Jun 30, 2020

Axios @Work

By Erica Pandey
Erica Pandey

Welcome back to @Work. A lot of the stories I choose to cover in this newsletter each week are inspired by your thoughtful notes and feedback. Keep 'em coming by replying to this email or writing to me at erica@axios.com.

You're invited: Axios will be hosting a live, virtual event on how the coronavirus outbreak has upended small businesses. Join Mike Allen and Kim Hart tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a discussion featuring a senator and a winery owner, among others. Register here.

Today's edition is 1,404 words — a 5-minute read. We'll start with...

1 big thing: The coming child care crisis

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With coronavirus cases spiking and no end in sight, schools and day care centers may not fully reopen in the fall, triggering a massive child care crisis for millions of American workers.

The big picture: For months, America's parents have been juggling work, home schooling and child care — doing whatever they can until the post-pandemic return to normalcy. But now, what seemed like a temporary predicament is turning into an ongoing ordeal.

What's happening: Schools and school districts are starting to release their plans for the fall, and to ensure safety, many — including those in Seattle, Omaha and Fairfax County (Virginia) — have come up with hybrid online and in-person schedules.

That means the continuation of remote learning — which leaves behind scores of kids without access to technology — and relentless stress for parents.

  • Despite these problems, the majority of Americans agree with taking things slow. Per a new Politico-Morning Consult poll, 54% of Americans are nervous about reopening K-12 schools.

But school district plans are starting to reveal a scary reality for the 40% of U.S. workers between 20 and 54 who have children at home.

  • "Most working families need care for at least 40 hours a week, and schools were providing that," says Adrienne Schweer, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. "If that's gone, there's nothing to fill the void."
  • Care for children under 5 is also in crisis, she says. The Center for America Progress projects that the pandemic will put up to 50% of day care centers out of business, erasing some 4.5 million slots for young kids.
  • Fewer slots — combined with the cost of enhanced safety measures at facilities — will drive up the already sky-high price of child care.

At the same time, more and more states are reopening — and calling employees back to work.

  • That leaves few, if any, options for single-parent households or parents that cannot afford child care.
  • And even parents privileged enough to continue working from home face unsustainable situations. "People can’t realistically do their jobs properly" with kids at home, says Sarah Lux-Lee, CEO of Mindr, a consultancy that works with companies to help retain parents as employees.
  • On top of that, this new normal could set parents back in the workplace — especially mothers, who tend to bear much of the child care and home-schooling burden. There's the isolation that comes from missing happy hours or team lunches and — even worse — the possibility of being passed over for promotions or raises.

"Companies have an important role to play here," Lux-Lee says.

  • As school schedules remain at least partially remote, firms can build in flexibility for working parents by implementing shorter workdays or workweeks.
  • "We need to measure people on outcomes and not on hours," she says.

The bottom line: "It feels like child care is being regarded as a footnote of reopening plans rather than a headline," Lux-Lee tells Axios. "But until schools properly reopen, there cannot be a return to business as usual."

Go deeper: Reopening schools is a coronavirus wildcard

2. Prepping 25 million people for the future of work

Microsoft president Brad Smith at the White House. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Gerry Images.

As the pandemic erases millions of jobs and transforms millions more, Microsoft is aiming to provide free digital skills training to 25 million people around the globe this year.

Why it matters: Around half the U.S. population is currently out of work, and the unemployment numbers are similarly high in other countries.

  • Learning tech skills — from sophisticated arts like coding to tasks as seemingly simple as using online collaboration and conferencing software — will help huge numbers of people get back to work.

The big picture: "We’ve seen two years of digitization take place in two months," Microsoft president Brad Smith tells Axios. "And we’re seeing just this vastly accelerated need for new skills."

  • The debate over who will pay to train workers — an effort that is projected to cost around $34 billion in the U.S. alone — has been going on since long before the pandemic started. Microsoft's approach shows one way in which firms can help shoulder the burden.
  • Smith says he has talked to congressional leaders and the Trump administration about offering tax credits to businesses that spend money to train (or retrain) their employees. "This is the kind of thing that the tax code can be used to encourage," he says.

