Business During Covid: Is This The End of Neutrality?

The discussions and arguments around Covid-19 are about much more than dealing with the pandemic. They are about what sort of working culture and economy we want, or need, to have in the future.

This becoming a defining issue for the UK, especially with the end of the Brexit transition period looming ever closer.

Most individual businesses and their boards have traditionally favoured neutrality on such cultural issues, leaving official mouthpieces such as the CBI to make comments and issue statements.

One such statement, in August, urged employers and the government to get staff back to workplaces to prevent town and city centres becoming permanent “ghost towns”.

But is this the most desirable outcome, or should organisations and enterprises be exploring long-term alternatives? They cannot afford to wait and see what happens next. Neutrality is no longer an option.

Covid-19 and Brand Reputation

With Covid-19, the idea that we’re all in it together is, to a certain extent true, in that the pandemic has had a local, national and global impact.

But people’s individual experiences of the impact of the virus vary dramatically, as do their attitudes towards it and the measures to mitigate it.

Some employees have been able to work from home, but some have not. Some people have followed the various local lockdown guidelines, while others have either bent the rules to suit their needs, or ignored them altogether.

For much of the time these differences bubble under, only breaking surface occasionally.

But the issue about returning to work threatens to become much more visible.

For employers and employees, the stakes are high: safety at work is a brand reputation issue.

If businesses are going to have employees return to work, they will have to define what safety at work means.

The advice from HSE is that no business should bring employees back unless it is safe to do so.

But how safe is safe, and how practical will it be to maintain a Covid-secure work environment?

Whereas, pre-Covid, many employers might not have embraced working from home as a practical solution, experience has demonstrated what is possible.

They should re-evaluate, looking at opportunities, efficiencies and savings. This is a more flexible, adaptable approach than trying to find ways to return to notions of normal that existed before the pandemic.

Possibility is no longer the main issue. Choice is.

What Should Your Brand Do?

Neutrality is no longer an option. The kind of set-up you have will be in the spotlight as we move into the next phase of working and living with Covid-19.

  • Do you adapt your business model permanently to encompass remote working?
  • Or can you adapt your premises to encourage safe working long-term?

As an employer, how would either decision impact on your employees, your customers and your stakeholders?

People will remember how different brands have responded, and how they treat their staff. Forcing people back into the workplace risks significant reputational damage.

CIPD wants businesses to ask themselves three critical questions before bringing employees back:

  • Is it essential?
  • Is it sufficiently safe?
  • Is there mutual agreement?

However, there are more fundamental questions brands and businesses should be asking about how they operate, and how they expect their employees to work for them.

Shifting Attitudes to Work and Culture

Do people actually want to return to something approaching how things were before the pandemic?

The recent ad that Dettol put on the London Underground indicate a failure to read the room correctly.

Reactions suggest that there are many aspects of workplace culture that people aren’t missing at all, along with stressful, busy commutes.

The issues about how we work, including its sustainability, have been going on long before Covid-19, but the pandemic has moved them centre-stage, where they are now very much about finding practical solutions.

One example is working time reduction (WTR). This anticipates that there will be less work available in the future, and that for long-term sustainability, we need to change how the economy works, so that it is not just driven by growth.

The current model for exponential growth is incompatible with meeting carbon reduction targets.

How we work will have to change. The pandemic provides an opportunity to make some practical changes sooner, rather than later.

We are at a crossroads in our culture. Yes, the CBI is right to be concerned about the potential for a permanent hit to busy urban centres, but then change often is painful.

It was painful when traditional UK manufacturing industries shrank or disappeared, or when we stopped mining coal.

But, for whatever reasons, these changes have happened. Our economy has evolved and continues to do so.

Maybe the future of our town and city centre doesn’t lie with the mass commute, or large numbers of office blocks.

Maybe, too, the industries that have arisen on the back of these things, the cafes, coffee shops and takeaways, will also need to change their business models too.

It won’t be a pain-free change, but ultimately, it might be a necessary one.

Are You Part of the Problem, Or Part of the Solution?

Eldridge Cleaver said this:

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

This was when he was a Black Panther.

But Cleaver himself wasn’t immune to change. After the 1960s, he was, at various times, a born-again Christian, a Mormon, a designer of men’s trousers and a Republican.

Change happens, whether you welcome it or not.

As a brand, a business or an organisation, you cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

A Partisan Approach

As a Manchester-based branding agency, we work with people involved in the built environment and in the working culture of Greater Manchester.

We’re interested in supporting and promoting change in our cities and towns, and helping to find positive solutions that will sustain future development.

For more information, please call us on 0161 860 7010, or email hello@partisan.studio

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