Even as we begin to emerge from our enforced hibernation, COVID-19 continues to shape our lives, businesses and communities. With a growing call for a sustainable recovery, to ‘build back better’ and to create a more inclusive and diverse society, this global pandemic presents a unique opportunity for London to rethink our economy in light of the emerging challenges that we face.
This should not be interpreted as a knee jerk response to an exceptional event. On the contrary, prior to COVID-19, it had become clear that “business as usual” was creating an unsustainable future as evidenced by the increased public awareness of issues such as climate change, rising inequality and the lack of diversity in companies across the UK.
So what should be our response? The CBI London U35 Committee encourages the business community to resist the temptation to go ‘back to normal’ and instead seize the opportunity to reflect, reset and rebuild. We highlight three potential areas that business leaders could consider as they map out their priorities in a post-COVID-19 world.
The re-emergence of the learner leader
What has been particularly interesting to see during this pandemic is the emergence of a new and more empathetic style of leadership both in the UK and internationally. The ‘Learner Leader’ recognises that in such a unique time, the ideas, opinions and creativity of everyone must be leveraged to find a way forward.
Given the exceptional event that we find ourselves in, the use of tired old phrases such as ‘we have always done it this way’, or ‘last time we did this’ are conspicuously absent. The Learner Leader accepts that rather than provide the answers, their role has graduated to that of a facilitator which draws on the unique perspectives and expertise of their staff whilst still being ultimately accountable for the final decision.
Perhaps these were the leaders we needed anyway. Pre-COVID 19 many businesses were discussing the strategic questions of the future of the workplace and the workforce; what would it look like, how would we skill up? How would we move fast enough to handle the skill and technology delta between those entering the workforce and our more experienced colleagues? How would we keep abreast of the insatiable march of technology?
Learner leaders are perfectly placed to manage the frenetic pace of change by empowering their talented staff to have a stake in the future strategy of their organisations. If we get this right our businesses can move in an agile way that genuinely reflects the vision, passion and ideas of its whole workforce.
Flexible working has become hybrid
Pre COVID-19, the role of the office was viewed as critical to most organisations in encouraging collaboration, accountability and productive working. Flexible working was largely driven by the need for organisations to better accommodate returning parents, address growing commuting challenges and allow for more flexible resources to serve the GIG economy.
However, the pandemic has forced businesses to adopt a “remote first” approach. IT infrastructure has been rapidly upgraded, the adoption of video conferencing and remote collaboration tools has become standard and the obligatory make-shift office desk at home has become commonplace.
For some, the last few months of working remotely from home have dispelled a few myths and highlighted several benefits for both employers and employees alike. For example, reducing the need for some commuter journeys has eased congestion and pressures on existing infrastructure, supported the local economy and significantly reduced emissions. There have also been productivity gains from not sitting in traffic or public transport during the rush hour and maintaining a better work-life balance. Taking into account the impact that significantly fewer commuters coming into major town and city centres has on those businesses that rely on them, this is an issue that will require more nuanced discussion in the months to come.
New research undertaken by the Adecco Group UK and Ireland suggests that 77% of surveyed UK employees believe a mix of office-based and remote working is the best way forward post COVID-19. This demand for ‘hybrid-working’ is an evolution of flexible working practices and presents a unique opportunity to both directly tackle UK’s productivity gap and establish a more sustainable way of working for the 21st Century.
Diversity is more than gender
In recent years, an increased focus on improving gender representation in entrepreneurship, senior executive roles and the boardroom has been fantastic in demonstrating how positive change can be delivered through effective campaigning, research and political goodwill. However, more work needs to be done in improving ethnic diversity in these areas and developing policies that encourage businesses to take concrete steps to meet the challenge.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which reminds us of the importance of addressing the challenges faced by the black community in striving towards a more equitable society, has been given further impetus amidst the COVID-19 backdrop. One reason for that may be the uncanny parallels between the ills of racism and COVID-19. Both are an invisible enemy that strip you of your right to live freely. Both have no known cure and so the only natural response is to shield ourselves, adjust our behaviour and practice “social distancing”. Both require a global effort and a complex response to first stem the tide and then eradicate it completely.
Notwithstanding the moral importance of creating genuinely diverse and inclusive businesses, there are considerable financial benefits too. According to the Economic and Social Research Council, ethnic minority led businesses contribute between £25 - £32bn per year to the UK economy. Similarly, a report undertaken by McKinsey in 2015 on 366 public companies across Canada, Latin America, UK and the US found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry mean.
From the committee’s position as future leaders, these are the topics of conversation that we feel are not only essential within business discourse for today but will shape the landscape in which we operate for years to come. Over the course of the next year, we will spend more time on understanding these issues, and reflect upon how we tackle them in an ever-changing world. We encourage your businesses to do the same.