Now that Democrats won back the U.S. House of Representatives, they’ve wasted little time shining a spotlight back on health care reform. That’s an important development, and I applaud them for doing so in the face of Republican inaction since Donald Trump began occupying the White House.
But a leading proposed solution from the party’s progressive wing takes us in the wrong direction, at least for the time being. I’ll elaborate a bit later as to what I mean.
Knowing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is on life support, several high-profile members or leaders of the party are supporting a Medicare-for-all proposal. The moniker replaces calls for a “single-payer” system, whose wonky jargon always sounded as opaque as the perverse system that both parties agree needs fixing.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are scoffing at such an idea. Even former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, whose potential 2020 presidential run would be as an independent, has dismissed the Medicare-for-all plan as unrealistic and financially unfeasible.
The ACA’s irony is that it rendered health care unaffordable for many American citizens who don’t qualify for federal subsidies. A new analysis by economist Robert Genetski, for example, found that health insurance premiums soared by 84% for individuals and 126% for families last year above what would have been expected without the landmark legislation.
Here’s my bottom line assessment: Let’s not decimate or eliminate choices for Americans who want to keep their doctor or health insurance plan, or employers who have the option to fully insure or self-insure health benefits as a recruitment and retention tool, earmark dollars for them to shop for coverage in the individual insurance market or not provide anything at all. To do so would be downright un-American, especially considering how choice drives the U.S. economy. Look no further than the Amazon platform. People are used to shopping this way for everything.
Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 who have called on dismantling the entire private insurance model are promoting a concept that would toss the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. While removing options that place profit ahead of people is desired by policymakers, business people and consumers, let’s instead breathe enough life into the free market to render inferior plans obsolete.
The best solution is to preserve and promote parts of the private system that are working. Examples include self-insured and pooled health plans offered by employers or organizations comprised of like-minded individuals with innovative approaches to containing costs and improving outcomes.
These entities, which provide coverage for roughly half of all Americans, are employing a number of strategies that include reference-based pricing, patient advocacy, direct primary care, value-based purchasing, fiduciary pharmacy benefit management and more.
Health care is now teeming with disruptors that are entering the field at a frenetic pace with an emphasis on technology that includes medical applications for artificial intelligence, software, data analytics, telemedicine, etc., along with the emergence of electronic medical records that vastly improve efficiency. Also look at Amazon’s partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, which has led some insiders to speculate that the largest online retailer intends to test market health care cost containment strategies on its own workforce that it hopes to turn into a profit center. Let’s give these innovators a chance to revolutionize the industry and not reinvent the wheel.
I’d also like to see so-called skinny plans added to the legislative mix across all states so that people at least have the option of buying affordable catastrophic coverage while self-insuring routine doctor visits. The rap on these products is that they provide inadequate benefits, but there are many people like myself who are healthy and/or self-employed, and we don’t need all the bells and whistles. Again, let’s expand choice.
But make no mistake: The status quo is unacceptable. So let’s reform parts of the system that aren’t working. Those efforts largely revolve around reducing the sky-high cost of prescription drugs, particularly specialty scripts, by importing more medicine from so-called tier-one nations whose quality control standards mirror those in the U.S.
Another area that’s ripe for massive improvement is to manage the wild cost variation of inpatient and outpatient services by requiring transparent pricing and credible quality standards, as well as tying physician compensation to outcomes vs. volume, known as value-based purchasing.
The same thinking applies to a handful of large insurance companies (Blue Cross and Blue Shield, UnitedHealthcare, Cigna, Aetna and Humana), whose costs are also soaring each year. If the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance carriers keep jacking up their prices with no end in sight and little to show for it in terms of better outcomes, then they’ll at least face price controls somewhere down the line.
We need to pass legislation that introduces more competition in these areas. One idea has been to allow insurers to sell plans across state lines, though how such a move would be regulated with 50 different insurance commissioners is scary to ponder.
There’s one area, however, where I think the federal government can continue to play a role as it has under the ACA. In a nutshell, the focus clearly should be on widening access to affordable health insurance through Medicaid expansion. Block grants allow states to cover uninsured populations as they see fit in keeping with the spirit of an old industry expression suggesting that all health care is local. This approach is far preferable to stretching one or more entitlement programs across the entire population, and I think it’s a fair compromise between liberal and conservative proposals.
