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ANALYSIS: Will 2020’s Changes Last — And Change the Workplace?

Nov. 16, 2020, 11:49 AM

Perhaps the workplace environment of the ‘20s would have looked a bit different anyway, since calendar digits flipping over to a new decade have a way of inspiring reflection on one’s achievements and goals. But a simultaneous pandemic, recession, and widespread reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S. has upended every facet of the working experience, leading employers to give themselves a long, hard look in the mirror. Are they willing to be the organizations that hold themselves accountable to change in a changing society? The ones that talk the talk? Or the ones that opt to opt out of the dialogue altogether?

A repetitive cycle of debate over workplace discrimination, harassment, and safety risks has played out for decades. But recent popular culture shifts, corporate marketing campaigns, news coverage, and changes in legal and regulatory standards have elevated parts of the conversation that have previously been deprioritized or dismissed. For the most part, the American workplace has not been attentive to the various benefits or imperatives that come with a diverse, inclusive, equitable worker experience that encourages employee well-being.

BLM Forces Change

In 2020, the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dion Johnson, Tony McDade and too many other Black victims sparked protests against police violence.

In contrast to a long history in the U.S. of corporate reluctance to join potentially divisive social movements, many businesses responded to the demands for change and accountability. They issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, blacked out their social media profiles, and adjusted policies to allow employees to show support for Black Lives Matter.

Businesses also made substantive changes to address racial disparities: making diversity pledges, forming taskforces, setting hiring targets, ending customer relationships, encouraging leadership shakeups, instituting new training programs, starting mentorship programs, and committing to release pay data.

Businesses have always known that Black workers face discrimination and harassment at work, yet for many companies, the social media profile edits and the pledges didn’t come until this year. Even the most dramatic structural changes to hiring and doing business could fairly be seen as responding to public opinion rather than any moral imperative. But overhauls that start as pandering or peer pressure have the potential to make lasting change in the workplace.

Like the mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement, the public attention to the Black Lives Matter movement created an environment that forced businesses to be accountable to the public — and in the public forum of social media — for their employees’ experiences at work. Businesses that pushed back or stayed silent felt the wrath of an engaged and concerned public. (For what it’s worth, many companies gave as good as they got: 2020 is also the year that several companies joined together for an advertising boycott of Facebook and Instagram for providing a platform for “Racist, discriminatory, and hateful online content.”)

Black Lives Matter drove change, even as President Trump openly called companies sympathizing with BLM “weak” and made policy changes designed to thwart racial justice efforts while government agencies threatened to investigate businesses’ legal diversity initiatives. It was never the responsibility of a people-led movement like Black Lives Matter to solve race discrimination in the workplace, but it gave businesses irrefutable feedback about what could change.

Worker Safety and Health Lags

What if there isn’t government oversight or an organized social movement? More than a century after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” modern meatpacking plants have rules, but those rules haven’t been enough to protect workers from injury, infection, and even death during the pandemic. Undeterred by the risks to workers, Trump issued an executive order designed to pressure meatpacking plants to stay open. As outbreaks occurred at plant after plant, critics and victims demanded change, but there was no accountability. And there was no hashtag.

For the workers in the U.S. who were able to keep their jobs while logging in from home, reduced exposure to Covid-19 was a major relief. But a sea change in how the home fits into the corporate experience raised other, existential issues, such as companies’ regulatory and compliance obligations regarding home-based worker safety.

From the worker point of view, however, the focus is far more diffuse than reporting requirements. Avoiding injury while working remotely is certainly a concern for employees who don’t have the benefit of spaces set up and maintained by experts, as is what transformations have to happen in homes to accommodate connectivity, ergonomics, and personal privacy.

Although some companies have provided funds for work-from-home improvements, how many C-suites are considering the long-term impact on their workforces of work taking place in a home environment, especially if such set-ups discourage regular breaks? If a worker’s desk is also the kitchen table, what policies keep them from answering emails during dinner? If keylogging and always-on camera technology are demanded by an employer, what parts of a person’s life — including parts that implicate protected class characteristics — are visible to management?

Choosing a Better Workplace

For the workers who leave the house and go to offices, warehouses, and factories, the threats to safety on the job now include microscopic contagion passed along by and among colleagues. In the absence of federal financial support for vulnerable workers or a nationwide rent and mortgage freeze, there are markedly heightened pressures on workers to keep showing up. When a worker experiencing that kind of pressure is also a member of a historically underserved or under-protected community, the impact of corporate policies can be immense.

Public health, economic, social and political forces coalesced in 2020 in a way that brought forth novel perspectives on what the ideal workplace of the future looks like. Whether companies listen to those perspectives — along with emerging data and input from sociology, public health, and other experts — could be a primary factor in corporate success as we head deeper into the decade.

Access additional analyses from our Bloomberg Law 2021 series here, including pieces covering trends in Litigation, Transactions & Markets, the Future of the Legal Industry, and ESG.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content in our Coronavirus Toolkit practical guidance resource.

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