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Mapping a reset for the post-pandemic workplace

By Pamela Edward

Mapping a reset for the post-pandemic workplace

By Pamela Edward
RESET: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval, the Wall Street Journal bestseller by University of Miami alumnus and trustee Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., charts a path forward for businesses facing a new, post-pandemic reality.

In March 2020 many American workplaces abruptly went remote in the face of the advancing coronavirus pandemic. Executives, managers, and workers had no clear idea of when normal operations would resume—or what they would look like.  

For Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., B.S.C. ’89, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), those early weeks got him thinking about the pandemic’s long-term impact on work. The result is his new book, RESET: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval, which serves as part call to action, part playbook for success in meeting the extraordinary challenges of the post-pandemic workplace.

RESET debuted on September 7 and is currently third on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list of hardcover business books. A sought-after voice on all things work-related, Taylor will discuss his insights in a virtual conversation on October 1, 2021, hosted by the University of Miami Alumni Association.

In researching and writing his book, Taylor marshaled data and talked with a cross-section of his fellow CEOs to map a reset for the American workplace in the age of COVID. And it’s a reset, not a pause. According to Taylor, “we cannot just go back to what we were doing.”

In RESET, Taylor explores how such an unprecedented crisis has forced CEOs to rethink everything they thought they knew about the nature of work and the workplace—and recognize opportunities where they hadn’t seen them before.

“I thought, we’re all going to be at home, hunkered down” Taylor said, recalling the day the SHRM offices closed. “I’m a Floridian, so I knew hurricanes—we all batten down, and we ride the storm out. Well, this lasted and lasted. And on the way I observed how many things were going to be different. I realized that as much as there was a lot of loss, financial and otherwise, this was also a reset moment.” 

One positive trend Taylor highlights is the widespread embrace of remote work. “Pre-pandemic, some people worked remotely, but that was largely an individual perk or accommodation,” he said. With the pandemic, “we had the opportunity to challenge every one of our notions about whether or not a job can be done remotely. And during this reset moment, we expanded the types of roles that people can do remotely.”

Taylor distinguishes remote work—largely unavailable to those workers classed as essential—from workplace flexibility. “The notion of flexibility is separate and distinct,” he said. “[There was] a significant percentage of the population who were never allowed to work remotely. What we did learn is this notion of flexibility. It doesn’t have to be nine-to-five, five days a week. We have now really rethought the concept of flexibility. And we have introduced it, I dare say permanently, into the workplace, so even if you’re not a person who can work remotely, you can work differently within the office.”

Another big “aha” came when Taylor examined some deeply embedded assumptions about work and the workplace. He poses the question “who is a worker?” He cites the example of rideshare drivers who have become a key part of the transportation infrastructure, and whose income evaporated early in the pandemic.

“The Fair Labor Standards Act was promulgated into law in 1938,” he noted. “And for the first time since 1938 we paid unemployment benefits to people who are not employees—gig workers, 1099 workers. We’ve got to think not in terms of employees or non-employees, but in terms of workers. We are literally rethinking how work gets done, by whom, how we compensate people for it, how we tax people. It’s a total revisit of work.”

As they reimagine work and the workplace, employers are also grappling with labor shortages and skills gaps. “Since 2000 the American birth rate has been on a steady decline,” Taylor said. “In a growing economy, you need more workers, not fewer. Even with AI and machine learning and robots, you still need human beings. You need those people to be highly skilled, and a lot of them aren’t.”

The pandemic’s impact on education weighs heavily in the skills gaps conversations that Taylor has had with CEOs and CFOs. “Everybody is thinking about a significant number of young people [who] missed nearly two years of formal education—we had virtual school, but we know that’s suboptimal,” he said. “Think about the American public-school children who got their food from school, two meals a day. Look at health care, [access to] reliable internet. Those people are future workers. And we’re sitting up at night saying there’s not enough of them, and of the ones we have, there’s a major skills gap.”

“It’s a broad-based talent problem. And that’s why it’s the number-one issue facing CEOs. A CEO of a big company said to me, ‘I don’t have a problem accessing financial capital. My problem is human capital.’”

In RESET, Taylor shines a light on untapped pools of talent, those people who, for any number of reasons, have difficulty gaining traction in the workforce. “We keep talking about the shortage of talent,” he said. “And we ignore populations, people who don’t have bachelor’s degrees, the formerly incarcerated, the differently abled, older people. We need talent, period. And we don’t have the luxury to ignore any population pockets of potential talent.”

Taylor is clear-eyed about how businesses need to adapt to the new realities. “People resist change, and we all think we have the answer,” he said. “[For example, a CEO might say] ‘I believe people have to be in the office.’ Okay, got it. I didn’t say no office. I said flexibility. I didn’t say everyone worked remotely. I said, consider remote work. The flip side, and I think it’s important to make this point, is that younger employees will say, ‘I can do my entire job remotely.’ It doesn’t work like that, because we innovate, we collaborate, that has to be done in person as well.”

The pandemic aside, Taylor draws daily inspiration from, as he puts it, “helping restore the dignity of work. At the end of the day, everyone’s got to work. And I found that people—even wealthy people—want to work. So how can we make work less onerous and more [fulfilling]? That’s the deal.”


RESET: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval is available from the Society for Human Resource Management. All author proceeds benefit the SHRM Foundation, which is committed to empowering HR as a social force for change. 

Join us on October 1, 2021, for RESET the Workplace with Johnny C.  Taylor, Jr., B.S.C. ’89, an in-depth virtual conversation.