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Why ‘back to normal’ is just a C-suite fantasy

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Raise your hand if this thought — an actual quote from a real-life CEO — crosses your mind a few times a day:

Which just illustrates how deeply the mood around work has shifted during the pandemic. The rank-and-file are disgruntled. So are middle managers. And executives aren’t feeling great, either (they’re just paid much, much better).

Here’s the deal: The so-called Great Resignation, in which workers are quitting in record numbers to move into better jobs, isn’t limited to the rank-and-file, my colleague Jeanne Sahadi reports. Managers are rethinking what they want out of work and life, too, and that’s complicating the “back to normal” narrative many companies are pushing.

“We’ve never been here, where the entirety of the workforce is experiencing social, economic and psychological change,” Claire Deason a lawyer who advises clients on their remote work arrangements, told Jeanne.

In fact, nearly 70% of executives surveyed by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence are “seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.” A large majority of executives (81%) said improving their well-being is now more important than advancing at work.

Many aren’t just thinking about quitting. In the first five months of 2022, nearly 670 US-based CEOs left their positions, according to outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. (That’s the highest count for that period since the firm began tracking executive moves in 2002.)

“BACK TO NORMAL”

Managing is a tough job in the best of times. But it’s a nightmare under the pressures of our current era — hybrid workforces, soaring inflation and endless chatter of a looming recession (which raises the uneasy prospect of layoffs). Oh, and a war in Eastern Europe, the unraveling of constitutional rights in America and the ever-present threat of new Covid-19 variants.

On top of all that, middle managers are tasked with carrying out the fantasy of getting “back to normal” that the top brass still (somehow) thinks is an achievable goal.

About a quarter of middle managers in 13 countries surveyed earlier this year by Gartner said they feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. The same number said they don’t feel mentally engaged at work.

To be sure, managers are typically paid more for taking on these added responsibilities. But just like any worker, they’ve got their pressures at home, their frustrations with office politics, their secret or not-so-secret desires to chuck their laptops into the sea and sip Mai Tais from a coconut.

BOTTOM LINE

The pandemic broke everything — the economy, the businesses that drive it and the human beings who make this whole Modern Capitalist Endeavor move forward. It also broke the measuring sticks we’ve long used to mark progress.

Just today, the head of the Federal Reserve, Certified Silver Fox Jay Powell, basically told the world that the US economy may never be the same again.

“The economy is being driven by very different forces,” he told a meeting of central bankers in Portugal. “What we don’t know is whether we’ll be going back to something that looks like, or a little bit like, what we had before.”

MY TWO CENTS

Top executives, rather than cudgeling their middle managers to set up the office JUST the way it was in February 2020, need to heed our boy Jay Powell’s words here and recognize these new and different forces — not only for the sake of their businesses but for the people who work for them.

Office workers need more than platitudes about culture and collaboration. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my colleagues and all our office chatter, but I also love writing this newsletter in my PJs with my dog at my feet and not being on a subway for two hours a day, five days a week…) If you really want people back, you can try mandates, I guess, but in a labor market like this where jobs are plentiful, I wouldn’t risk it.

Let’s change up the goals. Let’s figure out what the office is good for and when we need it, rather than trying to anchor people to it just because that’s the way the boss is used to doing things. Let’s rethink what progress looks like. That’ll mean different things for different jobs, and it won’t come overnight.

To be sure, the work-from-home option is a uniquely white-collar concern, and there are plenty of industries in which remote work simply doesn’t work. But the bigger issue is about recognizing that workers’ lives are richer and more complex than whatever utility they provide their company.

All of us, in our individual fields, are going to carve out a new normal — steadily, over time, like fractured bones.

NUMBER OF THE DAY: $0

Cruises are one of those industries that may just barely survive the pandemic. And I mean barely.

Today, Carnival shares sank 15% after a Morgan Stanley analyst outlined a worst-case scenario in which the company’s stock price could fall to zero in the [not unlikely] event of a global recession.

“If there is a demand shock that causes trip cancellations or weak bookings … liquidity could quickly shrink,” the analyst wrote. The report sent Royal Caribbean and Norwegian down around 10% as well.

FOOD NEWS

We turn now to everyone’s favorite Nightcap beat: junk food.

GOOD GOD

I often suspect there’s a team of brainstormers at Taco Bell whose entire job is getting high and coming up with new menu items. Hear me out…

We’ve had Frito Gorditas. We’ve had Doritos Locos taco shells. Nacho fries. This company had the audacity to put spicy cayenne pepper-flavored Pop Rocks into a burrito. Honestly that last one makes this latest bit of news seem tame, but here we go anyway.

Into the pantheon of certifiably bonkers Taco Bell experiments goes the humble Cheez-It, in the form of a “Big Cheez-It Tostada” and its heartier cousin, the “Big Cheez-It Crunchwrap Supreme.”

It is, in fact, a massive Cheez-It — 16 times the size of the standard cracker — in place of the usual tostada shell.

Does it make sense? No! But it’s just crazy enough to work. Someone in Irvine, California, please go test it out for me, as this is a verrrry limited release item from the Bell.

‘VIBEY’ COKE

Coca-Cola’s innovation platform has tried some strange new flavors lately that it bills as tasting like “starlight” and “pixels.”

For its latest collaboration with music producer Marshmello, it’s going a little less abstract: It’s just Coke, with hints of strawberry and watermelon. (Not marshmallow, that’d be too on the nose).

“We created a vibey blend of my favorite flavors in this all-new mix,” Marshmello said in a statement.

Who could resist a vibey blend?

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