Reimagining the future of the workplace requires bringing more stakeholders to the table

February 24, 2021, 8:45 PM UTC

Over the past year, the term “the new normal” has been repeated ad nauseam—but there is something to be said for the premise that the workplace will never be the same again.

The monumental disruptions brought on by the pandemic continue to have repercussions at home, at school, and at work. Many workers have lamented challenges to productivity, but employees shouldn’t have to shoulder this burden alone. Company leaders need to step up, brainstorm, and invest in major changes to better support their workforces.

“Almost every company in the world probably ripped up their business plan and thought, ‘How do we deal with this? What’s next?’” said Dr. Ashwini Zenooz, chief medical officer and senior vice president of health care and life sciences at Salesforce, while speaking at Fortune’s virtual Reimagine Work Summit on Wednesday. “The pandemic has reset things and made every company [think] about the business of health.”

At Salesforce, Zenooz said her team for health care and life sciences took a broad-brush approach, rethinking what kinds of tools were needed for two different types of workers. First, there are the knowledge workers who can work from home at their kitchen tables. And second, there are the frontline workers such as health care professionals, teachers, and grocery store workers, food delivery couriers, and more.

“If the pandemic hasn’t brought this into focus, it should,” Zenooz said. “Every business for the foreseeable future should be thinking about what kind of officer or adviser they need at the table.”

Zenooz added that she thinks most industries are taking these unprecedented challenges seriously, demonstrated by the hiring of more health care consultants and professionals, especially at the C-suite level.

Among the companies that have proved crucial in pandemic times is Amazon. Consumers rely on Amazon for everything from getting groceries delivered to ensuring they can work online from home through platforms supported by Amazon Web Services.

Amazon added more than 427,000 employees in the first 10 months of 2020, bringing the global workforce to more than 2.2 million—up 50% from the year prior.

“We had the benefit of thinking about this from the beginning, as we were tracking the coronavirus since it first appeared in China and as it spread through Europe,” said Heather MacDougall, vice president, worldwide, for workplace health and safety at Amazon. “Because of that early warning, we put a team in place that began to respond to the changes that needed to happen.”

Amazon invested $11.5 billion in 2020 in COVID response, making 150 significant process changes to keep teams safe, such as reimagining how to conduct meetings and trainings; reconfiguring and adding more break rooms; staggering shifts and breaks; ensuring face masks are always in stock; and reevaluating how workers clock in and out for shifts.

“We recognize there’s still a desire for people to walk to the break room and chat with a coworker,” MacDougall noted, describing one of the new pieces of technology in use: Now installed in break rooms, a TV with a metering system encourages social distancing and warns employees when they are close to bumping into each other.

MacDougall added that she has gained insight from collaboration occurring not only within the company but also across organizations, especially with local health officials and the CDC.

“We can’t move forward unless we look back and learn. There has been a residual impact that has happened in the last year that will continue to impact 2021,” Zenooz said. “The future is bright. We don’t have to go back to the way things were. There’s so much we’ve learned, and we can take that forward.”

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