But if these incremental steps fail to expand access to health insurance, tame rising costs and improve health outcomes, then I think the U.S. will need to re-examine its options and give serious consideration to government-run universal health care or in partnership with the private sector. Ultimately, the voters will have their say on this at the ballot box in 2024 or 2028. But let’s at least try to give the free market a fighting chance to resolve these systemic problems.
In the end, we must be realistic about the prospect of government intervention. The federal bureaucracy cannot be trusted to do an efficient job paying the nation’s health care bills or managing the system. Look no further than the disastrous website rollout of the ACA, as well as countless other examples of wasted and inefficient use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Health care is complicated, and thus, I believe it’s best fixed by industry experts vs. policymakers and bureaucrats who don’t fully grasp its complexity.
We’re taxed enough. Can the public really stomach even higher taxes to pay for everyone’s health care? I think not based on how unhealthy a country the U.S. is, which would make for a steeper financial commitment than people expect. Howard Schultz is right. A government-run solution would be unrealistic and financially unfeasible. The ACA offers a glimpse of how government intervention has struggled to contain health care costs. Then again, we have to figure out a way to reverse course because we can no longer sustain rising costs and poor health outcomes.
Whatever happens, it’s plain to see that we need a bipartisan fix, not one-sided solutions like the ACA, which passed without a single Republican vote, or any repeal-and-replace scenario that doesn’t appeal to Democrats. Common ground can be easily found in efforts to protect patients with pre-existing medical conditions and rein in the high cost of prescription drugs, which are low-hanging fruit on the money saving tree. I believe there could be many more modest reforms enacted that please both political parties if only our elected leaders would put aside the partisan rancor for the good of the country.
Health care reform is critically important to the health of our nation, which spends nearly one-fifth of its gross domestic product on medical products and services, but trails in health outcomes relative to other developed nations. Lives literally hang in the balance, so it’s vital that we make it a top priority.
Three weeks – and counting – on a partial federal government shutdown that’s at least tied for the longest one on record in U.S. history. But that dubious distinction is a mere symptom of a much larger problem that has been brewing for decades, though some may argue centuries.
Our two-party political system has been seriously impaired by a culture war pitting so-called social-justice warriors on the left against make-America-great-again foot soldiers on the right. Democrats and Republicans alike have waged long-fought internal battles over the heart and soul of their respective public-policy platforms. And extreme elements on both sides of the political aisle are shouting past one another without listening or negotiating in good faith.
The resulting stalemate isn’t really about border security and safe communities. It’s about gamesmanship and scoring political victories. It’s not about fulfilling promises to constituents. It’s about obstructing the other side. It’s not about governing within reason. It’s about advancing a baseline cynicism that passes for acceptable political strategy in a blood sport built on opposition research each time there’s a so-called free election.
In short, it’s disgusting. In times like these, I’m relieved to have long been a registered independent voter leery of both established political parties, but I’m also deeply embarrassed to be an American. We’re better than this as a country – much better. We’re the best example of governance in world history, albeit far from perfect and certainly mired in serious social ills, but we now struggle in simple conversations with those with whom we disagree.
There’s no longer any civility or mutual respect, nor are there any Ronald Reagan-Tip O’Neill-style summits where we can agree to disagree, strike important political compromises somewhere between opposing positions and then grab a brew together afterward at our favorite local pub.
Instead, we let perfectly good friendships wither on the vine and allow philosophical differences to tear apart our own families. It’s about us vs. them. This is the new normal from both a political and sociological standpoint.
The fact is, it’s unconscionable that the Democrats and Republicans we elected to Congress and the White House are incapable of solving this problem. Both parties are to blame. It’s not that hard to meet halfway. That’s how nations govern. Is it so important to be right all the time that it’s acceptable to bolt the office door for millions of civil servants and prevent lawmakers from actually passing laws?
This has to end. I’m not sure exactly how that happens, but if we all want to move forward as the United States (the former being the operative word), then we have to tone down the heated rhetoric on both sides, find common ground and live the Golden Rule in every conversation we have, whether it’s with a high-ranking government official, business associate, your spouse, sibling, child, friend or acquaintance.
