Good morning! It is 7 a.m. and your children are already freaking out about online school. Canvas, the platform that is supposed to store all of the assignments and lessons and links to Microsoft Teams, isn’t working and one kid’s earbuds have disappeared. You were up until midnight finishing a presentation, but oh well! Over the next 10 hours you will be managing your children’s educational technology, attempting to keep them focused, attempting to get them outside, attempting to get them back inside, soothing their frustrations, relearning algebra, cooking their meals, filling their afternoons, and trying not to explode. Also, your boss sent you three emails overnight and in your head a cartoon clock is ticking, because you are also, supposedly, working a full-time job.
For much of the spring and summer, parents were crying out, “Why isn’t anyone talking about how we’re going to reopen the schools?” But now that it’s fall and many of the schools are still closed, I have another question, and it’s just as pressing: Why isn’t anyone talking about a way to ease the impossible situation working parents find themselves in? Why isn’t anyone talking about less work?
No matter your situation, the coronavirus pandemic has no doubt made a total mess of your already precarious balance between work and life. In a recent New York Times piece—one of many exploring how stressed out parents are—working mothers and fathers said that to cope, they were quitting their jobs, or moving closer to extended family, or leaving children home alone, or abandoning public school for private—because, regardless of risk, at least the private schools were opening. But absent from that piece, as it’s been from nearly all writing on this subject, was a simple question: Why, with every single bit of routine and structure completely demolished by this pandemic, are we still acting like work is the same? And why—when working parents are looking to the government, to the school districts, to the child care providers, to face reality and help us improve it—are we not also looking at our bosses?
My argument is simple: If you are the boss, you need to pump the brakes in 2020 and 2021. Anyone who runs a company should recognize that an enormous number of their employees simply cannot be as productive during the pandemic as they typically are. This means not just an avuncular acceptance of the occasional adorable-baby Zoom cameo. This means understanding that you’re not going to make as much money—or, maybe, any money—for the time being. Forget your ambitious growth plans and all those financial goals. The only goal you need to have until life goes back to normal is to make as much money as it takes to keep your business afloat. This is not the time for high expectations. This is the time to keep your company’s head just above water.
I know this sounds naïve. Telling businesses not to maximize profits is practically unpatriotic! But a growing cohort of economists and academics argue that making such a move is not only the right thing to do ethically, but is in fact a canny long-term strategic decision, one that can set a company up to bounce back more quickly during the inevitable economic rebound. “I don’t think it’s naïve,” said Andrew Kassoy when I told him about my modest proposal. Kassoy is the CEO of B Lab, the organization that certifies companies that agree to meet high standards of social and environmental benefit as B Corps. “I think it’s totally reasonable, and I think it’s absolutely true. We should expect businesses to look out for their workforce, who are their greatest asset—not just in the midst of a pandemic, but all the time. They should make sure people have balance and can look out for their families. Those are the purposes of a job in the first place.”
There’s precedent for this. The mid-20th century economic boom owes its existence to leaders of industry deciding to dial back their capitalistic rapaciousness for the common good (and, as it happens, the long-term good of their companies). We’re currently in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and it was on the heels of that calamity, during World War II, that a group of executives from firms like Coca-Cola, GE, and General Motors began meeting to plan the postwar recovery they hoped they could help facilitate. The Committee for Economic Development, as it was called, hatched an enormous jobs program—but also committed to their businesses thinking about employees, and their relationship to the company, in a completely new way. “They said, ‘We are going to hit the brakes on extracting as much resources from our business as we possibly can,’ ” explained Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School. “ ‘We are going to allow labor to have a seat at the table. We’re going to cover health insurance, provide generous benefits. Because we need to create a consumer class.’ ”
In hyper-competitive 2020, though, there’s no incentive for individual companies to make similar decisions. Especially not when the pandemic is increasing pressure on companies. “The issue is that some competitor is not going to [slow down], and at the end of the day it’s a competitive environment,” said Robert Ployhart, a professor of management at the University of South Carolina, who does think my proposal is naïve. “When all this is over, you don’t want to be on the bottom of your competitive group.”
Felix Salmon, host of the Slate Money podcast and chief financial correspondent for Axios, said he thinks of the problem in a different way than I had—not companies planning to make less money, but companies responding to the reality of a distracted, stressed-out workforce. “It’s not like you have the option of having all your employees be as productive as they always were,” he said, when I asked him if he thought bosses should cut their employees more slack. “On some level this isn’t even a decision that companies can make. It’s a fact of life that’s being forced upon them.” Companies facing that loss of productivity and revenue have a decision to make about what kind of pressure to put on workers, and how to treat them in a difficult year. “If you have an employee who’s a parent and who’s a great manager and who is having to suddenly juggle a bunch of schooling and stuff, does it make any sense to fire or demote that person for things that are completely outside their control?” Salmon asked. “If you do, you end up rewarding the people who got lucky. Who don’t have kids”—lucky indeed!—”or live in the suburbs or didn’t get COVID or whatever. Rewarding employees for getting lucky is not a sensible thing to do strategically. What you want to do is reward the kinds of things that will have a good long-term effect on your company’s culture and profits.”
The problem is that if you only lower goals for the unlucky among us, someone else gets screwed. This can leave employees without children resentful of their colleagues with children, who have mostly been the ones aided by the patchwork of new benefits like extended family leave. Which is, again, why companies should not just lighten the load for a few. Instead, companies should understand that, like the rest of us, they must shoulder some of the burden of the pandemic by lowering expectations for everyone, which means lowering expectations for the business itself.
But talking with economists and academics, I started to think of my argument less as a demand for companies to declare themselves ready for a bad year in the service of their employees, and more that companies should be investing in unprofitability—that, in a year when everyone is struggling, they should take the opportunity to build and support their workers, the resource most likely to help them rebound down the road. Misty Heggeness, a research economist at the U.S. Census Bureau who’s studied how the pandemic has disproportionately affected working women, agreed. “It’s not so naïve,” she said, “to think about making investments in the short run that might temporarily reduce profits that, once we’re beyond this pandemic, will put you in a better spot to ramp up.”
Zeynep Ton at MIT’s Sloan School of Management rejected my binary profits-or-workers argument entirely, insisting that even in a crisis, companies that focus on treating their employees well “position themselves to win—not to be mediocre, but to win with good jobs.” Of course, it’s much easier for companies that are already winning to dial things back than it is for companies that are, say, staving off bankruptcy to make the choice to lose more money. Many small businesses, especially in retail, are facing existential crises, and the pandemic choice has come down to furloughing employees or going out of business and losing them all. Still, there are plenty of businesses in the middle, companies with healthy cash reserves that aren’t risking collapse but just facing a worse-than-usual year. “There are huge distinctions between what large multinationals and small companies can do during these kinds of situations,” said Kassoy. “I’ve been disappointed that many of those large companies haven’t done more.”
“For any company that is fortunate enough to be able to have a four-, five-plus-year time horizon,” Salmon told me, “it makes sense for them to look past this year’s profits and probably next year’s profits and try and manage for the long term. If you do that, you wind up with a strategic stance which is very similar to the one that you’re talking about.”
The problem is, as Robert Ployhart put it, “companies are less likely to take the long view in a time of crisis.” But it’s time for them to start! It’s time for business leaders to exhibit some courage and save America’s parents. Take the pressure off your employees. Give everyone more time off, reduce duties, chill out on targets and quarterly whatchamacallits, put those ambitious projects on the back burner. And then maybe 2020 won’t be a lost year after all. It’ll be the year you laid the groundwork for a business that thrives well into the future, with loyal employees who—when they actually have the time and energy to do their jobs—will do them well.