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Microsoft CEO shares leadership lessons he’s learned during the pandemic

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Chesnot/Getty Images

By Jazmin Goodwin, CNN Business

Major tech companies are rethinking their return-to-work policies as the spread of the Delta variant prompts a surge in Covid-19 cases across the country.

This week, Google, Facebook and other companies took a firm stance on vaccine mandates, requiring all US employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office. But one tech giant, Microsoft, is taking a much less stringent approach — at least for now.

“There will be some combination of vaccines, testing, and exceptions to it,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, during CNN Business’ live event series, Foreseeable Future, Thursday. “If you think about the policies that one needs to have, it has to accommodate the best practices of all three.”

So far, 49 US states are seeing a surge in cases, which has prompted stricter action on vaccine mandates. Earlier this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on masking. It now recommends that everyone, no matter their vaccination status, wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of Covid-19.

Redefining return to work

Like many companies, Microsoft plans to have a hybrid workforce, with some employees working on-site, and others working remotely, when offices fully reopen, which is tentatively set for September.

“We have already set the policy that up to 50% [of the time], without asking anyone, you can work from home,” Nadella said. “And if you need exceptions to that, you can ask your manager and get approval for that as well. So we have already incorporated quite a bit of flexibility.”

Nadella said he also plans to take advantage of the hybrid work policy.

“I will definitely want to be working remotely, if I can, for 50% of the time and for the other 50%, I will come. But we want to be more driven by essentially what the needs are,” he said.

The company has instituted a number of changes to accommodate this new work policy, including updating conference rooms with smart cameras, digitizing sales through the use of Microsoft Teams and providing personalized training content to its employees.

Other accommodations, like training managers to consider the well-being of the employees they work with has also been a huge component of Microsoft’s hybrid work approach.

Burnout and mental health issues have only intensified during the remote work era as home life and work life have collided. It’s an issue that has posed a major strain on managers when it comes to identifying the warning signs in their employees and figuring out what they can do to help, Nadella said.

One way Microsoft is tacking the issue is by encouraging its employees to make time for breaks. Nadella cited research the company conducted that showed back-to-back meetings generate stress.

“We want to be grounded in what is it that ultimately drives productivity, not just as output but including even considerations, such as wellness,” Nadella said.

He said the company will continue to lean on data and research as it assesses and modifies its return-to-work policies.

“People will vote with their feet,” said Nadella. “So one of the other things that I also want us to be is very data-driven versus dogmatic in any policy we create. Not just in terms of the opening, but even the next year.”

Being a leader

Despite the constant chaos and ambiguity that has arisen from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s also taught Nadella a lot about how he leads, communicates and connects with employees.

“I come out of this with a better recognition of all the constraints at any given time anyone may have in their life,” Nadella told CNN Business. “How do I change even my own leadership approach to be able to accommodate for what are the expectations and needs of people that I work with?”

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