How the pandemic is changing working culture - comment

Innes Miller, chief commercial officer of gender pay pap software and reporting specialist Spktral, says the crisis could help progress sustainability and equality.

Miller says a shift to flatter structures could help close the gender pay gap. Picture: contributed.

“The airline industry is enjoying an all-too-rare period of healthy profits.” That was the opening statement of a McKinsey podcast from late January that I listened to this morning. How things have changed… in a matter of weeks. Many are now fighting for survival and seeking state support.

Already it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic will have a fundamental long-term impact on the way we work and live. As we move forward, macro themes are emerging globally. Many were in train before the crisis, which is now acting as an accelerant. Hard borders have been resurrected to prevent the spread of the disease. This is affecting the free movement of people and labour and in time will lead to higher consumer prices in the UK and elsewhere.

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Globalised supply chains built over decades appear increasingly fragile. Over time it is likely that we will see manufacturing reshored or near-shored.

It is clear that the coronavirus will drive demand from customers, employees and investors alike, for greater accountability and transparency. While emphasis on the environmental, social and governance performance of companies had been rapidly growing prior to the outbreak, the crisis is heightening its importance.

Prior to the outbreak, it was already recognised that certain practices and behaviours were unsustainable and would have to change. Much of it is related to carbon emissions and recognition that we need to for example, fly less.

We have seen emphasis being placed on unsustainable business practices in sectors such as fast fashion and the need to buy less, along with growing awareness of the impact toxic business cultures have on employee wellbeing and ultimately shareholder value.

When we combine this crisis with these and other factors, it is likely that the viability of certain business models (including recent rising stars such as Airbnb) will be called into question as we head into what could become a global depression. How quickly we bounce back will determine the extent of the restructuring.

For organisations, the impact has far-reaching consequences for their people, operating models and processes. Many staff will see working practices change.

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Through this, opportunities are emerging. The crisis has provided grocers with an unparalleled test for buying food online, bringing with it an urgency to develop more scalable, reliable and efficient processes. Zoom has also come to the fore – although security has been a concern.

The consistent view is that the world will be different when this is over. There is recognition of the need to consider how attitudes and behaviours are being reset – and what’s required to ensure that the organisation and the products and services it provides remain relevant as we emerge from this and head into the next cycle.

Over the last 18 months, we have heard more about the importance of “purpose over profit”. In February, Goldman Sachs announced that it will only underwrite initial public offerings in the US and Europe of private companies that have at least one diverse board member, for example.

Sustainability

We will see more organisations leveraging their positions to influence change, accelerating the shift from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy. The emphasis going forward will be on sustainability more so than before.

More than anything, this crisis is about people. The importance of social and human capital has risen to the top of the agenda as most organisations (yes, there have been exceptions) do the right thing and look after those who have served them well.

In economic downturns, women typically bear the brunt and we are already seeing the coronavirus have an adverse impact on women in retail and hospitality. In the here and now, women as primary care-givers are under immense pressure.

But in the long term, this crisis may act as a leveller. From top to bottom, women and men in organisations are perhaps for the first time working together in the same way under similar constraints.

We may see more organisations recognising that current hierarchies are no longer required and we see a shift to flatter, more efficient structures.These factors combined may help to address inequality and close the gender pay gap in less time than we had predicted.

The coming weeks present leadership teams with an opportunity to take a step back and think about what the future holds. What will change and how should we respond? Will the products and services that we are selling now be in demand a year from now?

Will new competitors emerge to meet the rapidly changing needs and attitudes of customers and other key stakeholders? And is our culture and purpose fit for the next evolution of our global economy and society?

Those who do are more likely to come out the other side in a better position to succeed in the new world.

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