Business in Times of Corona: The Human Factor

Business in Times of Corona covid-19 CFI.coWar, pestilence, and other major calamities that threaten to rip apart the fabric of society, usually bring out the best in people. However, if there is one factor that strategists and planners consistently overlook as they prepare for the worst, it could well be human resourcefulness and resilience.

In wartime, carpet bombing has consistently failed to sap, let alone break, the morale of the enemy. The London Blitz stands as a proud and lasting example of the stamina shown by ordinary people in extraordinary times. The bombs dropped in vast volumes on Dresden, Hamburg, Hanoi, and even tiny Guernica in Spain – and of course Little Boy and Fat Man that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki – swept those places off the map – but not for long. Survivors were rarely cowed into complete submission and started to clear the rubble and rebuild their cities and lives almost as soon as the dust had settled. Despair never lasts long whilst hope springs eternal.

There is an important lesson in these experiences as the world grapples with the corona pandemic: However devastating the consequences, they will pass without breaking the irrepressible, if not indomitable, human spirit. Instead of fostering the dark forces of nationalism and xenophobia, the new normal to emerge After Corona (AC) may well bring the long-awaited renaissance of a sense of community that brings the world together as a truly global village – adding the human dimension that was sorely missing from globalisation in the BC era.

French economist Thomas Piketty proved with hard data gleaned from historical tax registers that in the wake of cataclysmic disasters, nations sharply reduce social and economic inequality – and barrel ahead with renewed confidence in the future. In the case of war, a collective debt of gratitude is owed to the soldiers who fought and died at the behest of society and its rulers. In the case of a pandemic, that debt is owed to the medical and scientific communities and countless others who made sacrifices to protect the nation. According to Piketty, such debts act as great equalizers.

Businesses that value their survival must now take a stake on the right side of history and convincingly show that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not just a token concept employed for marketing purposes only. Normally finely attuned to the needs of all stakeholders, and a CSR champion as well, the World Economic Forum surprisingly dropped the ball when its experts almost completely ignored the human dimension of the corona pandemic on their Covid Action Platform. Here, nearly all talk centres on the need for corporations to invest in strategic, operational, and financial resilience. Failures in governance at corporate and state level are duly highlighted as are the dangers of fake news. All important considerations, no doubt, but nothing at all about actual people or ways to address their needs and anxieties.

Much maligned by some, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos earlier this week showed how it is done: His company is adding another 100,000 jobs at its fulfilment centres in the United States to meet the expected increased demand of online shoppers. Amazon also decided to raise hourly wages across the board by $2 from the already respectable $15 minimum it currently pays. On its website, the company invites anyone made redundant or furloughed by the pandemic to apply for a job and become ‘part of the team’ until normalcy is restored, and they can return to their old job.

Whilst not every business is able to emulate Amazon’s proactive, immediate, and tangible response, the online retailer stands to harvest a bumper crop of goodwill once the crisis has abated. Governments are scrambling to underpin markets and provide the means that allow corporations to do the right thing and care for their workers even as bottom lines shrivel.

The touching videos that circulate on Facebook and elsewhere offer ample proof that solidarity exists – and perhaps already is the world’s fastest-growing commodity. Italians singing and making music on their balconies, entire cities applauding overburdened healthcare professionals, apartment dwellers hanging out their window for a game of bingo, lonely souls reaching out to each other in WhatsApp groups to enjoy a shared moment: As the social distance grows in the real world, the emotional distance is bridged in the virtual one where perfect strangers find solace together.

Businesses must find a way to plug into, and contribute to, this rapidly awakening sense of community. Credibility is key, as is the realisation that sentiment amongst the 99% has changed: For now, nobody really cares about stock prices, market volatility, or indeed revenues and profit margins. People, customers in fact, are in survival mode and will just want to know if their pay cheque keeps coming and if they have a job to return to after the virus has done its worst.

Some governments understand the needs of businesses and citizens better than others and are able to leverage their credibility to keep panic at bay. Scared people are looking for beacons of hope they can trust to tell the truth and offer solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Corporations can take a cue: Explain, reason, and then explain some more before suggesting a way forward: Stakeholders will understand as long as transparency prevails, and no hidden agendas are pursued. To quote JFK: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

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