Only then can we have a fighting chance to continue competing on the world stage and set an admirable example for everyone else to follow.
Every football season, I look forward to becoming a couch potato on Sundays. But a fierce battle is brewing off the gridiron that I feel compelled to weigh in on.
A group of National Football League Hall of Famers recently threatened to boycott future induction ceremonies unless the NFL agrees to their demand for lifetime health insurance coverage and an annual salary, even though they’re retired. They also want to obtain health insurance and a better pension for active players.
Leading the effort is legendary running back Eric Dickerson, who believes all 318 inductees should receive roughly $300,000 a year, which would total $95.4 million. The Hall of Fame Board (HOFB) argues that it’s a drop in the bucket given the league’s more than $14 billion profit in 2017.
Some players who are enshrined in Canton, Ohio have died, including those with a history of repetitive brain trauma known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. In those cases, their heirs could reap any sweetened benefits. The widow of elite defensive end Reggie White, a member of the HOFB, expects the additional benefits and compensation being sought will extend into a post-mortem phase.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to react to this movement. So I did some research and figured the numbers would shape my view. A Society of Actuaries report found that the NFL pension plan’s 78% funding level, based on $2 billion in assets against projected benefit liabilities of $2.6 billion, is less than the multiemployer industry average of 85%. While various reports indicate that the NFL’s plan is better than the National Basketball Association’s pension, which is funded at just 61%, it pales in comparison to Major League Baseball at 90% and the National Hockey League at a surprising 135%.
One reason cited for the NFL pension’s $600 million shortfall is a player lock-out in 2011 and negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes a significant increase in pension benefits for retired players and runs through post-season 2020. That’s when the NFL will celebrate it is 100th anniversary – a critical piece of the puzzle I’ll get to later.
Despite large salaries for high-profile players, the average annual pension was $43,000 in 2014 – the latest number available. The average career of an NFL player, who becomes fully vested in the plan after three years on active roster or injured reserve status, is just four years. The benefit amount is based on the number of credited seasons played.
An NFL pension plan was created in 1959 and supplemented in 1993 by a 401(k) plan to which players contribute and again in 1998 with an annuity program. Pension benefits have been increased three times for former players since 2011.
In acknowledging the role of pre-1993 players, a so-called legacy fund was established under the current CBA with team owners for the first time funding a $620 million increase in benefits from their share of revenues.
In a letter to the NFL, an impassioned Dickerson’s wrote that “the total cost for every Hall of Famer to have health insurance is less than $4 million – less than that of a 30-second Super Bowl ad, or about 3 cents for every $100 the league generates in revenue.” As for paying HOF inductees an annual salary, he added that it “works out to about 40 cents for every $100 in annual revenue, a figure that will increase dramatically in the near future with legalized gambling.”
While the CBA doesn’t include lifetime health insurance, NFL insiders have suggested that a deal on this issue is within reach between HOFB pressure and the looming centennial celebration that no doubt will offer a tip of the cap to football greats. The average annual health insurance premium is now more than $5,700, though obviously it will be higher for former players who have various health issues. Affording coverage, of course, boils down to how well each member of the HOF managed his money.
One staunch critic noted that the proposal “reeks of selfishness,” comparing it to the formation of the NFL Quarterback Club that once divided players and arguing that it should include all retired players – not just the ones who don gold jackets.
I completely agree with that assessment, especially since Hall of Famers are in a much better position to capitalize on their name recognition in the free market and earn decent money in retirement through special appearances. Rather than asking for an annual salary, which flies in the face of the idea of retirement, it makes more sense to seek incremental improvements to their three retirement savings vehicles.
As for the HOFB seeking lifetime health insurance, that makes total sense to me. It’s a promise made to many public-sector employees, which is why those jobs have become so sought after in recent years. In stark contrast, private enterprise began slashing retiree health care benefits since I began writing about employee benefits 30 years ago.
The trouble, however, is that city, county, state and federal governments have long been on the hook for unfunded pension and retiree health care benefit liabilities – a terrible burden that all taxpayers must shoulder. If the NFL continues to grow and meet its ambitious revenue targets, then lifetime health insurance coverage probably wouldn’t make much of a dent in the bottom line. The HOFB also could work closely with the players union to include these demands in the next CBA.
