CEOs from leading U.S. companies discuss business impacts of the pandemic and the need to prioritize public health.
A group of senior executives from companies such as Walmart, PayPal, BlackRock, CVS Health and Kohl’s met recently at Harvard to discuss their concerns and priorities for bringing employees back to the office and prevailing through the pandemic and beyond. Among the attendees was Dr. Joseph G. Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an expert on healthy buildings, who advises companies on issues related to the pandemic.
The executives cited corporate culture as their top concern, rooted in the length of time their employees have been working from home. “The prospect of it being a year or more is concerning,” said Allen. Many feel that having a remote workforce could result in the erosion of a cohesive and unified corporate culture. Further, the transition back to the office for some or all employees could be challenging to navigate in terms of morale and teamwork.
Getting employees back to the office and safeguarding those valuable human resources is a major focus – one that will require costly structural changes such as systems for better air quality and reconfigured work spaces. The budget impacts will likely be felt across departments, from facilities and technology to human resources. The management burden will also be considerable. Allen advocates adding a chief public health officer to the C-suite, the New York Times notes.
There is growing consensus that short of hiring a chief public health officer, the most successful companies will hire executives with public health credentials. This could mean an expansion of existing roles such as chief operating officer or chief medical officer. The pandemic has made it clear that the health of employees and the public is vital to business. “Company public health experts could help organizations mitigate the economic damage inflicted by public health threats,” write Harvard’s Michelle A. Williams and Kelly Grier of Ernst & Young in an op-ed piece for CNBC.
On the subject of vaccines, the CEOs expressed concerns about how to interpret data related to effectiveness as well as the logistics of vaccine delivery. Employee compliance is another issue. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans said they would not agree to get the vaccine if it were approved today. CEOs are also strategizing how best to assess each person’s health as they return to the office. “Some are already working on the technology end of the issue,” said Allen, “whereby people could show on their cellphone verification they’ve had a vaccine or a recent negative test.”
Looking to the near future, the executives discussed the incoming Biden administration. The president-elect has stated that the pandemic will be his administration’s top priority. Harvard’s Sara Bleich and Juliette Kayyem, who led this session of the meeting at Harvard, said they expect a more coordinated approach at the federal level, driven by health experts. This could have business implications, potentially increasing people’s willingness to wear masks and get vaccinated.