At Work

A second coronavirus wave is coming — of 'employee duress': Hilton's top HR executive

Key Points
  • Hilton's top human resources executive, Matthew Schuyler, says a second wave of 'employee duress' caused by the coronavirus is coming and factors include working parents at home with children in remote school.
  • Levi Strauss & Co. CFO Harmit Singh says work-from-home productivity is not a myth, but while a hybrid model of work will be the new norm, companies need to do more to relieve stress on employees, including more days off.  
  • Levi Strauss has mandated shorter meetings, less meetings, and one Friday off a month.
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The myth of work-from-home productivity has been busted: Levi Strauss CFO

Fully work-from-home has worked for corporate America as a temporary solution to the coronavirus pandemic, but top executives at some of the largest companies say their firms are still working out what the new employee normal will be, and burnout is a big risk.

"The myth that work from home is not productive has been busted," said Harmit Singh, CFO at Levi Strauss & Co. at a recent CNBC @Work virtual event. "I believe we will settle into a culture where working from anywhere will be the new norm, with work from home or office or a hybrid arrangement."

Levi Strauss "pulled the plug" on any new commercial real estate it was exploring this year, the CFO said, as it attempts to figure out what the new workplace structure will look like, and that includes concerns about productivity declines.

"Employee burnout is a core issue," Singh said. 

Changes to work scheduling that Levi Strauss already has made to mitigate this productivity challenge include a mandate that meetings be shorter, that no meetings be scheduled on Fridays, and making the last Friday of every month a day off. 

"I believe we will go through a second wave of team member or employee duress," Schuyler said. "The first wave was when the crisis first hit us in the spring, and the second is settling in ... and it will be longer term," he said.

With schools back in session and parents having to balance many needs of school-age children, "the second wave of duress is gonna hit and it is causing lower productivity," the Hilton CHRO said. "With the isolation from work from home, we can expect to see more of it," he added. "Keeping the workforce connected remotely was sustainable for a period of time, but it is harder as it goes on."

Senior human resources and financial executives say work will be hybrid, with both work from home and some return to offices part of a new normal, and figuring out how to relieve employee stress and isolation are top concerns.
Clara Margais | picture alliance via Getty Images

Schuyler said Hilton is looking at ways to engage not just virtually, but get offices reopened to safely engage in person, and as a lodging company, the problem is at the property level as well. since it is reopening across 6,200 properties around the world and that includes dynamics likes employees delivering hospitality at a local level while wearing personal protective equipment.

"Employee well-being matters and we are learning as we go," Schuyler said.

Hilton is surveying its workers more than ever before to gather feedback, as often as on an hourly basis.

Both Levi Strauss and Hilton have been forced to make layoffs. Levi Strauss announced in July it was cutting about 15% of its global corporate workforce, impacting about 700 jobs. Hilton laid off 22% of its corporate staff in June. 

The crisis threshold

The accelerating digitization of corporate spending is not only focused on the consumer experience.

Schuyler said its threshold in managing through a crisis was to start by protecting its core, and in hospitality, the core is people. From a financial perspective, the lodging company had to make tradeoffs and invest where it can receive the highest return from its people, and that ranges from operations being completely suspended to those that are just reopening, and how to reopen more efficiently. That requires leveraging the acceleration of technology for both work-from-home employees and the guest experience — from booking to the property-level using technology in a touchless way, "socially distanced hospitality delivery."

Levi Strauss, which cut its overall spending plan from $200 million to $150 million, made cuts related to opening new stores and maintenance, while it pivoted spending to digitization of consumer experience, AI, and connecting with employees. Digital investments included support for buying online and picking up in stores, shipping from stores, ideas that went from being in the pre-Covid pipeline for future years to to being rolled out in months, according to Singh, but also included spending on digitization of employees working remotely.

"It is clear these are changes that will be here for the long term," Singh said. 

Major companies are taking divergent approaches in the current uncertain environment. 

Alphabet said this week that it will lean in to a hybrid work model as most of its employees dont want to come in every day. 

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently said working from home is "a pure negative" but a return to the office for the majority of employees won't happen until there is a vaccine.

Wall Street firms including JP Morgan are having key employees such as traders return to the office, but already facing Covid-19 cases and was forced to send workers home again.

For now, the days of six-month plans, annual plans, or plans even longer than that, are "gone," according to the Levi Strauss CFO. "We're uncertain about timing of a vaccine and it is not even one crisis. We've had crisis after crisis ... the pandemic and recession and social injustice and fires and floods."

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join the most influential voices disrupting the next decade of work at the next CNBC @Work Summit this October.

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