Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Will the C-suite empty out in 2021?

As executives reevaluate their work–life priorities, a shake-up of the top corporate talent is likely.

Given the world-turned-upside-down year we just closed out, it is probably wise to steer clear of making predictions. But it can be hard to resist the temptation in January to submit to this traditional exercise of forecasting the future.

We all know that the pandemic has changed the world of work for the long term, but one aspect of that change that may be underappreciated right now is the number of senior executives who are likely to balk at the idea of going back to the office full time. Once most people have gotten the vaccine, and companies decide that they want their leaders back at headquarters, there is likely to be a test of wills. I’ve heard countless stories from executives this past year who have reconnected with their spouses and kids and are healthier because they have more control over their schedule to build in consistent exercise. Flexible working is working well for them.

CEOs may decide that they want their top team all together again, but some executives may resist: “Thanks, but if you want me on the team, I want to work at home more.” And who can blame them? Most senior jobs in big corporations have traditionally been tests of stamina, with long hours at the office and on planes — which, it turns out, might not be prerequisites for performing well, given reports on how productivity levels remained high even when many employees had to work from home because of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has made the notion of work–life balance no longer seem so unattainable (cue the chorus of ambitious execs who knew how unrealistic such a balance was in the past). The lines that separated clear lifestyle choices before — do you live to work, or do you work to live? — are now blurring.

And so, in the coming months, there is likely to be a kind of roll call within the C-suite of “who’s in and who’s out.” If companies set unwavering rules on coming to the office, executives may look to move to companies that are more accommodating of a flexible working arrangement that mixes time in the office with time at home.

If companies set unwavering rules on coming to the office, executives may look to move to companies that are more accommodating of a flexible working arrangement.

“At some point, this virtual existence is going to end and people will be coming back to the office,” said Matthew Schuyler, chief administrative officer at Hilton Worldwide. “But I see a lot of leaders locking into their remoteness right now. That’s going to cause some turnover, induced both by the company and by the executives getting accustomed to a lifestyle in a remote environment that just won’t work when there’s the siren call to get back to work.”

Pat Wadors, a veteran chief human resources officer in Silicon Valley who is now at Procore Technologies, a construction project management software company, said she is seeing signs of the coming talent shift. “There are high-level talented people in the world who refuse now to relocate to a great job,” she said. “They are saying, ‘I can work and do this job from XYZ. I don’t have to move to New York or some other city.’ Maybe they want to start their [work]day at 6:00 in the morning and end at 2:00 in the afternoon so they can surf, and then travel for business when they need to.”

Wadors added: “They’re saying, in effect, ‘I’m an adult. I know when travel is needed and when it’s not needed. I know how to build relationships. You don’t have to tell me how. You don’t always have to see people in person to win.’ So employee talent will vote with their feet.”

Leaders of organizations need to prepare themselves, and perhaps even start preparing their boards of directors, for a discussion about what accommodations they will make to hold on to top talent. In my dozens of interviews with senior leaders over the past year, and in my consulting work with C-suite executives and boards for the leadership development firm Merryck & Co., I’ve heard that the pandemic has scrambled succession planning. Some executives have risen to the occasion and have thrived in uncertainty, and others have shown that they are not comfortable working with so much ambiguity. The test of wills over having the ability to work at home may reshuffle the talent pipeline even more.

The world had a trial run in 2020 with remote work, and by many accounts, companies were surprised by how well it went. Perhaps some of that success was fueled by the adrenaline of living amid a global crisis. And the fact that few people took vacations certainly added to the overall productivity. In the long run, it will require a leap of faith for leaders to stop considering a full office to be a proxy for productivity. Their focus has to shift from “putting in the hours” to doing work that makes a difference.

Bear with me on this analogy, but this moment reminds me of a choice presented by the ticket kiosks in the New York City subway. When you want to refill the MetroCard that you swipe to enter the platform, a screen pops up with the words: “What do you want to add?” The two choices: “Add Value” and “Add Time.”

In the same vein, companies are going to have to decide if their key measurement for employees is the number of hours they work in a specific place or the value they add.

The first is easier to count for both employer and employee: We go back to the old way of working together — we need to be with one another in person to create those magical sparks that can occur in whiteboard brainstorming sessions or during random hallway encounters. It’s a much riskier proposition to see whether a hybrid system of working at home and occasionally coming into the office can work well into the future.

Measuring the value people bring to their roles puts more of the onus on leaders to be clear about the company’s strategy and the work that is required to drive results, as well as how to measure those results.

It’s a decision that high-performing executives — who are confident in their ability to add value, and not just time — will be forcing many companies to make this year.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.