But in all fairness to the NFL, I keep hearing anecdotal evidence to suggest that the league could be in big trouble in the years ahead.
For starters, the concussion issue has caused countless parents to pass on football for their sons (and possibly daughters in some cases). I heard one sports talk show host speculate that only hardened criminals or burly men desperate for cash would dare compete in an NFL of the future. Most young people already have lost interest in baseball, so it’s possible that also could happen with football on a professional level.
We all are well acquainted with how the NFL ratings tanked following the controversy over some players taking a knee during the national anthem, which alienated scores of die-hard fans. And with the NBA becoming increasingly popular, the bloom may stay off the rose for the NFL long term.
Either way, I think anyone – even those who are not football fans – can relate to the humanity and real-world issues associated with this story. And I hope there’s a happy outcome for everyone involved.
Climate change has long been in the news, but the issue came to a head in 2018. That’s when four major winter storms pounded the Northeast, temperatures soared to record highs across much of the nation in July and Texas is still rebuilding from hurricanes.
Much to my surprise, it also appears to be affecting the workplace. New research from the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) suggests the presence of a perfect storm. In a nutshell, climate change triggered more short-term disability (STD) insurance claims that resulted in lost income and productivity.
Since IBI cautions that extended absences may continue even after an extreme-weather event, employers are advised to incorporate their operational impact into risk assessments and business continuity plans.
Another significant finding is that one in seven claims for non-occupational STD leaves involves anxiety disorders, acute stress reaction, adjustment reaction, depression, ischemic heart disease, heart failure, cerebrovascular disease, respiratory infections, upper respiratory disease, pneumonia and asthma/COPD.
That’s some fascinating food for thought.
It makes me snicker to imagine how climate-change deniers might react to these findings, especially since IBI is headquartered in San Francisco – the epicenter of progressive liberal thinking in the bluest of states. Be that as it may, business people obviously care about numbers, and if something is eroding the bottom line, it’s going to command their attention.
But IBI’s report detailing climate change’s impact on STD claims has got me thinking about another topic that’s been in the news a lot lately, which is mental illness. I couldn’t help but notice that several leading drivers of employee absences involve behavioral health conditions.
After writing a recent article on the connection between depression and workers’ compensation claims, and prior to that several others that closely examine the mind-body connection, I’m convinced more than ever before that mental health represents a huge blind spot in the U.S. health care system.
I’m sure mental illness has been around as long as humans have walked the earth. What’s different is that we know so much more about these conditions and they’re being demystified, though there’s still a stigma associated with seeking treatment. And therein lies the rub: if working Americans aren’t accessing mental health or substance abuse services, then we’ll continue to see both a business and societal impact.
We’re all unfortunately well-acquainted with horrific headlines involving the latter phenomenon (i.e., when firearms fall into the hands of mentally ill individuals). Sometimes it spills into the workplace (i.e., disgruntled former employees exacting revenge against co-workers or supervisors).
While I believe federal legislation aimed at achieving parity for accessing medical services to treat physical or mental ailments has helped move the needle, many people still resist getting help for several reasons. They include the aforementioned stigma, as well as rationing or avoiding care because of unaffordable out-of-pocket costs.
It’s incumbent upon every employer that provides benefits to their employees to do a better job communicating the existence and purpose of employee assistance programs, which can refer people to the right clinician or community services. The trouble is program usage is historically pretty low. It also can help if human resource leaders can do their part to remove the stigma of seeking treatment and make less expensive telehealth services available for psych visits.
In addition, it’s critical to ensure that health plans are designed with mental health parity in mind and that case management involving STD or work comp take a holistic approach to returning claimants to work. One such solution involves the biopsychosocial model.
Until we take mental illness and substance abuse problems more seriously, especially in the workplace where so many Americans receive health insurance coverage, the U.S. will continue to see sad results. Not only will productivity suffer if employees are absent or collecting less of a paycheck, but we’ll also see more mass shootings and a national opioid epidemic get even worse.
