By Gareth Streeter, Fourteen Forty
Businesses – big and small – have played a leadership role in responding to the current crisis. It’s time their contribution was recognised.
The coronavirus has forever changed the way we do business. How many times have you read that in the last few weeks?
On the one hand, it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. Of course things will change. Many companies have discovered efficiencies in working from home. Being forced to feel their way around collaboration tools will have helped many workforces jump over the odd psychological barrier.
But all of this is an acceleration of a long-term trend. For some time we’ve been moving toward remote working and the additional flexibility it can bring. Much of the analysis emanating from opinion pieces, however, tends to predict more radical changes to the way we live and work.
The emerging narrative goes a little something like this. The current crisis has demonstrated the limits of markets and business. A bigger role for the state has proven its worth. Greater government will be what protects us in the future. Business must do more for workers. Especially as we are inevitable on the verge of a great depression.
A recent piece by Peter Hain is just one example of this developing theme.
But could it be that our commentators are overreaching themselves?
The economic implications of the coronavirus are yet to become clear. The headlines figures suggesting a 35% drop in GDP are daunting. But if a way to protect the most vulnerable and reboot the economy can be found, there’s no fundamental reason why the bounce back can’t be as dramatic.
Comparisons with the financials crisis of 2008 have limited value. That crisis exposed systemic problems with a major pillar of the global economy. The coronavirus has done no such thing.
But there’s another reason why this narrative is getting me hot under the collar. Some commentators seem to imply that businesses typically only act in their corporate self-interest. They suggest that without intervention from the great white knight of the state, employees would currently be tapping away in infected offices. They would be packing into crowded trains and spreading the virus to every corner of the kingdom.
This implication has been underlined by the reaction of some unions and media as lockdown measures begin to be eased in mid-May. The notion that businesses should be given some discretion as to how to keep staff safe has been hailed as dangerous. Surely, they claim, businesses will just put profit over people?
That’s not what the evidence suggests.
To start with, businesses have been on the front foot in acts of charity. Restaurants have opened soup kitchens. Bookshops are offering discounts to key workers. Cafes have brewed free coffees for nurses.
And the bigger players have not been late to the party. Google has made hangout free. Adobe has granted free products to schools and universities. UberEats have waved commission fees for independent restaurant customers. These examples are just a drop in the ocean.
And it’s not just customers and consumers that are benefiting. Many companies have put their employees first. Starbucks has extended the mental health benefits package its staff can benefit from. Countless corporates have maintained wages for those that cannot work. Hardship schemes are also being developed by many major employers.
And it was businesses, not governments, that led the way in isolating the workforce. News reports make it clear that businesses in London were enforcing homeworking by the end of February. This is a whole month before it was mandated by the UK government.
Keeping customers happy is good business sense. When we finally return to normality, consumers will remember who was at hand to help. Protecting staff is similarly savvy. Without healthy workers, maintaining productivity is going to be tricky.
But that’s no reason to reduce the motivation of businesses to ones that are entirely self-serving. Companies are staffed and led by people. People with human compassion and the same inbuilt desire to protect and preserve our species as those that occupy the halls of government.
Maybe Covid-19 will usher in a new era of wellbeing over wealth. Perhaps it’s no bad thing for society to take stock and review its priorities. It is of course right that business, particularly large employers are a critical part of this global conversation.
But in this conversation, business must be treated as an equal partner. As a force for good with potential to realise. Not as a necessary evil whose existence must be mitigated and excesses managed.