Road with rainbow in background

Does Covid ask us for a more compelling reason to run a business?

Could coronavirus be challenging us to consider our real reason to work and the social and environmental imperative we serve in doing so?

“There is no doubt that none of us would have wished coronavirus on our worst enemies, or on our most underhand competitors. There is also no doubt that it has wreaked a human tragedy on a scale that we are as yet unsure of, and which will see lives changed forever by loss of loved ones, lost work and perhaps even lost identity, as whole generations are shaped by this experience.

However, there has also been a tremendous shift in our awareness of what matters during this time. We have been forced to confront what ‘necessary’ really means and once the initial hoarding ended, we have become more resourceful and more sharing with each other.

We have sought out ways to help and support people in our communities and we have realised that it feels good to help, and more than that, that it feels good to help at a time when we ourselves also feel helpless.

Being helpful, relevant and necessary are basic human desires that lead us to a life of meaning. Yet throughout my career, and certainly throughout the last eight years as a coach, I have encountered people whose work feels meaningless, who feel that if they weren’t there the world wouldn’t notice, and that any warm body could replace them in their desk. These are also people who report low levels of recognition from their employers, who feel unseen.

I wonder how many households are now questioning how diligently they pounded along in the hamster wheel of work, seeing their friends and families in grabbed evenings, weekends and a holiday once a year, all in the name of ‘progress and security’ that it turns out were an illusion? I wonder how many are wondering what the alternative might look like once all of this is over?

Many of us are looking at our businesses now and asking what we can do to help. I’d argue that we should be asking that question in a much longer-term way, to use this opportunity to make our businesses fit for the new paradigm that is coming. Coronavirus is not a one and done, and neither will it be over by September. This could well be the first in a series of global shocks and disturbances wrought by climate change and political and social unrest. We may not see these things in such a globalised way as we see them for coronavirus – they may be continental or national or even local in character – but all of the science says that making our economies (and the organisations and people within) more robust in the face of uncertainty would be a good thing. I talk with leaders about this all the time.

This is a good moment to stand back and ask what your business is really, truly for. How does it serve society and our environment as well as its bank balance?

Many of us started businesses for tactical reasons, because we had a skill to leverage or because we spotted a gap in the market that no-one had filled, or because we saw something being done badly and thought we could do it better. Some of us jumped into markets that were already successful in the hope of enjoying that success too. And there was kind of nothing wrong with that. None of us were villains for following our instinct for survival and providing for ourselves and our loved ones. However we are now learning that survival means something else, and that ‘key worker’ has nothing to do with status or wealth. The opportunity here is for us to make our businesses fit for a future in which it will be even more important to know why you are needed and to be able to explain that to your granny and your four year old.

For some that is much easier than others. While since the crisis began I’ve seen Starbucks miss the point entirely by trumpeting a new app, I’ve also seen UK frozen food company Cook put aside food in its stores for customers to take for free if they have vulnerable neighbours that they will deliver it to. My local taxi firm has offered to collect supermarket orders to the over 65s for free. Pret A Manger has offered all UK health workers free drinks and 50% off food – a significant offer given how many stores it has actually inside hospitals. These are all great example of working with community not just broadcasting to it.

These are extraordinary times, and as businesses we cannot try to survive this with a tweak, it needs a pivot. Capitalising on the fact that we’re stuck at home by trying to sell us more clothes – yes Debenhams, I mean you and the emails you’re suddenly sending me about summer dresses! – is just tone deaf.

Pitching Business 2.0 to an incredulous public who are asking more fundamental questions like ‘are my loved ones safe?’ and ‘will I be able to pay the next rent bill?’ falls wide of the mark.

The landscape has fundamentally changed and people and organisations are recognising that now is a time to serve others first, trusting that this will create a positive loop in which everyone looks after each other. This should be the true basis of our economy if we want it to be truly resilient. It requires a move from competition to collaboration.

Right now all businesses are having to ask what social imperative they actually serve, and if they don’t, what they now could. I’m talking with lots of businesses in my own city of Oxford about this, and realising that it’s easier for some than for others. Businesses that already had a strong moral code – Cook is a B-corporation that employs ex-offenders in its kitchens – are perhaps finding it easier to marry what they do with the true needs of the times we’re in. These businesses are finding it easier to identify their social necessity just as in future climate crises we will all be asked what our environmental imperative is.

Those who were raised on a commercial model of profits-first, even where there is a deep desire to help, find it hard to switch mindset to one that serves first and trusts that a sustainable way of life flows from that social service. For businesses that were already on a knife edge, this is a big ask. The niggling fear of ‘what about my business?’ easily undermines trust that others will look out for us if we look out for them.

Whether you lead an organisation, a team, a community, your family or simply yourself, you can lean into your better-self and watch that behaviour multiply in those around you. Now is the time to demonstrate to staff that you truly care about them and have their well-being at heart. Even if you cannot keep all of your staff, they can still leave well by seeing a demonstration that you care and have valued them. This will not only help them to leave with their heads high and the confidence to find new work on the other side of this, but it will help them to speak well of you and your business long into the future.

This stuff isn’t rocket science, but when we’re under pressure both externally in the form of lengthy government forms and internally from our own threatened brain, it is easy to cut kindness and patience from our range of behaviour.

But now is the time that we need more of these things, not less.

Now feels like a time for all of us who lead to demonstrate better character as we move through this uncertain time. Those who follow us don’t expect us to have answers, but they do want to trust that we will look after them during this time and not just look out for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with making sure our families and businesses are safe but when that urge tips us into the uglier side of ‘every person for themselves’, we’re in real trouble. Fortunately, for as much as our supermarket shelves are less full, I do think we’re moving in the opposite direction to that.

We are at a choice point, where we all get to decide who we want to be in relation to coronavirus, the economy and the way we lead our lives, alongside what we want to do in it. We get to choose what our businesses will do to be truly useful to our world in the future.

What will you choose?

Charly Cox, Oxford, UK, April 2020