Reflections from Conversations with CEOs – Part 2

By Daryl Brewster CEO, CECP

Throughout these turbulent few months, business leaders, and more specifically CEOs, have been looked to by their stakeholders to communicate, support, and strategize in real-time throughout this dynamic corporate ecosystem.

Over the past few months as companies and events have moved to online platforms, CECP has hosted a series of virtual CEO Roundtables for executives to collaborate, listen, and learn from one another. In my first reflection of these conversations, a few key themes emerged including safeguarding employees’ physical and mental health, remote work leading to increases in productivity, inequality being exacerbated, and an acceleration of sustainability topics.

As conditions have change and the conversations have continued, the key themes have evolved and new ones emerged.

Initially, CEOs were concerned about safeguarding employee well-being while moving as many employees possible to remote working and protecting those operating in-person without a remote option. Now as local governments are devising strategies to open their communities, executives are similarly brainstorming safe ways to return to office spaces. Face masks, sanitizers, temperature checks, workplace redesigns, and rotating in-office employees are all among the many considerations leaders are discussing to return to the office. Those who can work at home should anticipate a gradual move back, especially with the reports of high levels of productivity.

The road to recovery and its timeline are unclear. PwC’s weekly CFO pulse surveys indicate an expected rebound in 12 months, but at the same time CFOs are becoming more optimistic as recent surveys show only 12% expect a profit/revenue decline greater than 25%. To offset these losses, coupled with the prominence of remote work, CFOs are reevaluating their real estate footprints.

Executives are highlighting increases in productivity among their remote workers, a sigh of relief as many had their reservations. Although successful, not many CEOs believe this is a permanent solution, and with the successful transition comes questions. Is this uptick in productivity due to unique circumstances? When communities open, will employees continue to perform at this level? Is this sustainable? How do we avoid burnout? CEOs will continue to monitor the variables, with employee feedback, to determine the best way forward.

Among the considerations for impacts on culture, concerns are forming for younger and newer employees in helping them assimilate. Without typical in-office interactions, businesses need to be more intentional with onboarding processes to integrate and include these workers.

Amidst heightened awareness of persistent racial inequities, CEOs have released statements that condemn racial injustice, reaffirm their company’s anti-racism stance, and announce official holidays and donations. But statements are just that. Executives realize that to create change they need to create better systems. CEOs can regain trust by implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that are transparent to employees and the public. Strategies encompassing recruiting, pay equity, hiring, and representation will help provide a roadmap to guide companies over the long-term. Transparency comes with risk, but with a sound strategy and a promise to do better, executives can be optimistic it will have deep impacts.

While CEOs have taken many steps in recent months, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer’s Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic highlights a “moment of reckoning” for business, where only 29% of respondents believe CEOs are meeting the demands placed on them by the pandemic.

It’s an understatement to say business and its leaders are under pressure to support all of their stakeholders. The Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update listed five actions for business to face this “moment of reckoning”.

  1. Tangible action needed to preserve trust over the long-term
  2. Business and government must collaborate on solutions
  3. Business must live up to its multi-stakeholder promise
  4. CEOs must demonstrate public leadership
  5. The return to work is the test for trust

CECP will continue to engage with CEOs through virtual sessions this fall as business leaders step up and speak up in support of their stakeholders. If you are interested in joining an upcoming call with CECP and peer CEOs, please contact sbostwick@cecp.co.

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