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A rare opportunity to redesign work

February 25, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

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Good morning.

I spent most of the day yesterday discussing the future of work—first, at an internal meeting with Fortune employees, then at our four-hour Reimagine Work Summit (full coverage for subscribers here), held in partnership with the Future Forum by Slack. The topic is a hot one for every employer of knowledge workers these days. The end of the pandemic creates a rare opportunity—Thrive CEO Arianna Huffington called it the “first since the Industrial Revolution”—to truly redesign work.

A couple of data points frame the discussion. According to the Future Forum’s surveys, only 17% of knowledge workers want to return to the office full time. But only 20% want to work from home full time. The vast majority are looking for flexibility. And that’s not just flexibility on where they work, but also on when they work.

The buzzword for that new approach is “hybrid.” But what exactly does hybrid mean? The consensus is the office will become an venue for collaboration, for serendipitous interaction, and for social bonding and culture building. Focused individual work can be done elsewhere. But how do you make sure people are in the right place at the right time for the right type of work? Are certain days of the week, or certain hours of the day, scheduled as “collaboration times”? Does collaboration and innovation really lend itself to that kind of scheduling? And while video conferencing may have had a democratizing effect during the pandemic, will folks who return to the office be able to collaborate effectively with those who do not? Or will the playing field tilt toward the people in the room?

Then there is the question of whether big city offices make economic sense if you only use them for occasional collaboration and social events. Wouldn’t it be better to rent space as needed—perhaps, as suggested by Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian, from underused hotels? (There is general agreement that business travel will remain depressed. Why spend the time and resources?)

Layered on top of questions about where and when to work are another set of question about how we work. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of new technologies that transform work in fundamental ways. That, in turn, has led to heightened concerns about training and reskilling people for the retooled workplace. 

Leadership also has to change. In their classic management book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman talked about the importance of “management by walking around.” That doesn’t work when the office is empty. There’s also agreement that leaders need to focus more on worker well-being. “We need to lead with empathy,” said Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh. Pymetrics CEO Frida Polli concurred: “The human elements of empathy and connection (are) critical to making this distributed workforce function properly.”

Sorry for offering more questions than answers here, but my takeaway from yesterday’s conversations is that this design challenge is far from solved. A lot of work to do in the next few months.


Separately, I was surprised to see that McKinsey Global Managing Partner Kevin Sneader wasn’t selected for a second term.  I have no special insight into why the firm’s 650 senior partners rejected him. But I certainly hope it wasn’t for the reason suggested in press reports. 

The Wall Street Journal said “some partners” felt Sneader had gone “too far” in criticizing his firm’s behavior advising opioid maker Purdue Pharma—which resulted in a $573 million legal settlement. Those partners felt McKinsey had “acted within the law.” 

I’m not a judge or a lawyer, so I’ll leave the legal question aside. But it’s pretty clear McKinsey advised Purdue to focus its efforts on the health care providers who were writing the highest volume of prescriptions, even as the addiction crisis was reaching its peak. It doesn’t take a lawyer to recognize the implications of that strategy. I’m with Sneader on this:  McKinsey needs a higher standard.

More news below.

Alan Murray


Yay J&J

The FDA could authorize Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine as soon as this weekend, after it said the single-dose jab works safely. J&J's vaccine is 66.1% effective in preventing moderate to severe disease, which is good in historical vaccine terms, though not as good as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna's vaccines. Most important, though, is the need for only one dose. Wall Street Journal

Flight schedule

Qantas has pushed back by four months its planned resumption of global travel. The restart of almost all the Australian airline's flights is now scheduled for late October, which is around the time Australia plans to complete its vaccination program. Fortune

Wirecard fallout

Hubert Barth, the head of EY Germany, is expected to be redeployed elsewhere in the company, which audited the disgraced payments firm Wirecard. EY denies wrongdoing, but some of its partners are being investigated over their role in the Wirecard accounting scandal, and several prestigious clients have walked away in recent months. Financial Times

Fear gauge

The Cboe Volatility Index (a.k.a. VIX a.k.a. the fear gauge) is elevated again. If history is a guide, that could mean stocks will move higher on average. Fortune


Paying publishers

Australia has now passed a new law, against which Google and Facebook fought bitterly, that will force the tech giants to pay news publishers for showing fragments of their stories in search results and news feeds. Fortune

Diligent compliance

The corporate governance software maker Diligent has shelled out around $1 billion to buy Galvanize, a Canadian developer of risk and compliance software, shortly after it paid around $325 million for Steele Compliance, another company operating in the space. Fortune's Lucinda Shen explains that Diligent's 19,000 customers will now "be able to use a combination of human reporting and automation to generate reports on risk and compliance for the business rather than, say, solely relying on the chief security officer, an internal audit, or the head of risk to float the report to the top." Fortune

Amazon data

Three former high-level information security workers at Amazon say the company does not adequately protect its customers' data from breaches, theft and exploitation. According to Politico: "Their accounts paint a picture of a corporate culture at Amazon that they say prioritizes growth over other factors, such as the security of customers' information, compliance with rules designed to safeguard that data and the careers of employees the company hired specifically to flag problems." Amazon denies all this. Politico

Unpaid labor

We don't usually report on divorces, but this is interesting: a Chinese court has told a man to pay his ex-wife $7,700 in compensation for the domestic work and childcare she carried out during their five years of marriage. The landmark settlement was based on a new civil code China introduced last year, and has been both welcomed (for recognizing that these things amount to labor that deserves compensation) and criticized (for undervaluing said labor). Washington Post

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.