It can feel like the Coronavirus pandemic is reinventing everything – the way we work, the role of government in our lives, what community means, and what’s really important to us. But each of these is, in reality, simply an acceleration of an existing trend, not a radical change in direction. Virtual working, for example, has been on the increase for years, albeit steadily. But now we’ve all been forced to get intimate with Zoom and Teams, the change is taking root in culture and accelerating from early adopters to the majority. Early adopters have also been prioritising wellbeing and slowing down, but that trend too has been accelerated by this forced pause.
The same is true of the relationship between business and society. Much has already been written about how COVID-19 is forcing companies to demonstrate what they actually do to contribute to society. This too is an acceleration of what was already happening. Investors had started piling the pressure on Finance Directors before the virus took hold, to show how their companies were managing their externalities in relation to the Environment and Society, the E and the S of ESG. Customers were already forcing Sales Directors to demonstrate their environmental and social credentials if they wanted to pre-qualify for RFPs or secure the best listings in-store. Gen Z were already making it clear to Marketing Directors that they wanted the brands they chose to actually be doing stuff that matters, rather than talking empty words. And activists were already driving Operations and Supply Chain Directors to clean up their factories and offices and ensure fairness in the way they source raw materials.
What the Coronavirus and our response to it as individuals, communities, businesses, nations and the world has shown us with crystal clarity is that none of us – no person, no company, no government – can function independently and that our planet has clear and finite limits. Society exists and companies now, more than ever, need to be able to demonstrate how they contribute to it across every aspect of their business.
We believe these six questions will be especially important for businesses, as the pace of change quickens over the coming months:
How do you build culture at work if you’re not at work?
The ‘brick to the forehead’ realisation that most office-based jobs don’t need to be based in the office means that businesses will need to find something other than physical location to bind employees to their company. This accelerates the need for companies to answer the ‘Why?’ question with a genuine, meaningful purpose, or risk becoming irrelevant to the talent they depend on to function;
Has sustainable food sourcing become more than just a hygiene factor?
As panic buying puts the food on our tables under the spotlight, so too are the supply chains that get it from farm to fork. The renewed interest in food supply brings greater scrutiny of how it is grown, and the impact that has not only on the current emergency, but also the ongoing climate crisis. Companies will be expected to ensure the safe, sustainable, traceable and profitable supply of food for all – or face the consequences of being ‘buycotted’ out of business;
Will digital transactions be transformed for good?
The acceleration of online purchasing during lockdowns is a boon to businesses closing physical doors: but the ethics of online – from process to product – are suddenly in the spotlight as we look local and count the social and human cost. Once-transactional experiences now bear a heavy weight in managing expectations and communicating ethical standards as we all wake up to the impact of that one-click order. The scrutiny we’re now applying to today’s purchases may well last long beyond lockdown, changing not only our channel preferences, but our consideration models and experience expectations across even the most commoditised of sectors;
How does Gen Z see you?
The next generation is stepping up to the plate during COVID-19, showing us how to stay connected and optimistic during a time of isolation from friends which might have been predicted to be more difficult for people of their age. Their preference for the unvarnished vulnerability of TikTok over the curated perfection of Instagram points to a generation who won’t respond well to fake platitudes from brands. Their power and influence is accelerating, both directly though the brands they chose and indirectly through their advocacy;
Who will want to be your partner?
Post-Corona we will see the question shift from ‘why should we work in partnership’ to ‘why wouldn’t we’. Every country’s response has seen a coalition of public and private sector, local and national organisation, community and individual effort. Social and environmental problems require multi-faceted responses, and as the expectation on companies accelerates to demonstrate their social and environmental credentials, so will the expectation to follow the COVID-19 approach of working in partnership. This cuts both ways – brands must look imaginatively for ‘unusual bedfellows’, but not-for-profit partners must learn to be more agile and progressive in how they work with commercial partners;
Can you keep your licence to operate?
Many companies have had to respond to activist and consumer-led pressures to preserve their licence to operate, recognising that the threat to their reputation is a risk that has to be managed. The increased role of government at all levels in leading the response to the pandemic will accelerate the likelihood of regulation to back up public pressure and reinforce the need for businesses to deliver on their environmental and societal obligations to maintain their licence to operate. Regulating businesses may not be the first steps of government post-lockdown, but action, when it comes, is likely to be more dramatic from emboldened regulators.
History gives us some lessons as to which businesses emerge and succeed in times of great change. The first industrial revolution gave birth to companies in Victorian England with a social mission at their heart, famous brands and businesses that endure today, like Cadbury’s, Boots, and Lever Brothers. The second industrial revolution translated into the Golden Age of management in the United States, built on the puritan belief that subordinated the interests of the individual to the group, the same belief that drove the Pilgrims in their journey towards the new world. And those principles – taken to Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War – helped create the ingredients for the third industrial revolution, the electronics boom in the second half of the 20th century.
The world will return to a form of normal when COVID-19 passes, but it will be a gradual return, and one in which previously gradual changes in the world have accelerated to become expectations and norms. Businesses everywhere will have to acknowledge that business serves society, not the other way round. And the businesses and brands that emerge strongest and best placed to succeed in a post-COVID world will be the ones who took this opportunity – this pause for many of them from the day-to-day busyness of activity – to develop strategies that don’t just align their operations to this new world, but lead with these changes to the fore.
We will be publishing a series of articles during May and June looking in more detail at each of these topics, and hosting a number of roundtable discussions. Details to follow.