How Businesses Can Be a Platform for Change As They Emerge from the Pandemic

From global inequality to the skills gap, critical societal challenges are nothing new. But the pandemic has served as a shock to the system that upended the status quo. Now, as businesses get back on their feet, leaders have the chance to do things differently. They have a choice: Do they remake the same system we had before, or do they take this unprecedented opportunity to build something better? Global demand is mounting for companies to play a role in moving the needle on social issues. At the same time, value-driven businesses will be the ones poised to not only survive but thrive after the pandemic.

A Growing Call for Change

The repercussions of COVID-19 have highlighted and exacerbated pressing challenges which had been brewing for decades in our societies. According to a Salesforce survey of more than 20,000 people in 10 countries in June, 84% of respondents believe that income inequality is not improving, and 66% feel that progress has stalled on widening access to education. Others are concerned about work opportunities, with 80% reporting that access to jobs is not improving. With most people working and learning from home, gaps around in-demand job skills and even access to high speed bandwidth have come to the fore. In recent years, customers have been increasingly considering a brand’s cultural values when making choices in the marketplace. The pandemic has brought new urgency to the appeal that companies broaden their focus to include all stakeholders.

A growing share of consumers believe that societal inequities should not only be within the purview of policymakers and nonprofit organizations. Rather, they believe the corporate sector can and should be a platform for change. In the Salesforce survey, a majority of respondents felt it was critical that their work not only help the planet and that their employers give back to the community, but also prioritize addressing global inequalities. And 60% said they trusted businesses to build a better future for younger generations, a figure that has risen since last fall. These results tell us that a growing share of people believe that companies are up to the challenge of addressing key social issues, but there is still room to improve trust through action.

Toward an Inclusive Future

Corporate social responsibility is a journey, and making an impact on a large scale takes a coordinated and sustained effort. But there are many actions companies can take today to give back to their communities, starting with their own employees:

  • Empower workers to do their jobs. Companies have transitioned to remote work virtually overnight, leaving employees with an urgent need to skill up to succeed in an all-digital world. In the Salesforce survey, 65% of respondents felt that workforce development must be a high priority for businesses and that they should leverage technology for this purpose. One of the best ways companies can support their communities and promote an inclusive future is to provide employees with accessible ways to build the skills they need to work at home or in a hybrid environment.
  • Prioritize employee health and safety. According to Salesforce’s survey, people believe that the highest priority for businesses should be adopting technology to ensure workplace safety. Employees are rightly concerned about the risks of going back to the office, and many are struggling with burnout and overwhelm in an all-digital world. Centering employee safety and well-being in plans to get back to work will set the stage for resilient growth.
  • Become more value-driven. Business leaders have a choice as they recover from the pandemic: They can re-establish the status quo, or they can draw on lessons learned to come out stronger. Leaders can take this opportunity to redefine the companies values — the core set of principles guiding the company — by listening to employees, customers, shareholders and vendors. Identifying these values is not enough on its own; the next step is to back them up with action. That can mean rethinking brand messaging, launching new training programs, considering diversity in recruiting and hiring or auditing and correcting pay inequities. This is an opportunity for companies to change perceptions of their brands and align their culture around shared commitments.

Home improvement retailer Lowe’s is one example of a company that backed up its principles with action. Earlier this year, Lowe’s announced $55 million in grants with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to support minority, women-owned and rural small businesses that continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

  • Prepare for the unknown. If there’s one thing this year has taught us, it’s that nobody can predict the future. But that doesn’t mean companies can’t plan for 2021 and beyond. Salesforce’s survey found that 95% of people believe adaptability will be an important skill over the next six months, and the majority expected companies to emerge from the pandemic more resilient than they were before. Scenario planning — for example, around different outcomes for the pandemic — can help companies prepare for whatever lies ahead. Collaboration across the company and a willingness to try new ideas even if they fail are key to building agility.

A Platform for Change

Prioritizing values and tackling critical societal challenges may not be the first consideration for business leaders who have been forced into survival mode. However, as companies prepare for the future, they have an unprecedented opportunity to make powerful changes that both elevate the brand and build a better world. That starts with listening to all stakeholders, identifying core values and putting them into action with employees first. In today’s world, it’s critical for leaders to be value-driven, authentic and transparent in order to drive trust in the marketplace. This moment can serve as a catalyst for building a better business — one that is more resilient and agile in the face of whatever comes next.

Global Growth & Innovation Evangelist, Salesforce | Sales and Transformation Adviser | Book: Growth IQ| Podcast: What's Next! | Former Research Fellow Gartner