Jun 16, 2020

Axios @Work

By Erica Pandey
Erica Pandey

Welcome back to @Work. As usual, send your feedback and ideas to me at erica@axios.com — or just reply to this email.

Some breaking 🎧 news: We’re launching the new "Axios Today" podcast with host Niala Boodhoo. The first episode airs on Monday, airing every weekday morning. Subscribe on AppleSpotifyGoogle and other platforms.

I've got 1,341 words for you today — a 5-minute read. First up...

1 big thing: The return to work

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

We're starting to see glimpses of what going back to work in offices after months at home will look like.

The big picture: It'll be a long process to return to the reality that America's workers knew before the pandemic. Some of the work-related changes triggered by the coronavirus will last a few weeks, and others will be permanent.

What's happening: Several big companies have released their plans for bringing employees back — and, taken together, these blueprints help us picture how working in a post-pandemic office will feel.

To start, most companies are still maintaining that employees should work from home unless they have a compelling reason to go to the office.

  • Salesforce will have employees fill out health surveys and, if they have good enough reasons to use the office, they'll be allowed to do so in set shifts — and they'll get regular health screenings, reports the New York Times.
  • Cloudflare is soliciting petitions from employees who want to return and it's picking the direst cases.

And a slew of companies are going to reopen, but with emptier, lonelier offices — and without perks that employees have grown to love.

  • Facebook is capping capacity at 25%, per Bloomberg.
  • Facebook, Salesforce and Apple are all asking employees to wear masks and maintain social distancing in the office.
  • There'll be no more giant jars of gummi bears at Salesforce and no more massages at Google.
  • Google and Facebook are both closing gyms and changing their cafeterias from buffet-style dining to grab-and-go boxes, per Business Insider.

But even with all the extra precautions, companies are nervous about moving too quickly.

  • In a recent PwC survey, 59% of CFOs — from a pool that represented every major industry in the country — said a second coronavirus wave was their top business concern.
  • Without widespread testing or a vaccine, executives are leaning toward extending their work-from-home timelines for employees, Amity Millhiser of PwC said during a call with reporters Monday.

Worth noting: The survey also found that a greater acceptance of remote work has been one of the clearest changes in the U.S. since the pandemic began. 54% of CFOs said they wanted to make telecommuting permanent in this June survey, up from 43% in early May.

The bottom line: Things at work won't be the same for a long, long time. As Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff put it on a call describing his company's plans, “It’ll be more sterile. It’ll be more hospital-like.”

2. Toward a fairer workplace

In a landmark decision that addressed one of the most egregious and obvious forms of workplace discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal civil rights protections should include gender identification and sexual orientation.

“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law."
— Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority in the ruling

Why it matters: This ruling protects more than 8 million LGBT workers in the U.S. workforce.

  • Before it, fewer than half of states protected LGBT workers by law, though some companies had their own protections, the New York Times reports.

The big picture: This is just the beginning of addressing the deep-rooted inequalities that permeate workplaces in America. As I reported last week, black Americans — along with other workers of color — still face rampant discrimination at work even though such discrimination is outlawed.

3. Upending the workweek

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the pandemic's longer-term impacts on how we work could be the end of the five-day, 9-to-5 workweek.

What's happening: For many companies, these past few months have been a period of rapid experimentation — and some are finding that shorter workdays and four-day weeks can work quite well.

1. Shorter days

The gap between when the school day typically ends — 3pm — and when the workday ends — 5 pm — "is grossly unfair to working parents," Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at UPenn's Wharton School, writes in the Economist.

  • "If more of us end up working remotely after the pandemic, there is one change that could make work better: ending the misalignment between the school day and the work day," he writes.
  • Parents juggling work and child care while telecommuting are already bearing burdens their colleagues are not, and shortening the workday to 3pm would take away a great deal of stress.
  • Grant notes: "Take it from someone who studies work for a living: we can be every bit as creative and productive in six focused hours a day as in twice as many distracted hours."

2. Shorter weeks

Firms have been experimenting with four-day workweeks during the coronavirus crisis.

  • Some are doing it so they can reduce pay and cut costs. And others are doing it to ensure their employees don't get too stressed or burned out during these times.
  • But the four-day workweek could outlast the pandemic. About one-third of U.S. employers already offer shorter weeks, NBC reports, and more could follow suit.
4. Online shopaholics
Data: CreditCards.com; Chart: Axios Visuals

U.S. retail sales rose 17.7% in May — the biggest monthly jump in consumer spending ever. Part of that jump could be due to people who are stuck working at home and shopping online.

A new survey finds that rather than saving, Americans who switched from working in an office to working from home spent more money last month, as grocery and utility bills increased significantly but spending on things like restaurants, gas and clothes declined only slightly, Axios' Dion Rabouin writes.

The changes were driven by millennials, people living in the Northeast and lower-income households.

  • The differences by age cohort were the most jarring — Gen Xers spent $2 less per month on average and baby boomers spent $24 less a month, while millennials spent an additional $208 a month.

Between the lines: With more people expected to continue working from home in the near future, the increased spending — with more going toward grocery stores and less toward restaurants — could be a trend that sticks, Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com, tells Axios.

  • 82% of people who were forced to work from home would like to continue doing so at least two days per week once restrictions have been lifted.

Of note: The survey focused only on "essential" items and excluded things like entertainment, sporting events or alcohol.

Methodology: CreditCards.com commissioned YouGov to conduct the May 21–22 survey, with a total sample size of 2,768 adults, including 822 who were working or had worked from home during the COVID-19 outbreak.

5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This week's reading list:

Inside the MLB's ugly labor fight (Axios)

  • For months, MLB and its players' union have engaged in a frustrating back-and-forth over baseball's return. Negotiations reached a boiling point this week, and now the 2020 season — and perhaps even future seasons — are in serious jeopardy.

Coronavirus economy disproportionately hurts transgender people (New York Times)

  • Transgender people, especially transgender people of color, are an already-marginalized group in the economy, facing higher rates of poverty and homelessness. The coronavirus' ravaging of the job market is making these inequities even more severe.

The high cost of panic-moving (The Atlantic)

  • Since the pandemic and remote work began, we've been talking about a potential exodus out of big, expensive, outbreak-prone cities to far-flung suburbs. But panic-moving from New York to the middle of the country might not be so wise because we don't yet know what percentage of U.S. employers will actually allow employees to work from home forever.

What Americans are buying for the pandemic summer (Vox)

  • Inflatable pools, egg-laying chickens, patio furniture and trampolines are flying off the shelves.
6. 1 back-to-work thing: New coronavirus gadget

You'll never have to touch anything again. Photos: Courtesy of Toyota

As I wrote at the top of this newsletter, the workplaces we return to after the pandemic won't look like the ones we left in March — at least not for a while.

Beyond socially distanced desks and plexiglass dividers, we might also see gadgets and processes aimed at minimizing the number of times workers are touching germ-infested surfaces around the office.

  • Toyota is 3D-printing a new tool that lets you press elevator buttons and open doors without touching them. Toyota plans to distribute these to employees around the world, the company told Axios' Joann Muller.
  • The idea for the thing came from Toyota employees in the U.K. and Kentucky.
  • Toyota also plans to manufacture brass versions of the tool, as the virus cannot live on brass surfaces.

My thought bubble: I can barely remember my keys when I walk out the door, so it'll be tough to remember to pack my special button-pushing, door-opening gadget. Can't we just wear gloves?

Erica Pandey

Thanks for reading!