It’s easy to lament the current state of the U.S. health care system. Monthly medical insurance premiums, along with various services and drugs, cost way too much – with no end in sight. People ration pills or treatment, or file for personal bankruptcy because they can’t afford to pay their hospital bills. Navigating care practically requires a personal assistant. Doctors are almost always paid based on volume and not value. Misdiagnosis is a serious problem. Pharmaceutical kickbacks run rampant. I could go on, but I digress.
While there’s much to gripe about, and with good reason, all this white noise can eclipse some pretty exciting developments.
Case in point: the emergence of precision medicine, which as its name suggests, tailors treatment to each patient’s unique genetic or molecular profile and condition. What’s so promising about this customized approach is the opportunity to prevent disease, improve clinical outcomes and reduce costs for patients, insurance carriers, employers, doctors, etc. To allay privacy concerns, health plan operators must comply with the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
Perhaps nowhere is the potential for progress more breathtaking than in the area of prescription drugs to ensure that patients receive the correct medication at the right dose and duration.
As I wrote in a recent trade magazine cover story, a pharmacogenomics test “can evaluate how hundreds of drugs interact with an individual’s genetic makeup and suggest an ideal clinical pathway for each patient.” Their power is undeniable as a means of achieving better control of rising costs associated with a myriad of chronic illnesses.
One knowledgeable industry source I interviewed used a baseball analogy to guess that medical science is in the top of the third of nine innings on implementing precision medicine, which means there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. Seventeen years after cracking the code on how to sequence the human genome, we’re clearly at the cusp of a new era that by today’s standards sounds a lot like science fiction.
Another noteworthy development that’s gaining traction is telemedicine, also known as telehealth. The virtual delivery of care through video conferencing, telephone calls, email or text messages has the potential to save a substantial amount of both time and money. Diagnosing the common cold, flu, skin rashes, or similar conditions in this way bypasses notoriously crowded waiting rooms, reduces unnecessary visits to urgent care or emergency rooms, lowers tardiness and absenteeism, and improves productivity and patient satisfaction. A telemedicine call typically is $40 compared with $125 for a traditional office visit. The approach also is being applied to mental health visits.
It’s remarkable to watch marketplace innovation, but the latest and greatest medical treatments will be out of reach for most Americans unless there’s enough meaningful competition or reasonable price controls. Shopping for health care isn’t like buying a car or groceries because services are priced in an opaque or arbitrary fashion. Consequently, it may be only a matter of time before Uncle Sam steps in to end the madness.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer last year predicted that there will be a single-payer health care system in the U.S. in less than seven years. While blasting
ObamaCare as a failure “at every level,” he said it changed expectations to a point where most people believe the federal government should guarantee health care for everyone.
The clock is ticking, and unless the marketplace adjusts, we’ll all be paying this price in terms of higher taxes and a serious commitment to expand the reach of government. Whether it will be worth the investment, a disastrous turn of events or somewhere in the middle, no one really knows. But everyone can agree that the current system is perverse and unsustainable. Unless we take substantive action to reform it for the long haul, we’ll never cure what ails us and health spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product will far exceed the nearly 18% rate that economists have calculated.
Someday, HR leaders will be studying turnover in the Trump White House for lessons to be gleaned for their own workforce – both positive and negative.
Regardless of what side of the political aisle you identify with, the breathtaking mass exodus of talent in the first 14 months of Donald Trump’s administration has been one of historic proportions. In short, it has more closely resembled a season of “The Apprentice” than anything Pennsylvania Avenue has seen in years.
During his presidential campaign, the brash businessman boasted about recruiting the best and brightest candidates to support his strategic vision. The idea was to drain a swamp full of complacent civil servants and ineffective political appointments, and replace them with fresh faces who were devoted to operational efficiency.
In short, Washington’s staid political corridors would be disrupted by C-Suite thinking about how to govern and, as was suggested at every rally, make America great again. Sounds terrific on paper, right? He won over just enough independent voters to make it a reality.
Trump then infamously insulted and intimidated his way past 16 competitors for the GOP crown in 2016 en route to the Oval Office in a pledge to end political gridlock and wasteful spending. At the end of a brutal presidential campaign, Trump was the last candidate standing in reality-TV-like surreal fashion.
