Spetner: Perspective from a Missourian

Don Spetner on changing work environments and healthy skepticism about post-pandemic corporate values.

I grew up in Missouri, a place whose nickname is the Show Me State. It’s an historic designation that originated in 1899, after a Missouri congressman allegedly quipped that “Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me.”

Now, I appreciate frothy eloquence as much as the next person, but true to my state’s heritage, I also tend to get a bit cynical when confronted with hyperbole. I remember having dinner with friends in 2001, shortly after the World Trade Center towers came down in New York. One of my dinner companions at the time had worked herself into a frenzy, ultimately proclaiming that “Life as we know it would never be the same again.”

The Missouri in me got activated. I calmly but firmly rebutted her claim, pointing out that while we could certainly expect some increased hassles at the airport, life would by and large not change that dramatically. In retrospect, I was a little self-righteous and a little harsh in my response. But I wasn’t all that wrong.

So, when I recently hosted a roundtable discussion on how life might change after the pandemic, I entered the conversation with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. For most of 2020, pundits had been predicting the pandemic would significantly and permanently change the way we worked and lived. Urban centers would empty. People would flock to the suburbs or smaller towns. Most employees would choose to work virtually. The commercial real estate market would collapse, and attendance at live events would diminish greatly.

My view was, yes, some of this will happen. But once we can congregate again, folks will start going to theaters and shopping malls, getting on airplanes, eating at restaurants, attending large conferences, commuting to the office and showing up at crowded concerts and basketball games. Life won’t really be all that different.

The roundtable discussion changed my mind. It was what people’s companies were already doing that moved the needle for me. A senior manager at a large retail bank reported that every one of the bank’s leases that came up for renewal in 2020 had been scrutinized, and that many had not been renewed. Every division of the bank was being asked to move as many jobs as possible from high-cost markets such as New York and San Francisco to lower-cost markets such as Des Moines or Albuquerque. Microsoft, Apple and WeWork have told their employees they can continue to work from home, even after the pandemic. I personally know of at least a dozen millennials who have left their high-cost, cramped, urban apartments for new environs.

The majority of the people in this roundtable said they were beginning to recruit new hires from all geographies, regardless of whether the candidates would ultimately be willing to relocate. And The Wall Street Journal reported that up to 36% of all business travel could disappear, even after the pandemic ended. Why, it posited, would someone waste two days of travel for a one-hour meeting that could be conducted virtually?

I ultimately became a believer that life will indeed change substantially. Then I began to wonder how much corporate values might actually change. Management has been especially attentive to employees’ needs during the pandemic, and there’s been an openness to acknowledging systemic injustices, along with a serious commitment to righting wrongs. Companies have been keenly focused on values, equality, purpose and sustainability.

Will this commitment to values remain, or perhaps even intensify, once the pandemic has passed? My answer is optimistic, but with a healthy dose of Missourism: They’ll have to show me.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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