The Role of Corporations Within the COVID-19 Crisis
The global COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us daily from all angles—health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships, and more. For people working in all industries and sectors, from all walks of life, this crisis is creating a huge amount of fear and anxiety. In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings, and is causing us to question assumptions we had about the future. For leaders in organizations, this necessitates a closer look at the values and underlying purpose of their organizations, and a re-examination of how they make decisions, putting community service at the same level or even greater than the focus on profit.
Today, the largest buildings in most major cities are not churches or palaces, but corporate buildings. History teaches us that the people with the biggest buildings are those who truly run a society. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to change how corporations and societies work together.
In the face of this crisis, we’ve all had to prepare in our own ways, all over the world. Some have embraced their families in new ways, and others have shaken in fear. Those who could afford it have hunkered down and attempted to keep the disruption to a minimum. Some have eschewed complicated or intellectual solutions and have welcomed the comfort of scapegoats to explain world events. Others have not sought easy answers, and instead have used this opportunity to reflect on the complex circumstances that have led us to this place, and on where we may need to go as a society in order to regroup.
But does humankind need to be faced with the prospect of culling in order to make significant societal progress? In the new book, “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power & Relationships” (Bloomsbury, 2020), we make the case that we need to take a careful look at the social and environmental context of the world today and focus on developing new business models based on sharing, empathy, reciprocity, and cooperation. We do not believe humanity needs to suffer wide-scale disaster in order to adapt. Instead, we assert that the world can reset toward a more empathic approach, led by corporations putting empathy at their core.
So far, we’ve seen a consistent theme during this pandemic of private organizations leading the charge and taking action in the absence of guidance from the government. In many cases, corporations have prioritized purpose and values over profit. We’ve seen instances of companies making the decision to continue paying hourly workers, suspending bank charges, offering alternate mortgage payment arrangements, and more. With respect to making the big decisions about allowing employees to work remotely or continuing healthcare benefits and other forms of economic relief, some corporations have stepped in to fulfill a leadership role.
But what happens when the COVID-19 crisis is over? Do we go back to the same mode of prioritizing competition over the common good? Or do we work together to build a different system that places cooperation over competition? Will we go back to business as usual, or will our values change in the context of what we’ve survived as a society?
For an elite group to embrace change, it is sometimes difficult to accept that they will not have to give up everything in order for the world to become more balanced. In many cases, it just calls for a re-prioritization. Unfortunately, in this pandemic, we are seeing the poorest and least able communities around the world paying the highest price.
In “Share,” we offer a four-step process for organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values, and purpose:
- Discover what is important from each individual to align on purpose.
- Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organization competes.
- Develop a plan to align the purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything is done.
- Deploy “how we do things around here,” through the actions of every employee, every day.
A Share-Based Culture
New leaders often emerge from times of disruption, and they have the power to shape the narrative of what we believe is important. Their stories will have an impact on us for generations. Many of the heroic stories of this crisis will be about love, sharing, and service. The heroes of this era will be those who have served and those who have shared.
If we put sharing at the core of how we make decisions as an ethos, we can start, from the inside out, to build a better world by intent following this crisis. We are proudest of the political and corporate leaders who have spoken of the idea of a reciprocity between systems and relationships during this crisis. We admire those who have helped to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for human life on this planet, maintaining the concept of a larger biosphere, instead of a “strongest wins all” mentality.
In order to move into the next phase of work, where we help people to regroup and adapt to the “new normal,” we will need to see companies and governments continue to share. Many of the huge challenges we still face as a society, including climate change, will require a share-based culture. Organizations will need to continue putting values at the heart of their decision-making so they can more easily navigate the dilemmas ahead in the face of an environment fused with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Chris Yates is the general manager of Learning & Development at Microsoft and the co-author of “Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships” (Bloomsbury, 2020). Previously he was the chief learning officer and head of People and Organizational Development for Caterpillar Inc. and has served in senior roles at HSBC and American Express. He specializes in organizational design, leadership development, and the management of large-scale change initiatives. Along with Pooja Sachdev, he was the co-author of “Rewire.”