Better Together: Steve Degnan

  • Season 4, Episode 5
  • December 12, 2023
  • 34-minute listen

Better Together: Steve Degnan


As the pandemic waned, Purina leadership wanted workers back in the office. But as Steve Degnan learned, it was not without controversy.

The Big Idea

Bucking a trend. Making an unpopular decision. Leaders do it all the time. Why did Purina do it in this case? How did they approach this decision—not only making it, but implementing it? What did they learn, and what can we learn?

Episode Description

In the wake of the global pandemic, some of the loudest voices in corporate America proclaimed the end of work as we know it. Lockdown, it seemed, had proven workers could be productive from home. Work-from-home came into vogue. We’d never have to commute to the office again, some suggested.

But as pandemic-era restrictions eased in mid-2021, Steve Degnan, then chief human resources officer for Nestlé Purina PetCare, joined other senior leaders and prepared to bring its workforce back. All of them. In-person.

“It was not without controversy,” Degnan, EMBA 2008, recalled. “It was our belief that better work happens when people are together. But we did lose people.” Indeed, about 30% of Purina’s workforce declared its dissatisfaction with the return-to-work policy, which launched in 2022. The company, for years a leader in worker satisfaction ratings on jobseekers website Glassdoor, saw its scores plummet in the wake of the decision.

Beyond their basic belief that employees work better together, Purina leaders had also just gone through a process to combat “big company diseases” such as lumbering decision-making and single-stream work processes. They’d fostered greater agility in their work teams, empowered team members to make decisions, coached effective collaboration.

“That work was being blown up,” he said. Degnan, now retired, recalled how senior leadership knew it would have to spend some of its cultural capital to implement a decision that many rank-and-file employees would support—but that a small and vocal group would not, including a large share of Generation Z and Millennial team members.

Why did Purina buck what seemed to be a trend in its approach to the workplace? How did it manage the communication of that requirement? What were leaders willing to sacrifice to make that decision—and what were they not willing to sacrifice? 

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Credits

This podcast is a production of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Contributors include:

  • Katie Wools, Cathy Myrick, Judy Milanovits and Lesley Liesman, creative assistance
  • Jill Young Miller, fact checking and creative assistance
  • Austin Alred and Olin’s Center for Digital Education, sound engineering
  • Hayden Molinarolo, original music and sound design
  • Mike Martin Media, editing
  • Sophia Passantino, social media
  • Lexie O'Brien and Erik Buschardt, website support
  • Paula Crews, creative vision and strategic support