A recent headline in the New York Times rang alarm bells for me: “When it comes to living with COVID, businesses are on their own.”
That is unacceptable.
The pandemic has done immense and irreparable harm around the globe. But if we learn the right lessons, we can build back a society that works better for everyone — a society that is healthier, safer, and more resilient. The private sector will play a crucial role in that rebuilding. Corporate executives will have enormous influence. And they will need to work closely with other stakeholders — including experts in health and safety — to shape the future of work in the post-pandemic world.
To offer one clear-cut example: We know that better office ventilation can not only reduce the risk of COVID and other airborne viruses, but also improve cognition. Quite literally, workers think better when the air is cleaner.
Achieving this state need not be expensive. In fact, a recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that building managers could dramatically improve indoor ventilation rates for less than $40 per person in any climate zone in the U.S. — and that the improved air quality would boost productivity by the equivalent of $6,500 per employee per year. That’s a remarkable return on investment. Nationally, improving the quality of indoor environments by adopting “healthy building” principles could yield an annual economic benefit of $20 billion.
Given the stakes, we need an organized drive to get this done: Regulatory standards for healthy buildings, policy incentives for ventilation upgrades and education campaigns to raise awareness. We can’t throw up our hands and say that business leaders are on their own.
And ventilation is just one example. All kinds of decisions made in the executive boardroom can have an enormous impact on public health.
We can shape the post-COVID workplace for the better with tools such as:
Smarter benefits packages that prioritize holistic care for worker well-being — everything from nutrition classes to mindfulness training to subsidies for workout gear — alongside care for physical and mental health.
Investment priorities that add an “H” (health) to the standard ESG (environmental, social, governance) markers of good corporate citizenship. An H+ESG framework would encourage businesses to invest their ESG dollars in programs that improve the health of their workers, their communities, and their customers around the globe.
Sustainability planning to protect employees, businesses, and essential community infrastructure from the destructive consequences of climate change, including the powerfully negative impacts on health and well-being.
Federal and state agencies, business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and professional associations for various industries must take a leading role in guiding action along these fronts. The Biden administration has started to move in that direction with its new National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, which includes a promise to provide technical assistance and clear guidance for businesses and schools to improve ventilation.
I believe that universities must play a vital role, as well. And I’m proud that my institution, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is launching a new certificate program designed to give business leaders the foundational knowledge they’ll need to drive change in their own organizations.
The Public Health for Business Leaders program, co-taught by Harvard Chan faculty and industry leaders, covers the fundamentals of public health and uses case studies to help executives identify opportunities to apply those principles in their own workplaces.
We’re enrolling now for the first flagship course, which will take place in June and will feature an after-hours Q&A with entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Moderating that Q&A will be New York Times Dealbook reporter Lauren Hirsch, who wrote the article I cited earlier, asserting that business leaders are “on their own” in navigating the post-pandemic world.
We hope to show Hirsch — and the business community at large — that there is help at hand. Our certificate program will be an indispensable guide for executives who want to ensure that our post-pandemic era is healthy and sustainable. I hope it’s just the first of many such initiatives to reshape the future of work for the better.
Michelle A. Williams is the Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
This article was published as part a series of blogs in connection with the 2022 Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in Health. Dean Williams was also a panelist during Edelman’s global launch of the report on March 10, 2022.