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7 leaders reveal what they’ll retain from their pandemic workplaces

Top executives share the COVID-19 culture shifts that they’ll honor even as their employees return to offices and workspaces.

7 leaders reveal what they’ll retain from their pandemic workplaces
[Photo: ALotOfPeople/iStock]
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As United States-based companies start to formulate their return-to-work plans, many leaders say they plan to retain some practices they instituted during the pandemic. We asked members of the Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and innovators across industries, to tell us what they’ll take with them as their organizations move into hybrid or fully in-person workplaces. Edited excerpts follow:

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Kara Medoff Barnett, executive director, American Ballet Theatre:

From the very first week in March that we were all working from home, we started hosting what we called the Big Idea Brainstorm on Zoom once a week. Our dancers came up with most of the ideas that we then were able to nurture and incubate and produce over the last year. They came up with a short film series. They came up with an incredible docuseries where they collaborated with artists like Alicia Keys and chefs like Marcus Samuelsson. That’s one of the real silver linings of the past year.

Kevin Dexter, president and chief operating officer, Fisher & Paykel Appliances:

We’ve always had as one of our core values: “humancentric.” During COVID-19 we’ve showed our humanity more. We’ve celebrated our vulnerability. And we’ll want to celebrate and keep that going forward because it has brought us closer together as an organization.

Lisa Mann, managing director and chief marketing officer, Raines International:

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Our [executive search] business came to a complete halt. What we did was think about how we can be more useful to our clients, and we wound up launching a new business that we call the Advisory. Before all the social justice issues were happening in the country, we launched a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) business, as well as assessment and succession planning. We took the time to be innovative by thinking about what our clients want and need.

Doug Sieg, managing partner, Lord Abbett:

The biggest change was, on the fly, forming an executive committee at the firm. [It] is a very diverse [group] that met twice a day for an hour for the first six months, and it still meets an hour every single morning. It immediately flattened the structure, and I was hearing, real time, every day, every single problem and opportunity, ideas. It [offered] us the ability to empower people, not just to think about their own specific area, but to really be enterprise leaders.

Colleen Theis, chief operating officer, The Orchard:

The toothpaste we won’t put back in the tube is our pivot to video meetings. We’re a global company and we often have meetings across time zones. Our headquarters are in New York, where we have a conference room with 20 people in there and everyone else is struggling to be heard over the intercom system. So we’ve decided that we will be keeping the video calls forever.

Kylie Wright-Ford, chief executive officer, The RepTrak Company:

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We have a special algorithm that quantifies reputation. Our clients have [realized] over the last year that saying what they’re going to do is not enough. You need metrics and you have to follow through, and you have to be accountable. Corporate reputations rose during 2020, so did expectations that companies would follow through on what they said, whether it was ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) related, DEI related or anything else. Internally, we have poured our travel savings into perks: everything from pet adoption support to sabbaticals after five years to stipends for your internet at home, to shipping your comfy chair from the office to your home, knowing that we are going to go with a hybrid model.

Krish Ramakrishnan, cofounder and executive chairman, BlueJeans by Verizon:

BlueJeans is a video calling company. One of the biggest innovations we have done is taking our product and actually purpose-built it for telehealth. One of our customers called in and said: “Next week, the entire state of Pennsylvania is going to shut down. We have to have a video platform that caters to telehealth. Can you help?” That’s transformed us into a major telehealth [player]. I was [speaking] with the same customer last week, we just completed 1 million televisits on a platform that we designed over a weekend. My biggest observation as an executive is that [teleconferencing] democratizes everybody’s appearance, everybody has an equal voice, and I’m hoping that the new environment will get rid of this notion of the corner office.