6 minute read 10 May 2021
EY - Business-man-and-women-looking-at-coputer-digital-concept

Five takeaways from the EY CEO roundtable on the changing workplace

By Sanjay Ramaswamy

EY-Parthenon Americas Turnaround and Restructuring Strategy Leader

C-suite advisor on Turnaround & Transactions Strategy. Avid traveler.

6 minute read 10 May 2021
Related topics Workforce Digital

Executives are now able to focus more on digital transformation and the reality of returning to the office — with or without remote work.

In brief

  • Our 22 attendees are keeping an eye on the Biden Administration’s spending plans and the widescale tax changes proposed to largely fund them.
  • The pandemic has highlighted the need for greater digital transformation that will be just as valuable going forward, reimagining areas such as field service.
  • To know when and how to speak out about social and political controversies, CEOs see value in surveys of employees to understand what matters to them.

Our latest in a series of CEO gatherings showed that executives are optimistic about our post-pandemic future and the accelerated transformation of their businesses enabled by digital. But they’re still working through the uncertainty in the present: when (or whether) to bring people back into the offices, with or without masks, and when and how to speak up on social issues in the headlines.

The discussion started with 80% of the CEOs expecting a sharp economic recovery through this year, with varying outlooks on the how the growth trajectory would moderate thereafter.

Here are five takeaways from the conversation.

Pie chart of what shape will the projected economic recovery in the US take?

1. Start modeling the impact of potential tax changes now

Michael Mundaca, EY National Tax Department Leader, and Marna J. Ricker, EY Americas Vice Chair of Tax, started the discussion on the Biden Administration’s next phase of the Build Back Better plan and the projected tax increases, global minimum taxes and implications for corporations.

CEOs took a dim view of the push for a global minimum tax rate, with 54% calling it a bad idea that subverts healthy international competition (compared with 23% who called it sensible). The rest believed that international tax negotiators should focus on how to tax the profits of companies in markets with customers but no physical presence.

You should model the effective rates of proposals throughout your organization, in business units and in your M&A strategy and capital investments. It pays to have options ready.

Pie chart of what is your opinion of the global minimum corporate tex rate proposal

2. Continue to accelerate the digital transformation

The pandemic has clearly accelerated digital transformations — both customer-facing and internal — at most companies. Daryl Roberts, COO of DuPont, presented a case study on how his company has taken advantage of new digital applications to drive efficiency and effectiveness. 

“We have a field force, but we’ve solved many problems remotely now,” he said. “It’s fascinating how effective that has been versus sending people around the world.” He and others spoke about the power of remote insurance audits and how instead of sending six people to a customer site, just one can be deployed with video streaming technology — or potentially zero, if that capability is delivered to the customer directly. 

On shop floors, operational excellence is taken to another level when combined with digital to extract more value — for instance, with predictive machine learning. Putting a tablet in a maintenance worker’s hands as a resource is just the beginning: later, the device can be connected to the back-office system to access parts, and needed parts can be ordered automatically when the stock dwindles.

CEOs recommend first getting a grip on the fundamentals, like a strong business case, the talent and skill sets your business needs, and enabling technology (like 5G connectivity). You can start small before scaling more broadly after the use case is developed and tested.

3. Plan for shifting dynamics on masks and vaccinations

Define guidelines on masks and vaccinations that keep pace with evolving public health and local conditions. If three vaccinated people are in a conference room, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance states that they can take off their masks. “But on a site with dozens of workers, 80% of them vaccinated, what do you do?” one CEO asked. Separately, different states and different countries have different mandates in place. 

The way forward cuts across many dynamics. What industry are you in? Where are you located? What’s the age group for your workers and the recruits you’ve targeted? Companies in general are not mandating vaccinations, but — much like public health authorities and government — are communicating them as a way to return to normal in the workplace and protect others.

“The data from the CDC suggests we can work freely after vaccinating, but without it, then the risk of transmission remains,” one CEO said. “We’ve tested that messaging, and it’s resonating for most.” Another incentive: it’s a reason to ditch the mask.

4. Customize your answer on balancing remote and office work

While digital enablement and remote working were crucial for success and safety as the virus spread, the debate in the C-suite now turns to when and which employees should come back to the office. Each company has different operating models and workforce needs. In some industries, working from home was never an option, especially for front-line employees, while others have largely been successful in having most of the workforce remote over the last year.

CEOs spoke of the distinction between remote work and flexible work, and how that has opened access to new pools of talent. Others spoke about their concern for new employees and the potential damage to company culture if remote work becomes more of the norm.

Common themes included never losing sight of equity among your different workers handling different responsibilities and setting a policy on flexibility that respects that balance while understanding what works for each company’s operating model and competitive advantage.

5. Understand what’s important to your employees when you speak out

We survey our employees to address what they care about, rather than just what we care about.
One CEO participant

The guilty verdict in the case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was just the latest headline in a year that’s been full of difficult, but important, issues that CEOs are increasingly expected to address.

“When you do it and set a precedent, your people will expect it all the time,” said one CEO. Several felt that an appropriate stance to take was to focus on listening to their own employees and discussing issues of importance to retaining and developing talent.

“We’re focused on how we give our employees a voice and how we demonstrate that the executive team is listening and that we hear them,” another CEO said.

Communicating the company’s vision on diversity and inclusion and sustainability doesn’t need to be explicitly political, and it reaffirms the business’s priorities to employees as well as customers.

“We survey our employees to address what they care about, rather than just what we care about,” another leader said. “Our people can then accept it as quite normal when we comment on one thing and not others,” he said, because the company understands employees’ priorities. Know the pulse of your people and the plan.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


CEOs find themselves in uncharted waters, but now opportunities after the pandemic — rather than the challenges of a world turned upside-down during it — are foremost in their minds. Tax changes and the reality of office life in a time of social turbulence also merit thoughtful, proactive discussion.

About this article

By Sanjay Ramaswamy

EY-Parthenon Americas Turnaround and Restructuring Strategy Leader

C-suite advisor on Turnaround & Transactions Strategy. Avid traveler.

Related topics Workforce Digital