2 April, 2020
Never has the concept of business responsibility been more on the front line than now. The way in which businesses respond to the Covid 19 crisis we are living through will define them in people’s minds now and into the future. How they manage the fall out for employees, suppliers and all their other stakeholders. Whether and how they use their brands, skills and resources to help in any way they substantively can. The tone they strike and the degree to which they preserve their humanity in the face of adversity. The extent to which social costs are weighed up in the decision-making, as well as the economic ones. And how to share the pain in a proportionate way, both within a business and across society. These are the things businesses must grapple with as they develop and calibrate their responses.
And already we are seeing some businesses emerge as Saints, and others as Sinners. Some are lining up to repurpose their skills and resources to meet the desperately urgent needs that the crisis has created from nowhere. Whether it’s producing ventilators, face masks or hand sanitiser, in some business circles we are seeing a race for the top in ingenuity and resourcefulness as they step in to meet demand. Other businesses are actively demonstrating the fundamental value of the core purpose of their product or service by offering it for free to those on the front line, or indeed to everyone. Whether it’s food delivery services or apps to connect us and enable children to learn, those that are sharing the value they can deliver rather than looking to capitalise on it are building a reservoir of goodwill that will last for years to come.
And then we are seeing the businesses that sink to the bottom. Those that treat their staff as an expendable resource, or misuse the life rafts the government is creating, or are tone deaf to the harsh realities so many are facing. This too, will be remembered and will mark the course forward.
Navigating these times is incredibly hard, and there are many very complex and difficult decisions to take. But never has it been more important for the voice of responsibility to be at the table.
There is another certainty about this crisis as well – that it has created sudden, radical shifts in the way we live and interact and work. We’ve seen businesses undergo almost instant reconfigurations – total shifts from wholesale to consumer for example. And we’ve seen changes that many campaigners have spent years fighting for because of the significant benefits they deliver from a societal and environmental perspective being put in place overnight. Video conferencing instead of business travel. Remote teaching to make the best accessible to everyone. Empowering people to work flexibly so they can juggle the needs of family, work and life in the way that makes best sense for them. These are things that have made obvious sense for a decade, but it’s been impossible to see a way to make people budge from the status quo and accept them.
And through all of this we have also seen a greater sense of humanity borne of the fact that we’re all in this together.
This raises another pressing question for businesses – around how they re-emerge from this crisis. Simply put, how can they return to business as usual, but made better. How can they make sure that they retain the changes that are positive and which make the business better and their people more productive and embed them into the future. And how can they innovate in a way that capitalises on the mindset shifts that this period of enormous disruption has created, developing new products and services which further progressive changes out of choice.
This will not happen naturally. It will requite conscious and purposeful effort for businesses, and it is not too early for them to start thinking about it, in a way that involves all of the stakeholders it matters to and incorporates their views. Because while the shifts in behaviour we have seen are unprecedented, they are very much the product of circumstance, and they are also serving to drive home how much is lost when we can’t all come together. Lasting behaviour change requires internal motivation as well as external circumstance, and for many either one or both of these will not remain in place once the restrictions are lifted.
So the challenge is to enact a proactive process – building from the more human working style that is characterising these times and using it to have an informed, open and inclusive discussion about what elements of their new reality have proved advantageous and how the organisation as a whole can adapt to keep them in place. To think collectively about how to create a new post-Corona reality that reflects opportunity, rather than crisis.