm with 14,000 employees across the U.S.–more than 90% of whom are currently working from home. Like others I’ve spoken with, he has no plans to push them back to work precipitously, regardless of decisions made by respective government leaders. His best guess is that 60-70% of his workforce will continue to work off-premises for the remainder of this year. And after that? “Who knows? My guess is for 50%, this will become the new norm.”

That sort of speculation, of course, is the luxury of companies employing professional “knowledge workers,” who have discovered in the last six weeks that they can do their jobs pretty well from home. According to one estimate, only 37% of jobs in the U.S. plausibly fit that category. But if a substantial portion of that group continue to work from home, the “new normal” will be substantially different from the old.

The other big trend to watch is business travel. In pre-COVID days, CEOs and senior executives of large companies spent inordinate amounts of time on the road, doing in-person visits with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Why? Because showing up in person signaled seriousness. But a CEO I spoke with yesterday said he believes the lockdown will change that, convincing business leaders they can be just as effective–and conserve time, money and the environment–by doing much of that business on video.

Time will tell. But a couple of things are clear. Opening up the economy is proving a lot more difficult than shutting it down. And the new normal, whenever it arrives, will be different than the old one.

More news below. And for perspectives on last week’s big CEO news, read Geoff Colvin’s analysis of the legacy of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, here, and Aaron Pressman’s take on his successor, John Stankey, here.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

TOP NEWS

Markets up

Stock markets around the world are up as some countries start to tentatively reopen their economies, and as investors anticipate fresh rounds of stimulus. The Nikkei 225 was up 2.7%, the Hang Seng 2% and—at the time of writing—the Stoxx 600 had risen by 1.7%. U.S. futures point to a mildly positive open. Wall Street Journal

Airbus trouble

Airbus is in deep trouble, CEO Guillaume Faury warned staff in an email. He said the European plane-building consortium is "bleeding cash" and may need to soon increase cuts in order to protect "the very existence of our company." Of course, the whole aviation industry is currently facing an existential crisis, and Airbus's customers are themselves fighting for survival. Airbus's share price nonetheless dove more than 3% on the report of Faury's email. Bloomberg

Boris is back

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is back in the driving seat, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab having stood in for him over the past few weeks. Johnson, who had such a severe bout of COVID-19 that he was in intensive care, stands accused of having dragged his feet in responding to the crisis. Now he's taking the route of caution: he said in his first speech this morning that "there will be time to refine the restrictions and to fire up the engines of the economy [but] we cannot say when those changes will be made." CNBC

Contact tracing

Remember the huge debate, on which we reported a week ago, around the different approaches being proposed for contact-tracing apps? Well, Germany has flipped from the increasingly distrusted PEPP-PT approach to the much less risky DP-3T approach that leading technologists (and, effectively, Apple and Google) are backing. PEPP-PT involves a centralized database that critics said could be used to spy on people beyond what is necessary to fight the pandemic. Also taking the DP-3T route: Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Estonia. Reuters

AROUND THE WATER COOLER

Lifting lockdowns

A new analysis shows there are probably undiscovered coronavirus hotspots in the eight U.S. states that are planning to ease their lockdowns soon. The analysis was performed by A.I. firm Dataminr, based on social media posts on platforms including Twitter and Reddit, as well as on thousands of other public data sources. Fortune

Death toll

The Financial Times estimates that the true global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic may be as high as 318,000, rather than the current official count of just over 200,000. The paper has adapted its methods to look at mortality statistics in excess of normal levels, rather than relying on official statistics that reflect a huge variance in reporting methods. Financial Times

Marcel Ospel

Marcel Ospel has died from a longstanding illness. Ospel architected the fusion of Swiss Bank Corp and Union Bank of Switzerland into United Bank of Switzerland. It was also under his leadership that UBS pursued an aggressive risk-taking strategy in the U.S. that almost destroyed the bank in the Great Financial Crisis, before the Swiss government stepped in with a bailout—he subsequently quit as chairman, and gave back millions of what many saw as an overly lavish salary. Reuters

A.I. road

Landing AI CEO Andrew Ng has some advice for companies looking to deploy "artificial intelligence", which he outlines in this Fortune piece: "It’s crucial that the company reassure stakeholders during A.I. implementation. Many people still harbor significant fear, uncertainty, and doubt about A.I.…Organizations should consider beginning A.I. deployment with a pilot that affects a relatively small number of stakeholders. A quick success can then be used as a showcase to get buy-in from a larger group." Fortune

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.