Should CEOs Be In The Office Now?

If you're not sure whether to show solidarity by spending time at the workplace or to prioritize reducing exposures by remaining remote, you're not alone.

Executives at many organizations can perform the majority of their key job functions remotely, while many front-line workers must be at the workplace to accomplish their work.As companies design their strategy for reopening workplaces, many executives are considering whether they themselves should remain remote, even after many other employees return to the worksite. Should the CEO show solidarity by spending time at the workplace—or reduce exposures by remaining remote?

Executive presence is essential, as leaders motivate colleagues by their presence. Effective leaders are transparent, compassionate and create trust; their behaviors help calm, support and even energize employees so that they feel vested in a common mission and purpose, and are willing to embrace new ways of working. Presence—virtual or in the workplace—is essential to accomplishing this. Even before the pandemic, leaders often had to convey their presence without being at a particular site. Most employees don’t often see the company’s top executives at a particular workplace, but they nonetheless feel their presence. In the pandemic, leaders can convey a powerful signal of their confidence in the safety of the workplace.As we wrote in our recent whitepaper with the World Economic Forum, Workforce Principles for the Covid-19 Pandemic, leaders need to see this crisis as the defining leadership moment that it is.

Workplace presence contains a unique dimension that transcends objective measures.  Leaders reinforce culture through their actions and words, and they must be more deliberate to do this when communicating through videoconferences. Leaders absent from the workplace can become detached and lose touch with how value is created by colleagues.

However, every additional person in the workplace increases the risk of infection for all employees. Covid-19 has infected people across income and class groups, so a well-meaning executive could inadvertently expose colleagues, some of whom could be hospitalized or die. Executives could inadvertently set an example that would encourage high-risk colleagues to return to the workplace, even if they would be safer working remotely. The most effective executives have historically managed in part by “walking around,” and the pandemic creates the imperative to be present even if an executive is remote.

What considerations should factor into a decision for a leader to return? The executive should first consider the business importance of physical presence. The three of us work in a consulting firm where almost all employees can be remote, so it makes sense for our top executives to be setting an example by visibly working from home, rather than commuting to various offices which are closed anyway. But executives at manufacturing, hospitality or retail companies need to be physically present. For example, when United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby showed up on the ramp at O’Hare at 5 am wearing a mask, gloves and a face shield to greet ground crew employees, he modeled good behaviors and showed respect, humility, dignity and compassion.

Jack Dorsey’s recent announcement that Twitter employees will have the flexibility to work from home forever will challenge him to convey his presence when he will rarely be in the same room with his employees, but he was already meeting this challenge by simultaneously being the CEO of both Twitter and Square. CEO Satya Nadella’s Microsoft creates the software to allow many of us to work remotely, but he laments the lack of spontaneous interaction with colleagues in a fully virtual world and the potential impact on soft skills crucial to managing and mentoring, warning that the pivot entirely to remote work might be “replacing one dogma with another dogma.”

Next, the executive should consider the local situation. They should be more willing to return to the workplace if cases are trending downward, the portion of positive tests is declining and there is enough hospital capacity for a surge of illness. They should always obey public health guidelines. Finally, the executive should consider their own risk factors. Are they diabetic? Do they suffer from an autoimmune disease that would significantly increase risk of a Covid-19 infection?

If the executive cannot come to the workplace without unacceptable risks, there are many ways to be present even while physically absent. They can use technology for two-way interactions, both to communicate across organizational levels to keep employees, their families and the community safe, and to gain intelligence on what’s going on in the workplace. Collaboration technology such as Zoom and Slack, coupled with data mining and insights solutions like Humanyze and Microsoft’s Dynamics 365, can allow leaders to transcend physical presence and understand how colleagues are working.

The remote executive will need to stay closer to supervisors and managers to avoid missing cues about what issues most need to be addressed. Their communications should focus on what the company is doing to promote safety from the coronavirus and can include reference to how her absence is a component of a comprehensive risk-mitigation strategy.

When the CEO decides it’s time to return to the workplace, they can improve workforce safety by modeling behaviors that will encourage colleagues to follow public health guidelines. They should follow all screening or testing procedures on entry, even if it means waiting in a properly-spaced line. They should wear a mask in public and should not shake hands. If employees are on split shifts, where different cohorts are allowed to access the office at different times, each returning executive should be assigned to one group, and not come to the office when a different cohort has access. All executives should follow the company’s business travel policy vigilantly. They should be careful not to inadvertently pressure those who feel unsafe returning for any reason, including age, chronic illness or childcare.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a defining moment for leadership. Executives must lead their organizations to stay true to their purpose, values, principles and culture. Effective corporate leaders will make evidence-based decisions on when they will return to the workplace and will maintain presence even when they are working remotely. They will protect the financial and reputational health of the company by protecting the health of employees and the community through their words, actions and behaviors through all phases of the pandemic.

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Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, MBA, is Managing Director and co-leader of the North American Health Management practice at Willis Towers Watson. He is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. Ravin Jesuthasan, CFA, FRSA is Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Steering Committee on Work and Employment and has been recognized as one of the 25 most influential consultants in the world by Consulting Magazine. He is the author of Reinventing Jobs: A 4 Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (HBR 2018). John M. Bremen is Managing Director, Human Capital & Benefits, and Global Head of Thought Leadership and Innovation at Willis Towers Watson. He advises boards and senior management teams on complex human capital issues at the world’s largest and fastest-growing organizations, and is a frequent author, speaker, and lecturer.