It was a Darwinian finish for a man who was used to firing scores of would-be apprentices from corporate and celebrity talent pools alike on his long-running hit show on NBC. He’s on record saying how much he relishes a good fight. So it’s no surprise how he got there.
But here’s where his plan to shake up the establishment went sideways. That same blunt style has translated into dealings with a carefully handpicked staff of political advisers and cabinet members. So while Trump may have made recruiting a centerpiece of his White House, the same cannot be said about retaining talent.
Of the administration’s top 61 senior officials, 21 were fired, reassigned or quit in 2017. This astonishing 34% first-year turnover rate was the highest in at least four decades of Oval Office management and double the previous record of 40% set by the Reagan administration in 1982, according to The New York Times. Here’s how that compares to recent administrations: just 6% for George W. Bush, 9% for Barack Obama and 11% for Bill Clinton.
The ones who left are now household names: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, FBI Director James Comey, press secretary Sean Spicer, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the list goes on.
No one was on the losing end more than Omarosa Manigault, whose short-lived stint in the cryptic title of Director of Communications for the White House Public Liaison Office was preceded by three firings from various seasons of “The Apprentice.”
What are chief human resource officers and corporate recruiters to make of this historic turnover, and are there any lessons that apply to their own talent-management challenges? In all fairness to Trump, he recently suggested that deepened relationships with key players around him has finally raised his comfort level and will translate into better hiring decisions in the first place. That, of course, remains to be seen.
I think the bigger issue is how to motivate people to perform the best they can at work – an employment contract that’s built on trust, loyalty and a shared strategic vision of the future. Some people respond well to fear and intimidation and need a push in this direction.
But in all honesty, I think they’re few and far between. This is especially true in times of growing personal enlightenment and career development programs that seek to empower hearts and minds – not tear them to pieces on a long climb up the corporate ladder, or in this case, dealing with three branches of government.
When I began writing about the workplace on a regular basis in 1988, today’s timely topic of sexual harassment was still emerging from water-cooler shadows.
Our tight-knit group of highly spirited male and female writers, editors and office-support staffers used to joke how sexual harassment was actually an employee benefit at the small publishing company where we toiled away. There were a lot of harmless, off-color remarks bandied about in the face of intense deadlines and high expectations. It was a time when emotional intelligence and maturity were in short supply.
I cringe when thinking about overstepping the bounds of good taste to add levity or soothe a bruised ego over a potential office romance that never ignited. No one is perfect, and I will gladly take a number and wait in a long line along with anyone else who seeks atonement for crossing a line that now seems to have transformed from sand to cement. What’s fascinating to me is that Corporate America – along with Hollywood, the world of politics, education and nearly every nook and cranny in society – has reached a significant and historic tipping point.
We live in very different times than three decades ago, and I’m heartened to see an important cultural change take root whereby once-powerful figures are finally being held accountable and suffering actual consequences. It’s akin to watershed events in movements seeking an end to discrimination based on gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, as well as equal rights.
Since more than 50 women apiece have accused both comedian Bill Cosby and movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or rape, a floodgate of similar charges have been unleashed and aimed at many other powerful men dating back decades before the statute of limitations have run out on the possibility of pursuing legal action. The list is long. It includes stories that are both old and new – everyone from Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly to Eric Bolling and Mark Halperin to Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have been caught in the crosshairs of this mounting national controversy.
When I interviewed famed discrimination attorney Gloria Allred about the Bill Cosby revelations, she noted at the time that “it’s a wake-up call for women and men.” The same can be said about scaling a harrowing timeline on sexual harassment over the past month or so.
I’m hopeful that more victims of unwanted advances will come forward swiftly and decisively to their HR departments. I’m also hoping that we as a society will take these allegations more seriously and that HR leaders pressure top executives to investigate and mete out punishment where necessary. That goes for holding jerks and predators alike accountable for unacceptable behavior.
For 18 years and counting, I have lived in an area long known for having the nation’s worst traffic congestion not only during rush hours, but also off-peak times. As an independent contractor, I have been able to dodge this asphalt madness with a so-called carpet commute from my bedroom to a living room office.