As part of this initiative, LinkedIn — a subsidiary of Microsoft — scoured its troves of data on job postings and hiring trends to pick out what it believes will be the top 10 most in-demand jobs post-pandemic, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky says.

  • These roles include software developers, graphic designers, sales and customer service reps, IT administrators, and data analysts.

Some good news: While many unemployed Americans are retail employees whose stores aren't going to make it through the pandemic lockdowns, their skills are also key for sales reps and customer service reps, two of the in-demand jobs identified by LinkedIn. "In retail, there's some real cause for optimism," says Smith.

Worth noting: Smith told the Financial Times that "there is no need to be bashful" about the fact that Microsoft's free training will involve teaching millions how to use its own products, like the Microsoft Teams video platform or Azure cloud computing services.

  • That could give the tech giant a leg up against competitors like Slack or Zoom.

Go deeper: The future of work is already here

3. Why diversity training falls short

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Protests in the aftermath of George Floyd's death have started conversations about racism in workplaces across America and prompted companies to bring in educators and experts to lead trainings.

  • But these trainings often fail to bring about the necessary transformation.

The big picture: The U.S. spends $8 billion on diversity training every year, per McKinsey, but racism persists in corporate America. Too often, these workshops are one-off events that cannot address structural issues or change mindsets, experts tell Axios.

"The data in sociology show pretty conclusively that these trainings do not work," says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

  • More training does not lead to increased hiring of employees of color or better representation in leadership roles.

In fact, diversity training — when conducted as one-time sessions — can actually have negative effects on company culture.

  • "The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash," Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev write in the Harvard Business Review.
  • "Often these trainings instill frustration and resentment in the people who are required to attend," says Wingfield. And Black workers or other workers of color often feel that the initiatives are neither genuine nor capable of addressing underlying problems, she says.

The bottom line: "It's an easy way to do something without doing a lot," Wingfield says. "It takes a lot more time to think about the hiring practices, the organizational structures or the everyday things that are happening."

4. Worthy of your time

A bar in Austin, Texas, earlier this week. Photo: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

This week's top stories:

The return of coronavirus lockdowns could threaten U.S. economic progress (Axios)

  • Large swaths of the U.S. economy again are having to shut down in an attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to reverse the economic progress of the past month and worsen the recession.

Plexiglass to the rescue (WSJ)

  • Plexiglass is having a moment. It's the perfect material with which to create barriers that keep us distant from one another in offices, gyms, restaurants and stores. But the spike in global demand for the stuff is triggering a supply shortage.

Why California's coronavirus cases are soaring (MIT Tech Review)

  • A deeper dive into why California — which has been careful about reopening responsibly, was early to implement lockdowns and mandate masks, and has been diligent about testing and tracing — is seeing its cases spike.

America's great return to drive-in theaters (WIRED)

  • It's the perfect socially distanced summer activity as the pandemic drags on. And the rise of drive-ins is even creating some jobs.
5. 1 counterpoint: Remote work's failings

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amid all the discussion about how the coronavirus' Grand Experiment in telecommuting has worked — and how we may never go back to the office — the New York Times' David Streitfeld takes a fascinating look at all the times remote work has failed at American firms.

Why it matters: All the changes that CEOs and experts and journalists are predicting may happen. But they may not happen so easily.

  • One PR executive said productivity tanked when he let employees work from home on Fridays. “Every weekend became a three-day holiday," he told the Times.
  • "IBM came to a similar decision. In 2009, 40 percent of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries worked remotely. But in 2017, with revenue slumping, management called thousands of them back to the office," Streitfeld writes.

The other side: There are studies that say working remotely is in fact more productive than working in offices — and there are several U.S. companies that have found success as fully remote firms since before the coronavirus pandemic started.

Erica Pandey

Thanks for reading!