Over Labor Day weekend, real estate mogul Rob Speyer got a call from an old friend: Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents New York City’s 75,000-plus educators. Mulgrew had a favor to ask. Could Speyer, through his role as president and CEO of Tishman Speyer, help monitor and improve ventilation in some of the city’s public schools, as he had done across his own commercial real estate portfolio? Good ventilation could reduce the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces like classrooms—and lay the foundation for reopening the schools that serve New York City’s 1.1 million students.
“Within an hour we had a team mobilized and ready to go,” says Speyer. On a pro bono basis, he started sending Tishman Speyer employees to two of the city’s largest school buildings to check that airflow was at an appropriate level. In addition, Tishman Speyer sourced a domestic supplier that could deliver more than 100,000 MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) filters, currently in high demand across the world, to New York City schools within a short time frame. While the effort would help keep teachers safe, it also presented a potential lifeline for working parents, who had spent the spring struggling to manage their children’s remote learning alongside their own professional obligations. As a landlord with a vested interest in seeing employees return to offices, Speyer understood the importance of reopening New York City schools, which provide childcare as well as education. “We’re doing what we can as citizens,” he says.
Corporate efforts such as Tishman Speyer’s, to lift the fortunes of entire communities, have been few and far between these past several months, which is a shame. Business leaders have an opportunity to alleviate some of the burdens that have fallen on American workers during the pandemic—and put into practice the oft-espoused idea that companies have obligations to stakeholders beyond their investors. More frequently, though, they’ve been focused on simply boosting (or, at least, restoring) the productivity of office workers who are now stuck at home.
Throughout the pandemic, companies have piled on the perks for white-collar employees: They’ve suspended performance reviews, encouraged staffers to take “staycations,” and invested in benefits such as bike-sharing, teletherapy, and even virtual magic shows. It would be easy to cast this coddling as a tale of haves and have-nots, given that recent layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately affected blue-collar women. Indeed, for some knowledge workers, such perks may be sufficient to overcome their COVID malaise.
The pandemic could erase six years’ worth of progress toward greater representation of women of color in senior leadership roles.
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