Companies are under an intense microscope during the COVID-19 crisis, and many that survive will be radically transformed by the experience. The global economic outlook is grim, no doubt. Companies are fighting for their survival.
In this era, approaches to corporate citizenship can no longer be palliative. They must be integral to a company’s purpose in order for it to survive.
The companies that succeed will be those that balance the need to look both inward and toward the horizon, and act with the empathy, courage, and vision this moment demands. They should keep four priorities in mind as they do so.
First, businesses should use this moment to radically shift the social contract between them and their people. Businesses leading through this acute relief stage are those that are, first and foremost, taking care of people closest to home—employees, contract workers, and small businesses across corporate supply chains that depend on these relationships.
Companies that lead through the economic recovery will be those that go further to address structural deficiencies in our workforce and develop holistic solutions to the vulnerabilities of workers around the world who live on the edge of serious financial hardship. Even in the midst of significant financial pressure, tomorrow’s leaders will begin to institutionalize a living wage, enhance paid-leave policies, launch new support services, give employees a meaningful role in company decision-making, and boost the resiliency of businesses in their supply chain.
This is not about corporate altruism; this is about redesigning a system so it produces greater returns for everyone. Employees who feel safe, supported, and informed make a workforce of creative, thoughtful, and effective decision-makers. And it is these workers who will drive economic recovery.
Second, companies should scrutinize their responsibilities to society, not least because consumers and investors alike will demand it. A company’s social footprint—how it measures up on a host of indicators, from pay equity and supplier diversity to digital privacy and indigenous rights—is taking center stage in an unprecedented way.
Vanguard companies are taking notice and working to assess their business and the range of possible impacts it has on stakeholders, both today and into the future. This requires a rigorous assessment of their social footprint, looking for opportunities to create stakeholder value, and weaving social impact into the fabric of corporate decision-making.
Third, private enterprise should double down on opportunities to make a global impact. The coronavirus has unveiled long-standing systemic scourges: from the risk of disease owing to receding natural environments to the complexity and fragility of our food systems and the cracks in our health care infrastructure. Through this crisis, we are witnessing what’s possible when companies tap their core businesses, talent, and resources to address a humanitarian crisis: cutting vaccine development timelines, shifting production capacity to urgent needs, and reskilling workers to provide new essential functions within days.
There is no going back. As companies are propped up by government stimulus packages, taxpayers will demand that their recovery benefit not just some, but all of us. Charity won’t cut it—we know that giving away goods and services doesn’t solve a broken system. It’s time to fix the system, and the businesses that boldly step into this space will be creating long-term value for the company and for society.
Fourth, companies should help shepherd in an era of post-competitive collaboration. The transformation of partnerships from flashy headlines to consequential collaborations has been a path almost as long as the ongoing journey of corporate citizenship itself. Public-private partnerships, shared value partnerships, and most recently, pre-competitive partnerships have paved the way for uniting unlikely actors, overcoming competitive inclinations and historic rivalries to benefit the greater good.
But to truly address the symptoms of larger structural challenges, we must begin an era of radical alliance-building—one that looks at entire ecosystems of organizations who have deep and complex interdependencies. Pioneering companies will recognize that our most intractable problems require them to craft alliances across systems, not just at their edges. Closing the digital divide is but one example; this work begins by pulling together disparate issue-based coalitions around education reform and online learning, economic development and the future of work, and rural health care.
Thinking about the future in the middle of a crisis might feel like a luxury of time and resources. But tomorrow’s business leaders recognize this moment as being as transformative as it is fluid. They are acting early to channel their humanity, ask soul-searching questions about the purpose of their business, and prioritize the contract among the C-suite, workers, and communities. In so doing, they are positioning themselves to be architects of their industries’ futures and challenging others to follow in their footsteps.
Jen Butte-Dahl is senior director of the Tembo Group, an APCO Worldwide company.
Denielle Sachs is senior director and global lead at the Tembo Group.