The long-term repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be fully known for years, but one thing is clear: The pandemic rewrote the social contract between businesses and employees. Businesses are no longer seen as merely a place people earn their livelihoods; they are now a place responsible for their workers’ very lives.

Our recently released 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma shows that “My Employer” has emerged as the most trusted institution (77 percent) in 14 markets, followed by Business (62 percent), with NGOs, Government and Media trailing. COVID-19 and societal shifts over the past year have redefined the pact between institutions—especially employers—and people. Business has a new mandate to lead and must do so by responding to unprecedented employee expectations, which includes CEOs demonstrating on a regular basis that they genuinely care for employees.

In fact, Edelman’s latest Trust study shows that employees are for the first time the most important stakeholder for a company to achieve long term success—outpacing customers or clients (by 6 points) and well ahead of shareholders (by 28 points). Taken together, these changes spell out a more fundamentally connected and human employer-employee relationship.

Over the past year, millions of employees have mourned family, friends and colleagues, lost their jobs and financial security and let go of long-held future plans. Despite the success of vaccinations reducing COVID infections and deaths, and enabling much of the world to reopen in various stages, our study shows people remain in a pandemic mindset (65 percent).

Even those who have been vaccinated do not feel safe resuming normal activities, including returning to the workplace. At the same time, millions of people have said goodbye to any semblance of work-life balance. With a 13 percent increase in meetings and five percent uptick in internal emails, the average workday is now longer by about 48 minutes, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Relations. The time pressures are particularly acute for working mothers who are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an additional 3 or more hours per day – about 21 hours per week – on housework and childcare based on the 2020 Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey & Company.

What employees, what people, have lost most since March 2020 is time—time that grew unexpectedly finite with the passing of loved ones, intensely stressful with the demands of children at home and remote learning, and maddeningly unpredictable as planning a simple vacation or college tour became Herculean undertakings, if possible at all.

As people begin to pick up the threads of their lives and take baby steps toward normalcy by meeting friends for a meal, going to an outdoor concert, or, yes, stopping by the office, employers can show they care and value their people—their exhausted, overburdened workforces—by taking action to honor, value and protect their time.

In Time Smart, Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans compiles years of research into a book that enables people and organizations to better understand the tradeoffs they make between time and money. One core concept is “time poverty”—the ultimately detrimental decision to deprioritize time to earn more money, which studies show leads to lower happiness and rarely results in the financial accruals people and businesses imagine.

As counselors to the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies, Edelman applies these lessons in advising companies on their Employee Value Proposition (EVP): a crisp narrative that answers the fundamental employee or job candidate question: What’s in it for me?

While companies pour resources and energy into talent recruitment and retention efforts, they too often undermine their EVP—and their bottom line—through a time-impoverished workplace culture with excessive meetings, lengthy processes, red tape and bloated decision making. A stunning 78 percent of 1,000 employees across 29 occupations say their employers systematically waste their time, according to a study Whillans cites in her book. This is quantified as a $65 billion per year problem for businesses—and that was before the impacts of COVID-19.

While employees’ professional and personal capacities were stretched to the limit during the pandemic—and there will be new time constraints as many transition to a remote-hybrid work model—workers need to know their time is fiercely protected.

With this reassurance, employees can focus on the work they were hired to do, have brain space to innovate, and log off from their workday with reasonable time left for a personal life. Companies can do this promptly by revisiting their EVP to provide a clear articulation of what employees can expect at work. For example: “Here, people spend the day doing the work they love because we’ve eliminated processes and protocols that pull them away from what they joined us to do. Our employees spend 20% less time in meetings than the industry average.” This type of bold statement, complemented by organizational changes that ensure it is always true, is the first step to build a time smart culture at work. 

CEO schedules reflect that every minute of their time counts. Business owes employees nothing less than the same level of time-respect. In a world changed by COVID-19, businesses have an opportunity to lead by building a culture of time-affluence and rewriting their EVP to reflect that every employee’s time is their most valued currency. The time for action is now—tempus fugit.

Felicia Joy and Elena Grotto are leaders in the corporate advisory practice at Edelman. Joy is an executive vice president and U.S. Head of Behavioral Science. Grotto is an executive vice president, head of Business Transformation in Chicago and an expert on workplace culture.