Los Angeles is driven by a car culture, with nearly 4 million estimated residents in the second-largest U.S. city scrambling for limited space on freeways so big that their numbers are actually preceded by the word “the” to describe them in the vernacular. The county’s population is more than double that number, while the larger metropolitan region more than triples the body count. It’s not surprising given that L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world and ground zero for California dreaming.
What made me appreciate an ability to work from home more than usual was a recent article I wrote about telecommuting. However, it also made me lament a troubling trend that has befallen legions of managers and supervisors across Corporate America.
A survey of executive recruiters, employers and job candidates cautioned that ordering remote workers back into corporate offices could alienate top talent in the executive, managerial and professional ranks. What’s more, it is happening at a time of tightening skilled labor markets.
One of my sources, a seasoned industry observer, called out AT&T, Yahoo!, Hewlett Packard and IBM’s marketing division as chief culprits. By ending work-from-home arrangements, he noted how they stood to lose millions of dollars a year they previously saved on consolidating office space and worsen traffic congestion in their respective cities.
It’s a real head-scratcher for me to think that such a counter-intuitive directive could be repeated by several respected blue-chip companies – and in the process, eviscerate years of operational efficiency, corporate goodwill, high morale and employee loyalty. My impression of this cultural change based on the interviews I conducted is that it stems from self-imposed pressure that has turned telecommuting into a convenient scapegoat for missing quarterly earnings or losing market share.
But the fact is we all operate in a virtual world wherein the line of demarcation between work and life is barely recognizable and all office workers really need is a way to get online. If texts or emails aren’t enough to complete a certain task, then there’s always conferencing calling or video-chatting services. I even remember seeing a movie featuring holograms beamed up for a corporate boardroom meeting, which now seems more like a realistic future than science fiction.
It no longer makes sense to tether people to a cubicle or office in this changing business environment, especially since U.S. workers are infamous for not using all of their vacation time and burning the midnight oil. The number of working Americans who griped about working more than 40 hours a week spiked to 26% last year from just 6% in 1974, according to government data cited in a report by The Wall Street Journal.
My view of the situation, of course, isn’t surprising. I have a dog in this fight as someone who has benefited from telecommuting for nearly half my 34-year career. But if we truly want to work faster and smarter, or at least happier and healthier, then why not let flexible work schedules offered as a valued employee benefit lead the way? It’s better than caving into a misguided notion that employees or managers must be able to literally brush up against one another at all, or most, times during the work day.
While running errands the other day, one of my favorite local afternoon talk radio shows noted that Hollywood is facing its worst box-office run in 25 years and then opened up the phone lines to ask listeners whether or not they still go to the movies.
Most of the callers griped about overpriced tickets, texting moviegoers and subpar material – noting that it’s better to simply rent a DVD or watch something on demand in the comfort of their own home. Others are too busy playing video games, keeping up with friends and family on social media or other hobbies.
All of these developments were starting to take hold in the early 2000s when I closely covered Hollywood for various trade publications. Among the most worried were theater chain owners, known in Tinsel Town as “exhibitors.”
Fast forward to 2017, which industry insiders consider another golden age for television, and you’d be hard pressed to find really good quality cinema. Most of the fare these days is formulaic and uninspiring, dominated by so-called franchise pictures and tired sequels, car chases, mind-numbing violence and eye-popping visual effects. It’s not my idea of a fun night out, and apparently most Americans agree.
But as an avid moviegoer, I simply look for alternatives and frequently choose an art house theater a block and a half from my home that features the best independent and foreign films money can buy.
Rarely do I come across a blockbuster that speaks to me on a cerebral or emotional level, and when I’m truly lucky, I get a little of both. One such film (don’t laugh) is “Cars 3.” Yes, an animated film aimed primarily at children, but also one that can appeal to grownups. This release proves once again that Disney Pixar hands down has the best track record of any movie studio in Hollywood history when it comes to quality cinema. If only the other major studios would tear a page from their impressive playbook, then maybe they, too, would be firing on all cylinders – literally and figuratively.
The reason is simple: a terrific story at the core that’s perfectly told, has wonderful pacing, a compelling subplot, wonderful character development and killer themes around which anyone at any age can wrap their hearts and minds. “Cars 3” is a thoughtful film, and I think the best of all three in this winning franchise.
