Opening America: Discussion

This is my first post in over four months. There is so much “writing” out there, so many alerts and zoom conferences and reports, that it seemed to me that the last thing anyone needed was another talking head.

I am posting this blog based on a conversation this morning conducted by the New England Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, which addressed factors that will bear on the nature and timing of the opening of American business, and indeed on the shape of future business and society.

Much that was covered was not novel: the acceleration of remote modes of business, the decline of brick and mortar and office space, the difficulties of workers of all levels in dealing with the present situation and the upcoming transitions.

But I did want to share a few comments that I found to be enormously telling, and here they are.

First, the pandemic is accompanied by an awakening of pervasive institutionalized prejudice. As the workforce is re-imagined and as delivery of services to customers is altered, there is a need to examine old practices to see if they included implicit bias and to make sure replacement modalities do not perpetuate that bias. This may fall in the category of never wasting a crisis.

Specifically, as an example, hiring often will be done on-line, including via interviews. Mechanics are needed to avoid bias. Interviewing for white collar jobs often was done at certain colleges which, on examination, have an ethnic mix that makes it unlikely to find diverse candidates; one presenter said, in effect, we just aren’t going to go there in the future.

Another example: delivery of services requires concern for the front-line service providers. To protect them they have been told to stay out of COVID hot spots. But many such hot spots are densely populated poorer areas, and additionally poorer areas lack basic infrastucture that service delivery would enhance; there has been no reason to offer improvements where basis services do not yet exist. The result is systemic failure to provide support services to certain populations, doubling down on resulting prejudice and poverty.

Another speaker hit the same general dynamic of societal inequality in a different way, noting that government policies applied during COVID are likely to have a net societal effect that increases the economic disparity in America at the very time that there is growing demand to identify and shrink that disparity; governmental and business policies need to be sought to counter this trend.

These comments lead to a call to action by business which is more human-centric. They lead to many foci coming to the forefront of business practices today: greater scheduling flexibility for workers under stress or with children needing care; accommodations in collections of loans, mortgages or bills for purchases; rethinking hiring patterns and delivery patterns with a conscious effort to alleviate economic disparity and poor treatment of labor as well as of diverse consumer groups.

Corporate charity, down to funding things as basic as food, has begun to be reallocated and is presumed will remain more socially conscious. Companies employing office workers are stockpiling protective gear and reconfiguring space. HR departments will need to allocate resources to mental health issues, as the lasting psychological effects of the pandemic will almost surely outlast the virus itself.

It is true that executives who are asked to speak, and are willing to speak, at programs such as I have described will tend to be articulate and view themselves as sensitive to the joint lessons of the pandemic and the social unrest in America. Put another way, business persons of a less enlightened viewpoint are likely to avoid articulating social views that are out of tune with the empathetic thread of much current business discussion.

But as Americans slowly, ever so slowly meander back to the euphemistic “new normal,” working different hours using more technology and meeting in person far less as everyone hopefully predicts, at least some business leaders are seeing the emergence from COVID as an opening to meet the challenges that have converged on us with sharper focus: discrimination, inclusion, economic justice,environmental issues personal stress, injury to children, and more human-sensitive approaches to labor and to consumers.

So on this day, which opened with our newspapers unsettling us with news that a couple of hundred thousand Google employees would be remote for what amounts to almost another entire year, perhaps there is an opportunity for business to plan a newly configured and improved future.

As one speaker noted: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

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