By | March 24, 2023

Business leaders are still debating whether culture, innovation and productivity can survive if people don’t eventually return to the office more or less full-time.
Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck, a longtime female leader on Wall Street, says pre-pandemic work arrangements didn’t work for everyone and a new way forward is required.

Commuters exit a subway station on Wall Street near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, USA.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Three years after the Covid-19 pandemic turned life and work upside down, business leaders are still trying to figure out when and how often employees should be in the office.

The far-flung arrangements that kept workers at home, and the economy humming, have given way to debates about whether culture, innovation and productivity can survive if people don’t eventually return to the office more or less full-time.

Bank CEOs such as JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon was among the first leaders to argue that businesses and cultures work best when people are in person and criticized remote and hybrid work as a long-term arrangement.

Yet, even as layoffs in tech and beyond increase, employees are pushing back against leaders issuing mandates to return to the office. Slowing growth and fears of recession may make workers worry about their jobs, but not enough to give up the flexibility they had during the pandemic. Which side prevails in this RTO tug-of-war remains to be seen. Yet the bigger question, according to some leaders, is why there is still a fight at all.

Count Sallie Krawcheck in the latter group. Ellevest’s co-founder and CEO and former Citi CFO and head of global wealth management at Bank of America believes flexibility is the new currency. Companies looking to recreate a pre-pandemic way of working will fall behind in retaining and attracting the best talent.

Speaking to a group of CFOs last month at a private event in New York City hosted by the CNBC CFO Council, Krawcheck said she heard loud and clear that corporate culture and cohesion depend on people being in the office. She summed up what she heard from peers in a subsequent interview with CNBC: “In other words, they said we have to go back to the way things were.”

The problem with that thinking, Krawcheck said, is that the work environment that existed before the pandemic “worked for white men, not all, and certainly not women and underrepresented groups.”

At the CFO meeting, she told a predominantly male group of finance executives to look around the room. “Who is missing from here?” she asked them. “If we want to go back to the way it was, then admit that you know it works mainly if you are a man and have a wife at home.”

Pushing back against office “truths”

The most progressive leaders aren’t looking to return to pre-pandemic ways, Krawcheck said, but are instead striving to offer arrangements that work for all employees. She pushes back against the idea that culture can only exist when people are in the office, or that full-time presence in the office is required to get ahead.

“The leaders make these statements as if they are true,” she said. “It’s like saying you can only have a conversation if you’re face to face with someone. And believe me, if it was going to work to get more women and people of color promoted, it would have already happened. It’s not like we didn’t try hard enough.”

Sallie Krawcheck, CEO, Ellevest

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

At the female-centric financial platform Ellevest, Krawcheck said employees are completely remote and that in-person events take place when she and her team feel they will be more effective. “Our culture revolves around our really strong shared mission to get more money into the hands of women,” she said. “There is no confusion about our mission and our culture and it has nothing to do with people being in the office or not.”

Krawcheck said her team is “perfectly capable of training people over Zoom and what we’re hearing is that not having to commute to an office every day is incredibly stress-relieving.”

Of course, she admits that completely remote isn’t right, or even possible, for every business, but flexibility and autonomy are well within reach. As for executives telling her they’re still trying to figure out a hybrid/remote/in-the-office arrangement, she’s sane.

“At least it represents intellectual curiosity,” she said. “They’re testing things to see what works. I much prefer that to a blanket requirement that everyone come back to the office and that’s how we’re going to grade loyalty and commitment.”

She cautions leaders who are betting too hard on layoff concerns as a way to force people back into the office. “Good luck with that. There’s one thing I know: you don’t bet against the American economy,” she said.

Krawcheck has been through enough business cycles to understand that the economy will grow again and businesses will start. “If you’ve been punishing people for the last two or three years by requiring them to be in the office five days a week when it’s clear they can do their job without that requirement, then when things turn around again, they to be gone.”


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