Why every company needs to ‘reimagine’ their workplace, according to PwC’s U.S. CEO

Tim Ryan, who runs the U.S. arm of global consulting and accounting powerhouse PwC, has a full house: He’s been quarantined at his home in Boston with his family, which includes six children and a dog, for nearly three months now. That’s a huge turnaround from the typical corporate grind. “For the last 25 years I’ve spent every week traveling between three to six different cities around the world,” he says.

He’s also been swept up in the calls for change in corporate America in response to the outpouring of support at Black Lives Matter protests across the country. As he wrote to the PwC community, “I cofounded the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion in response to the killing of unarmed Black men in the summer of 2016. Two years later, in 2018, we lost a member of our PwC community, Botham Jean, to this same kind of violence, and I witnessed the pain his family had to—and still has to—endure over the loss of their son and brother.” Ryan wrote that among other actions, PwC will be giving employees a paid week off to volunteer for nonprofits, releasing diversity stats, creating a staff-led group to advise management on advancing progress, and donating more than $1 million to charities including the NAACP, ACLU, and the Center for Policing Equity.

PwC CEO Tim Ryan
Courtesy of PwC

As he wrote in his letter to employees, “Over the past week, I have heard from thousands of people, from PwC and elsewhere, and have come to a greater understanding of the hurt, anger, and exhaustion that the constant threat of violence and oppression takes on the Black community. And while I acknowledge that it is not the job of our Black colleagues to teach the rest of us what to do, I am grateful for how many of them have stepped forward to not only share their pain, but also their ideas, with me.”

Beyond its own walls, the fact that PwC works with more than 200 major companies around the globe has given Ryan a unique view of how the nature of work is evolving in a period of unprecedented change. Fortune spoke to Ryan about innovating during a crisis, how to make offices safe, and the cost of bringing people back to the office.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When will PwC bring employees back to the office?

When will we reopen? We want to make sure our working parents are supported, so at the very earliest, some of our offices in areas that meet our criteria for safety may open after schools reopen. It’s a whole ecosystem of making sure supports are in place so employees can come back. But not everyone will. We’re working with many clients on reimagining their work, not just ‘come back to work’ plans, but also looking at what functions can be done remotely on a permanent basis.

Talk a little bit about the cost of bringing people back to the office.

The cost of bringing people back has gone up, and that’s forcing people to reimagine work. We’ve heard estimates of $200 per head/per month to safely bring people back to the office. That’s deep cleaning, sanitizing, temperature checks, masks. If you aren’t reimagining your workplace, your margins just went to hell in a handbasket. If companies aren’t doing things to offset those costs and lost productivity [due to factors like social distancing requirements] you’re not competitive.

We are keenly aware of the challenges employees are having right now. The country is split. Some people think it’s best to keep working from home; some people think, “I can’t wait to get back.” You can’t just look at the aggregate. Everyone has different challenges, whether that’s childcare, caring for parents, their own health, worries about economic uncertainty. We can’t minimize those challenges. 

PwC has developed its own contact tracing app. How does that work?

We went live this spring. The app is called Automatic Contact Tracing. Two years ago in Chicago there was a law passed around keeping hotel employees safe, and we developed a geo-tracker with a panic button. If someone needed help they’d hit a button on their phone, and right away security would know there was a problem in, say, room 202. So we have adapted that technology to help employers track who their employees may have come into contact with. Right now, if someone gets COVID, you have to shut the whole place down. Tracking allows you to notify who that person was near. I might have been in close contact with 10 people, so now instead of shutting the whole office down, just those 10 people need to quarantine. We’re in no rush to come back to the office at PwC, but when we do, the app will be a prerequisite for employees.

Which companies are going to come out of this period stronger?

Larger companies that are well capitalized going in very much have the opportunity to come out on top. You’ll see a clear segmentation when we come out of this. One CEO we work with told me recently that since March they have built out a digital strategy that before the crisis they thought would take two years. Areas where we see significant opportunity are IT, digital, security, and collaboration software. In health care, we think 50% of health will move toward telehealth. Across industries, companies are really investing in their digital salesforce, especially in places like pharma. And automation of the back office will continue—you clearly don’t need as many people to get the work done. 

How has college recruiting changed this year?

At the end of March, we came out and said we would honor all 3,600 of our internships. We learned a lot in the financial crisis. Economic uncertainty is such a big fear. We’ve said publicly that layoffs would be a last resort. We have slowed hiring down, but we still did our campus recruiting this year. It just transitioned to virtual interviews. It’s going okay, but it’s too soon to tell how it really has differed from traditional face-to-face interviewing. And last week we announced that we would be extending full-time associate offers to all of our eligible graduating summer interns for employment in 2021.

What are some of the big concerns you are hearing from leaders right now?

Culture is a huge one. One of our CEOs said the other day, “We’re living off of our culture now. We’re drawing down on it. But if we’re in this period for a long time, we’re going to lose it.” If you don’t spend the time talking about your values, they will go away. In the past, many corporate values were created with physical things. But now they are having to transition this to virtual. How do they share, how do they innovate, how do they show they care?

But additionally, we’ve never been in a period where there is such low confidence around demand. Nobody knows what revenue is going to be. It’s anybody’s guess. There is a sense that work will never be done the way it was 12 weeks ago, but there’s also no way it will be like it is today. What’s going to happen is that every company at some level will reimagine how they work, how they sell, and how they interact. 

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