5 Ways COVID-19 Changed Business and Society Forever
The past year has been all about blurred lines. The line between work and home? Gone. School and screens? Daniel Tiger is a great teacher. Yesterday and today? Wednesday is the new Monday.
We work at a company that is comfortable blurring another line that came into stark focus this past year — the line between running a business and having a positive impact on the world.
After lockdowns began, WE Communications implemented policies and programs designed to enhance employee wellness, such as offering paid time off for self-care, and hosting meetings that took place during outdoor walks. Although these offerings didn’t necessarily prevent us from forgetting which day of the week it was, they certainly went a long way toward making us feel seen and heard.
Therefore, it was no surprise to us that the companies that pivoted and responded effectively to COVID19 were those with an authentic and active purpose — those that have long understood that the line between business and social impact is one worth blurring.
COVID-19 brought this to bear more than ever. In the early days of lockdown, many companies found their businesses radically altered, or even shut down completely. In response, some shifted their production lines to create PPE. Later on, other companies took steps to meet the social and political moment, pledging to become carbon neutral and calling for racial equity.
But can this increased connection between business and social impact last?
Here are five takeaways on how COVID-19 changed the relationship between business and society forever, and solidified purpose as the road map to strengthening — and sustaining — this new, blurred way of showing up in the world.
1. Lead By Looking Within
The profound upheavals of the past year have prompted deep introspection in leaders about their role in a changed world. A recent study from WE/YouGov found 86% of leaders say they’ve become more introspective during this time, even as external crises have raged. By looking within, executives are examining their own consciences and convictions with new levels of honesty, vulnerability and empathy toward others, and changing how they lead as a result.
Chip Bergh, Levi Strauss & Co.’s CEO, recently told Fortune that his leadership team focused on company culture and empathy to make it through 2020, placing new emphasis on issues like employee health and wellness, and diversity and inclusion. Bergh said, “We believe there’s a real linkage between our values and business results …. [Because] of our values, it was very easy for us to declare that we’re going to put our employees front and center through this. We’re going to look out for their health [and] their safety.”
2. Insist on Accountability at the Top
Remember when 181 CEOs committed to leading their companies for the benefit of not only shareholders, but all stakeholders? COVID-19 put that statement to the test and, unfortunately, many failed. Yet we know for a fact that companies are no longer measured simply by the dividends they pay, but by the value they add to their employees, customers, suppliers and communities.
Corporate boards are increasingly seeking stakeholder perspectives and voices into oversight and decision-making processes — we’ve already started seeing what that means in practice. Nike and Chipotle recently announced that executive compensation will be tied to their companies’ environmental and social goals. Nike’s CEO John Donahoe remarked that they are “redefining what responsible leadership looks like,” and Chipotle’s Chief Corporate Affairs and Food Safety Officer Laurie Schalow said that “the compensation plan ensures our leaders continue to set the right example for our more than 88,000 employees.”
3. Elevate Employee Voices
COVID-19 accelerated a revolution from the bottom up. Over the past year, employees have challenged employers to take concrete action on a variety of issues — from pay equity and workplace safety, to systemic racism and climate change. Companies that identified and communicated their brands’ authentic purposes were able to forge the connection that employees craved, and they guided their businesses toward innovation and reinvention.
To help power its COVID-19 response, Intel committed $50 million for a Pandemic Response Technology Initiative (PRTI) that leveraged its employee’s expertise, passion areas and knowledge of communities in need to create solutions. By putting its employees at the core of its COVID-19-related services, the Intel community felt empowered to come up with new ideas and use whatever resources were at its disposal to make a difference.
This all underscores the importance of aligning employee passion with business strategy, which has become the clearest way for brands to live their purpose. More important, it challenged standard definitions of employee engagement to drive more open and consistent channels of communication with employees. Even as we move into a post-COVID-19 world, the employee voice will continue to matter, and employers must continue adopting new approaches and investments to improve the worker experience.
4. Make Diversity, Equity and Inclusion the Norm
Over the past year, we’ve seen diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) go from a “should do” to a “must have.” More important, there’s a greater understanding that it’s not diversity, equity or inclusion, but rather diversity and equity and inclusion. To achieve that, DEI can no longer be within the purview of a single leader, outside consultant or company initiative. It is no longer about statements or donations. It’s about listening and taking action that lasts.
Black, Indigenous and people of color — particularly women — have felt the effects of the past year the hardest. Moving forward, companies need to make DEI the cultural norm and commit to diversifying from top to bottom. Doing so is as much about employee growth and performance as it is about company growth and performance. At the recent Microsoft Include 2021 event, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella perfectly captured the merging of business and society when it comes to DEI. He said, “If we want to empower everyone in the world, we better represent the world inside. More than that, we need to include the world that we represent
5. Prioritize Climate Action
Although many predicted COVID-19 would shift global attention away from climate change, the opposite occurred. In 2020, $288 billion was invested globally in sustainable assets, a 96% increase over 2019. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s 2021 Letter to CEOs made clear that the events of the previous year proved that climate urgency is critical, and management teams and boards need to consider how their organization will make meaningful investments toward a green future. Fink said, “I believe that the pandemic has presented such an existential crisis — such a stark reminder of our fragility — that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives.”
Brands across the industry have taken note. 3M CEO Mike Roman called the pandemic an “awakening" that led to the company’s commitment to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. The auto industry has shifted electric vehicle production into high gear. Volvo Cars announced its commitment to sell only electric vehicles by 2030 as a part of its ambitious climate plan, which seeks to consistently reduce the life cycle carbon footprint per car and advocates for legislative change to create charging infrastructure.
It’s clear that the lines between business impact and social good have been permanently blurred, and that purpose is our road map to making sure this change leads to lasting, positive impact. It is now the expectation that every brand shift to a more purpose-driven approach to leadership. That means committing to authentic solutions for pressing issues and aligning business success to the impacts they make in the world. As we’ve experienced at WE, and seen at other purpose-driven companies, doing so has clear business results and benefits.
As communicators, we believe this shift is a tremendous opportunity to tell real stories, elevate critical issues and give a powerful voice to those who’ve been silenced for too long.