Nearly two decades ago the Queen declared, “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” One can only imagine what her assessment of 2020 will be.
Just when we thought there were green shoots of reprieve from the most intensive global response to anything since the last world war, one of the most shocking racially-motivated crimes many of us had the misfortune to witness online occurred: George Floyd died at the hands of a Minnesota policeman and humanity recoiled in horror.
As a white woman – even a socially conscious and educated one – I won’t pretend to know the everyday struggles of a person of colour. But I do know, as we watch promises being made by governments, businesses and individuals in response to the tragic events that took George Floyd’s life and compound them with the pre-existing conditions and challenges that COVID-19 has created, there is a tough and long road to ahead with all eyes on making good on those promises.
Brands that have taken a position on race or health and have publicly pledged change or commitments now have to match that proclamation with action and, most importantly, with their workforces as they consider how to return to some sort of ‘re-conditioned normality’.
The events of recent weeks have compounded the urgency for integrity-driven actions. Just as we have seen during the pandemic, it’s important for brands to act – but any brand seen to be profiteering on global catastrophes or those who cannot uphold their public promises will fall steadily, not just from grace, but from future loyalty and earning potential.
Corporate clout must be based on compassion as businesses navigate the minefield of political, cultural and scientific advice to find the right things to do and say for their business and their employees. We all expect things to be different, but no one is quite sure how.
For a start, it’s clear that workplaces will never be the same post-pandemic; we expect new office safety requirements with managed people traffic and one-way lift systems and stairwells, and imagine the reintroduction of sectioned cubicles as a throwback to workplaces past. Watercooler moments will remain in lockdown mode in the shape of virtual DMs and video calls, while social breakout spaces are likely to be closed or sectioned off – hopefully minus the crime scene tape. But a bigger challenge is ahead for consumer-facing industries, such as entertainment, retail and sport, to re-emerge from the pandemic in the face of economic recession, to encourage those on the front line of their industries to come back to work safely, to activate equality and anti-discrimination measures, and to manage social distancing securely. It’s not an easy ask.
Many consumer brands have worked hard during lockdown to maintain relationships with their customers and to stay top of mind with their broader stakeholder audiences. Some have repurposed their manufacturing efforts to contribute to the fight against coronavirus making ventilators instead of vacuums, while others donated their assets; Coca-Cola lent its social media handle on Twitter to charities disseminating of important COVID-19 information, the National Trust made its green spaces freely available for those in need of exercise space. Many have adapted to a new environment; gym classes are now instructed from livings rooms, supermarkets have reprioritised opening hours for NHS staff, the elderly and vulnerable.
There’s another group that has kept the spirit of their brand alive creatively – take Ikea, for example. The company released a set of ‘build your own fort’ instructions to appeal to every kid’s quarantine dream cubby. There was no pack to buy online; it was a perfectly pitched manual for entertainment, assembled creatively from things already in the home. Delivered by a company synonymous with the home, which is every child’s current playground, the fort manual has endeared many families even further to the Swedish lifestyle brand. But it’s not just engaging with a customer-base in new ways when face-to-face is not an option, it’s also supporting workforces when they need it most. In March this year, Home Bargains established a £30 million fund to support employees, especially (but not limited to) those who need to self-isolate during the pandemic, in a move that offered security to employees of the chain’s 500 UK stores.
Many of the companies that made these adaptions and contributions are now preparing for more change. On 15th June, non-essential retail will reopen in line with the UK government’s lockdown-easing measures. These are the stores and experiences that people, pre-lockdown, used every day. Sure, they may not be medically or scientifically essential, but they make the lives of many better each day – they are ‘life-ssential’ retail. And now they need to turn their attention from keeping their brands alive in the minds of their consumers to helping prepare their workforces for a return to a new world. Whether companies are preparing for teams of 30 or 3,000 to come back to work, there are new conditions, new practices, and new doubts to overcome and care for – especially for those on the life-ssential front line.
The question is how – keeping in mind that many of these employees may have been furloughed or in restricted working environments since the lockdown began. While some will be anxious to get back to work to make money, others may be hesitant with all that a return entails from the journey there to interacting with colleagues and customers in an era of social distancing.
Companies are going to walk a fine line for many months to establish the right balance of generating income (and actively striving to make more) to pay their workforces, their rent and, in some cases, shareholders, while creating an environment to get their people back safely, confidently and effectively. Quite simply, businesses will need to ‘think human’. Keeping a few basic principles in mind, alongside considered and structured planning, will be key:
Respect: Providing a safe environment for people returning to work is essential but it’s not just hygiene, it’s also about care. Being aware of employees’ mental health coming out of lockdown is important, and understanding their concerns is critical. Where possible a voluntary return is best. While making the return to a physical workplace voluntary is easier in an office than on a shop floor, being respectful of how employees feel able to manage is paramount.
Reset: In many ways, this is a brand-new chance to start again. Keep all the great behaviours and habits of pre-COVID work-life but actively take the opportunity to set aside the things that haven’t met expectations – perhaps even keeping some of the new processes and practices that have been adopted out of necessity in lockdown. From necessity comes great innovation and invention; don’t lose those things that have been positive changes, ie more regular communication, sharing honestly and broadly or reformatting corporate presentations, to conversations. We need to make sure that corporate governance reflects human governance and be prepared to reset the ESG balance, reprioritising for the new world.
Reinvigorate: While some people are itching to get back to the office, to the stadium or the classroom, make sure the external reputation that’s been moulded in the pandemic, and around race and equality, of concern, care and support, is translated to internal programmes for all employees. Now is not the time to tell employees what you think, now is the time to show them, to remind them why what they do each day matters. It’s not just a paycheck, it’s the service they provide, the product they make or sell, the ideas they create. It’s time to remind them that while there are huge challenges ahead, the spirit of togetherness that has been fostered in communities of all shapes as sizes banding together in crisis, is the spirit of care and support that will propel you on the next leg of the journey.
Restart: When it does come time to open the doors again, to invite the outside world in and to take the first foray into the new world, take it slowly. Keep expectations in line with what the workforce can handle. And while good business sense says look ahead and plan ahead, setting shorter-term goals and objectives as you test the waters is advised while new ways of working settle in.
There are few who would disagree that 2020 has been a hot mess so far, but as we look for some stability to return, some semblance of the life we recognised just a few months ago, we want to create a better future where people can roam and interact freely without health fears, and without racial inequalities. The scale of those challenges for businesses trying to return to profit, humbly and appropriately, is certainly not misunderstood. For businesses planning and starting to mobilise their workforces, it’s going to be a balance. No one has the answers, but we have to try. With a human-first approach, at least the balance will be tipped towards people, every company’s biggest asset.