Now’s the time to build better businesses

Posted — Wednesday 15.10.2020

In 1994 John Elkington, a British management consultant and sustainability guru, coined the phase “triple bottom line” as a way to measure performance in corporate America.

The idea was that a company can be managed in a way that not only makes money, but which also improves people’s lives and improves the state of the planet. This triple bottom line therefore measures the financial, social and environmental performance of a company to truly measure performance. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has been awful, it has helped many organisations to reassess their social responsibility to their employees and the wider world. Now, more and more companies are realising that financial performance isn’t their only goal.

Right at the start of the lockdown in Spring, employers across the country acted swiftly to adjust their operating models and decide an approach that fundamentally kept their workers safe. While a few business leaders stood out for their stubborn reluctance to adapt, the vast majority shared a common goal of protecting jobs and livelihoods while also protecting their communities while we went into lockdown.

Crises have shaken societies throughout history, but, broadly speaking, the lesson that crises teach time and again is that to be successful in times of trouble, altruism goes a long way.

The rise of altruism

Back in March and April, the community spirit was clear to see as millions went the extra mile and made sacrifices to support the greater good.

People rallied around supporting vulnerable neighbours, we gave up our holidays and delayed important life events, we stopped seeing our loved ones, we clapped for carers, checked on our elderly neighbours and put rainbows in our windows to show appreciation for others.

There was genuine altruism, as a study by the University of Philadelphia found that, during the pandemic, people were more concerned about the health of their family members than they were of catching coronavirus themselves.

While the government paid the wages of people who couldn’t be kept in work, companies across the economy put their plans and operations on hold to meet their responsibilities in tackling the virus and many went much further.

Owners of large and small businesses alike worked extremely hard to swiftly assure and support their workforces and many were able to make major commitments to protecting them. This includes the likes of Bet656 and Timpson which quickly committed to paying all of their employees in full throughout the lockdown.

As well as this, lots of businesses found other ways of using their businesses to do good. For example, John Lewis & Partners donated millions to support local charities and community groups while Disneyland Paris donated 15 tonnes of food from its closed restaurants to support local and national community charities. More impressively, many businesses which could have shut up shop during lockdown turned their hands toward helping: Companies including Bubury, Barbour and BAE supported hospitals by making PPE while gin distilleries everywhere began producing hand sanitiser.

Companies also went the extra mile to support their customers: Organisations such Pret a Manger offered NHS staff free hot drinks and half price food, while the likes of Dominos following to offer free pizza. Other companies made kind gestures to all their customers, with Admiral giving all its car insurance customers a £25 ‘Stay at Home Refund’ and lots of online retailers offered generous discounts.

Some companies which inadvertently did well from the pandemic pledged to donate some or all of their additional income to support good causes; this includes fitness influencer Joe Wicks who pledged to donating all of his profits from his online PE lessons to doctors and nurses in the UK, all of the major UK supermarkets donated millions to charities including the Trussell Trust, FareShare and Age UK.

As well as being the right thing to do, the impact of these acts of generosity and altruism would have had widespread impacts throughout their organisations. Altruism wins customers and earns the loyalty of others and it also creates a sense of pride throughout an organisation which can have a tremendous impact on morale, productivity, recruitment and retention.

The wider impact of kindness

As we’ve moved on from the first lockdown, all of the altruism which has been on display will have made a long lasting impact on consumers and workers around the world.

This means people will be coming back to work with a much stronger sense of community spirit, morality and virtue.

Prior to the lockdown, there was mounting evidence that more and more workers want to work for organisations which do good in the world. In 2015, a study of 2,000 people in the UK found that 42% of people want to work for an organisation that has a positive impact on the world, with 44% thinking that meaningful work that helps others is more important than a high salary and 36% saying they would work harder if their company benefited society.

Another study in 2016 found that 83% of millennials would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues, and another study in 2019 found that 74% of millennials want the values of a business to match their own.

a young person daydreaming over a beautiful landscape

It doesn’t take a big leap to see how the recent altruism displayed by many employers will have benefitted their organisations, and it’s also likely that these actions will have also increased the expectation of consumers and workers for companies to behave ethically.

Altruism has always been an attractive virtue for employers, delivering benefits for recruitment, job engagement and retention as well as reputational bonuses, but now things seem to have stepped up to another level: Now, altruism is something which workers, consumers and, increasingly, investors expect.

As a result of the lockdown, workers have also won a wide range of new rights and freedoms which they’ll continue to expect in future. Having been forced to work remotely, flexibly and independently, many now demand the freedom to do so in future.

The world has changed.

Now is the time to be good

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying ‘In the midst of every crisis, lies a great opportunity’.

While the pandemic cost to human life and liberty has been awful, it has also precipitated some much needed change to the world of work by creating a cultural shift towards becoming more socially aware and people centric. Having seen the importance of altruism from businesses and their leaders, consumers and workers are calling for this to become the ‘new normal’ while business leaders have realised that they can be successful and good.

After a moment of change as historic as this, there is a powerful movement to rebuild and improve aspects of a community or culture. 

Now, employers need to seize on this opportunity to show their true colours and adapt to support this new conscientious culture if they are to thrive.

Previously, positive social and environmental action was seen as a nice, but non-essential HR issue or marketing opportunity, prone to being cynically labelled as ‘virtue signalling’ or dismissed as an unnecessary expense. Now, because of the huge cultural shift brought about by the pandemic, altruism is a huge opportunity for every organisation.

In short, there has never been a better time to be better.

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