What I like about this film is all the wonderful lessons it teaches the little ones, though I still haven’t been able to convince my own 6 and 8 year olds to see it (they’ve outgrown this particular franchise!). They also translate so well to my principle topic of interest for nearly 30 years, which is the workplace.
In the end, it’s a film about following your occupational dreams (i.e., moving from “trainer” to race car driver), knowing when it’s time to do something else (i.e., retiring from racing to mentor a rising star), honoring the past (i.e., recognizing the contributions of trailblazers) and being fully in charge of your own destiny (i.e., not allowing others to force your fate). Ironically, critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes give it only a satisfactory rating, which I suppose just goes to show how subjective it is to measure the quality of movie content.
In my view, good stories are the missing ingredient in so many movies and have been for a long while – at least since the last truly golden age of cinema in the 1970s. If you offer a product or service that’s second to none in any business, then you’ll acquire customers.
That’s why TV is clobbering movies. There’s so much more creativity and choice on the small screen. And whereas movie stars used to look down upon their peers who did TV shows, they’re all drawn to that medium now for a number of reasons. One is they’re following the money – and lots of it. With Netflix and Amazon.com getting into the act, lucrative deals abound for top talent. A TV show’s schedule is also more 9-5 than on movie sets, so it’s appealing to both cast and crew members who’d rather live a more normal life. But that’s also where the entertainment industry’s mojo has been now for a while and probably will stay.
What Hollywood needs is more movie studios like Disney Pixar whose primary focus is on great storytelling. To paraphrase that famous line from “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” Movie studio execs, along with theater chain owners, need to heed that call, or they’ll continue to lose the huge audiences they’ve been accustomed to seeing year after year.
Whenever summer rolls around, I can’t help but think how hard Americans work and fail to take all the vacation time they’ve accrued – often at the expense of their wellbeing. If only we could be more like Europe when it comes to our attitude about paid time off (more on that later).
How ironic that I’m actually penning this blog midway through what I like to call a “working” vacation for three weeks during which I’m hoping to barely work and play as much as possible. So far so good!
Months ago, I was intrigued by a study of more than 600,000 workers from the U.S., Europe and Australia that suggested those who toil away for 55 hours a week run a 33% greater risk of having a stroke than those who work 35 to 40 hours. Another key finding was a 13% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Other related developments that caught my eye include a two-year experiment in Sweden where businesses are embracing a standard six-hour work day. Preliminary results have been mixed. While improvements have been reported in the areas of employee satisfaction and health, for example, higher employment costs were seen in some cases where additional staffers had to be brought on board.
Linus Feldt, CEO of Stockholm-based app developer Filimundus, which switched to the compressed work week last year, questioned the effectiveness of an eight-hour work day and encouraged employees to spend more time with their families, learn or exercise more. One tradeoff for workers there was a request to steer clear of social media and other distractions at work, while management would not have as many meetings. The strategic objective (and hope) is that employees will have more motivation and energy to get more done in fewer hours.
Several Toyota service centers in Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, made the switch as many as 13 years ago, reporting happier staffers, lower turnover and better recruitment of new hires.
In a Fortune commentary, S. Kumar wrote urged Corporate America to adopt the six-hour work day, arguing that “shortening the work day may not quash around-the-clock emails and conference calls, but at the very least, it would reduce stress for workers during the work day.”
When thinking about this topic, I’m also reminded of a provocative interview I heard on a talk radio show earlier in the year about a Brave New World that’s upon us. An expert predicted that the robotics revolution will force developed countries to essentially pay people to do nothing in the years ahead. But I’ve also seen commentaries that suggest jobs will evolve and grow with innovation. Case in point: the emerging specialty of robotics management. Someone still has to tell the robots what to do and keep track of what they’re doing, right?!
Whatever might, or might not, happen with regard to the eight-hour work day, I’ve always been a big believer in efficiency and nimble operations. One such approach is telecommuting, which I’ve been doing now for nearly 18 years. My motivation, energy and time management have always been much higher during that time than when I was at an office attempting to dodge water-cooler banter lest I’d miss a writing deadline.