Over the past year, preeminent CEOs from across the country convened for a series of Transformative CEO Summits, hosted by The CEO Forum Group and supported by Purple Strategies, a reputation management firm. As the year ended, we reviewed what those CEOs had to say on a range of topics and what year three of the pandemic brings for their companies, workforces, and the global economy.
While these discussions uncovered lessons to carry into this third year of pandemic-era leadership, top CEOs also identified trends from the past year worth leaving behind.
Using terms such as “post-pandemic” and “back to normal”
Across industries, business operations have been mired by unpredictability since the COVID-19 pandemic began. More than once, however, it seemed we neared the beginning of the end.
Now with variants raging and record-high COVID-19 cases continuing to make headlines, today’s leaders understand a return to pre-pandemic business is unlikely anytime soon or ever, and many of the challenges wrought by COVID-19 are here to stay.
CEOs have learned to expect the unexpected. They make plans for the months ahead while encouraging their organizations to prepare for every potential scenario.
Establishing a “return to work” timeline
As of March 2022, many corporate employees have spent the past two years working from someplace outside the office, and for most, that setup won’t change anytime soon.
Top CEOs acknowledge that corralling folks back into the office five days a week might be near impossible. As a result, they are prioritizing flexible solutions that meet the unique needs of their organizations and employees. The majority (66%) of CEO Forum Group leaders we surveyed in July 2021 indicated their companies plan to operate in a hybrid model going forward, acknowledging employees’ desire for continued workplace flexibility.
While remote work has introduced the dreaded Zoom fatigue to many people, company leaders and their employees alike have recognized that virtual meetings have their benefits, too. Nearly two-thirds of workers reported having more access to their leaders now than before the pandemic, according to Purple Strategies’ polling of the employed Informed Public. As one CEO put it, “There is no hierarchy in a Zoom call. No head of the table. There’s something really empowering about that—it leads to a more innovative culture.”
Believing a public statement on an issue is enough
Leaders and companies have demonstrated their willingness to address some of the country’s most pressing issues head-on. But more and more, they’ve realized that speaking out isn’t enough. Successful companies will differentiate themselves by making substantive commitments and providing transparent updates on their progress.
When it comes to making substantial progress against their DEI and ESG commitments, CEOs agree on the importance of setting concrete and attainable goals around issues like creating an inclusive workforce and advancing climate sustainability. Taking this step forces their companies to follow through on the plans they’ve announced. Driving transformative change goes beyond chasing positive PR—these values and aspirations must be embedded into a company’s DNA.
One CEO shared, “We expose our diversity and inclusion metrics to the world in a public forum; there was collective recognition and actions like that really do help drive change.”
Assuming there’s a choice between automation and technology or people and jobs
The pandemic has only accelerated the adoption of cutting-edge technologies, but conversations around what this transformation means for workers have centered around a false dichotomy between job creation and job losses.
CEOs successfully implementing next-generation solutions know that while automation and technology are critical to advancing the efficiency and convenience that pandemic-era customers have come to expect, people remain essential when it comes to applying creativity, making ethical decisions, and operating with humanity. During the Second Transformative CEO Summit, one CEO said, “We need to humanize digital implementation.”
Leaders see a window of opportunity to upskill their workforces to work with the latest technologies. Last year, 45% of CEOs reported reskilling their employees as a primary focus area when polled during the Second Transformative CEO Summit. By seamlessly implementing automation and new ways of working while preparing workers for higher-paying jobs essential for future success, leaders can create a win-win situation for everyone.
Treating the Great Resignation like a waning, pandemic-driven phenomenon
More than 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November 2021, the highest rate in more than two decades. The pandemic made employees feel emboldened to realign their priorities—to focus on family, find more purpose-driven opportunities, or pursue a new career path entirely—and employers must be willing to do the same. That means examining pay structures, benefits, set hours, and expectations for commuting and in-office work.
Leaders are also seeking to ensure purpose and fulfillment are part of the deal. If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that many Americans look for opportunities that provide more than a paycheck.
“The old playbook is gone,” said a CEO in the financial industry. “Leadership requires purpose-driven, future-forward and leader-led transformation.”
Maintaining human connection in the workplace
The one trend of “year two” executives should continue to implement in the third year of the pandemic? Empathetic leadership.
For 44% of the Informed Public, being in a workplace with empathy and human connection is more important now than before the pandemic (with another 40% indicating it has always been important). This new emphasis on empathy is even higher for employees who are 18-34 years old (52% say it is more important now), parents (49%), working in a fully remote or hybrid environment (49% each), or whose volume of work (48%) or level of work-related stress (53%) has gone up during the pandemic.
Empathy is no longer an abstract, new-age idea in executive management; Fortune 500 companies are learning it’s mandatory in their C-Suites.
Why is that? Empathy can be the antidote to each of the challenges outlined above. Recent research from Catalyst found that empathetic leadership can boost productivity, foster creativity, promote feelings of inclusion, and reduce intent to seek new employment.
The good news is many leaders agree with the Informed Public. “There is an opportunity to use empathy to think about new ways to connect with people,” one CEO from the banking industry said. “Empathy should make a strong comeback and is the key to building trust. And that’s where the growth is.”
Leaders who are able to practice empathy will be critical not only for the year ahead but for the evolving future of work as we know it.
Throughout the coming year, businesses will need to identify and react to a new set of emerging trends and evolving COVID-era mandates. Leaders from Capitol Hill to Wall Street to Main Street frequently look to corporate America for guidance, so organizations can set the tone by leaving recent pandemic-driven trends behind and leading with empathy, creativity and flexibility.
Keeley Hanlon is a senior director at Purple Strategies, a corporate reputation strategy firm.