|More than three years ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, leadership expert Professor Veronica Hope Hailey and the CIPD began a research journey to track the impact of this global crisis on responsible business. The aim was to form clear learnings about leading through a crisis that could be carried through to post-pandemic life.|
However, our third and final report concluded that the full impact of living and working through a pandemic on individuals, society and businesses remains ambiguous: “We remain in a state of flux: reconnecting with each other, organisations and communities; re-engaging in ‘public’ life; and renegotiating what work means.” After conversations with more than 150 leaders over three years, we found that, in building more responsible businesses and a more equitable society, there was “still everything to play for”.
This new series of articles and accompanying podcasts, produced by the CIPD working with the University of Bristol Business School, further explores some of the angles uncovered over those three years. We return to some of our most insightful leaders and ask: in the aftermath of the pandemic, what has changed about how we work, how we lead and how we think about responsibility and trust in business?
The new role of business in society
Before the emergence of COVID-19, many organisations sat comfortably in their claims to be responsible. The pandemic pushed those claims to the max, forcing leaders to make tough decisions about which of their many stakeholders took priority. It was the acid test of culture, purpose and values.
Exploring what it meant to be a responsible business through the pandemic, we discovered that COVID-19 accelerated and amplified existing responsible activities – that it made leaders rethink the interconnectedness of the ecosystem in which their company operated, and reshaped the nature of collaboration across that ecosystem. It increased accountability and expectations around what it means to be a responsible business and ultimately uncovered the concept of a new role for business in society. In the words of Microsoft’s external affairs director, Hugh Milward, (quoted in the third report): “The purpose of a company is to serve the society in which it operates.” It couldn’t be further from the 1970s Milton Friedman maxim: “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
When we interviewed them in 2022, against a backdrop of spiking inflation, an energy and cost-of-living crisis, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some leaders confided they looked back on the early days of the pandemic with some nostalgia, given the increasingly complex, challenging and crisis-ridden environment they were now leading through. Things have not become easier since. We need responsible business – and responsible leadership – more than ever.
The need for balanced leadership
Speaking on the accompanying podcast, Andrea Winfield, Microsoft’s General Manager for HR, Western Europe, raised the current speed of AI development as a live example of the need for balanced leadership. The responsible and ethical deployment of technology is less about leading through a crisis, and more about assessing the risks and opportunities that come alongside such a disruptive force. As Winfield says, when it comes to AI, we need to be focusing less on ‘the bad’ versus ‘the good’, but more on “the values and the principles of the companies that are accountable for designing and deploying this technology to ensure that it serves the long-term resilience and wellbeing of humanity”.
The importance of creating partnerships
Dealing with these emerging challenges, and huge, existential threats like climate change, requires us to centre some of the lessons we learned about responsible leadership and business during the pandemic, leading organisations in a more sustainable, connected and transparent way. As Winfield reflects, transparency was one of the essential leadership principles of the pandemic era; with raised employee and stakeholder expectations, it remains crucial now.
So too does the importance of partnership and the understanding that organisations do not exist within a vacuum but are instead part of an interconnected ecosystem. Leaders face the challenge of balancing the trade-offs and sometimes conflicting needs and wants of various stakeholder groups, and must orient themselves externally to be able to meet this challenge. The ongoing fourth industrial revolution, for example, raises serious questions about ethics, the future of the workplace and many other sociotechnical concerns. These questions cannot be answered by technologists alone, but must be addressed in partnership with multiple stakeholders. In a world increasingly driven by technology, we must remember the importance of human connection in creating thriving communities and organisations.
Responsible business in the wake of the pandemic is not pure philanthropy and nor is it the paternalism of the early 20th century, where corporations like Rowntree’s decided what communities needed. Instead, it is about creating partnerships of equals, collaborating to figure out how we can move forward to make a better society. Everyone has a stake in our potential future and some responsibility in shaping it – both followers and leaders. Harvard University’s Barbara Kellerman talks about ‘responsible followership’, a concept all of us should bear in mind. Co-creating a better, fairer society is a joint endeavour.
Throughout this series, we ask each of our guests to share their thoughts on what the future of responsible business looks like, more than three years on from the start of the pandemic. So let’s end on Winfield’s vision: “The future of responsible business is about working with our employees, communities and in an integrated ecosystem for the good of humanity.”