‘The pivot has been so fast’: How COVID changed the way executives lead

The old way of doing things won’t cut it anymore, say executives. The pandemic has made that clear.

Many barriers between work and life have fallen. Employees expect more flexibility and better pay. Consumers are prioritizing sustainability and social justice.

“We were steeped in a way of working that’s decades and decades old, and the pivot has been so fast,” Liz O’Neill, executive vice president and COO of Levi Strauss, said in a panel discussion at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C, on Monday. 

It all starts with how employers treat their workers. “Without your employees you are nothing,” said O’Neill. For many companies, COVID brought that more clearly into focus.

PayPal had started reevaluating pay and benefits for its workforce about four years ago, when it conducted research on the wages of its employees in its customer support locations and found that some of its workers’ net disposable income—the money left over after essential expenses—was around 6%, “which was just not enough,” says Peggy Alford, executive vice president of global sales at PayPal. The company set a goal to lift that NDI up to 25%. “To change the world, you have to start at home,” Alford said, noting that it has managed to lift it to 16% so far.

Over the past 18 months, employees have begun to expect flexibility at PayPal, as well, according to Alford. “In order to be competitive in the employee workforce, we’re going to have to build in some of that flexibility,” said Alford, who noted that it’s particularly important for women, who often have to balance responsibilities like childcare.

Amy Nelson, president of SaksWorks, Saks Fifth Avenue’s new membership club, chimed in: “We always built our lives around work,” she said. “Now we are in a period in America where we are building our life and having work fit into that.” 

At Levi’s, it was critical to offer workers space in their week to recharge, O’Neill said. The company launched an initiative called “no meeting Fridays” to help maintain energy and support flexibility across the workforce. Carly Strife, cofounder of pet subscription box company Bark, underlined the importance of enabling managers to give their teams the flexibility they need, as every employee may be going through something different.

The pandemic also changed the needs of customers, said leaders. “During the pandemic, for sure, consumers…have become more and more interested and compelled by sustainability—and that’s both on the social front and on the environmental front,” said O’Neill.

The National Basketball Association, for instance, reexamined how it would tackle the issue of racial justice last year, particularly after the shooting of Jacob Blake, according to Kate Jhaveri, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the NBA. “We really took a step back: To look at economic empowerment is important, but also addressing those systemic problems that we see around policy and law enforcement is equally important,” she noted. The NBA set up the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition at the end of 2020 to home in on policy issues, such as police reform, according to Jhaveri.

PayPal made a $530 million commitment to help close the racial wealth gap for businesses and individuals in the short term, and aims to be “a part of sustainable change in the long run,” Alford said. The company has deployed $510 million of the money to date in foundations and organizations, as well as in grants to small businesses in Black and brown communities that were most impacted during the pandemic. 

The pandemic has also brought about some personal changes as well as their transformation as leaders, said executives. Many noted that the pandemic helped them see the importance of empathy, transparency, and authenticity more than ever before. Nelson said she has learned to trust that her staffers will get things done—on their own schedule. “People will give you their all,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they are or how they get it done.”

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