When the dust settles, will business emerge having played its part and who will have stayed true to their purpose?

As leaders strive to steer their corporate ships through unimaginably stormy waters, there’s an understandable need to focus solely on the management of immediate, operational and financial issues. But in the midst of uncertainty, companies mustn’t let these unprecedented demands and strains divert them from the path towards a more sustainable future. Purpose is more important now than ever. By putting purpose at the heart of what they do, leaders can create genuine, long-term value for their organisations. EY recently hosted a webcast involving leaders from some of the world’s top companies to discuss exactly this. And as one of the panelists, Nigel Higgins, Group Chairman of Barclays Bank, puts it: “There’s been a lot of talk about purpose, and now is the moment for businesses to show who actually means it.”

Restoring hope

The world is gripped by concern and anxiety, but the response to COVID-19 could give us much to be hopeful about.At both a technical and a human level, ingenuity, compassion and a ‘can-do’ attitude is widespread – along with a wider recognition that we’re all part of something bigger.The sudden, large-scale shift to remote working has been successful for most, with technology keeping us connected and productive. However, this crisis has also highlighted the importance of technology as a basic utility, that everyone should have access to.And, as our panelists observed, living with COVID-19 reminds us of many things we normally take for granted. Like the millions of unsung people who keep our healthcare systems, transport networks, factories, banks, utilities, public services and supermarkets running.This point was picked up on by Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, who commented that: “Essential workers will hopefully be more highly-valued after this. I think we’re seeing the true value that these people play in society.” Additionally, home working helps us connect with others beyond their professional persona, as we video link against a backdrop of children, pets and domestic life.In the words of Michael Dell, Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies, “Conversations have become a lot more personal. There’s greater empathy, which is making companies more human.”

Catering to multi stakeholder needs

Keeping a wide community of stakeholders happy can be challenging at the best of times – but even more so when businesses everywhere face existential threats.In a connected world, we must never forget our interdependencies with customers, employees, suppliers, contractors, financiers, governments and society as a whole. This crisis has shown us how important our end to end eco systems are for the wellbeing of all.Nurturing and sustaining all these relationships is critical to achieving long-term value. Those businesses that take a holistic view will in the long term be better positioned to adapt post-crisis.A number of our webcast panelists pointed out that a strong, sustainable vision actually leads to fewer trade-offs – even in today’s tough environment.Unilever is one company renowned for its strong and clear business purpose – to make sustainable living commonplace. Hence CEO Alan Jope’s comments: “If we look after our people, they look after our customers. If we take care of our business partners, communities and environment, then our shareholders will be well rewarded.”In the face of clear and present danger, we must never lose sight of our vision and principles. The more we look to the longer-term, the more likely we are to make sustainable decisions that deliver long term value to all stakeholders.

A new conversation 

Crises shift the needs of people and society and they threaten established business models, testing corporations’ resilience, agility and adaptability.This crisis specifically, is creating a different future for how we work, live and indeed communicate.Global lockdown has accelerated the conversation about the way we work, with the sudden shift to remote working. Chairman, Nigel Higgins summarised this best by commenting that: “People on this call are running oil companies, tech companies and banks from their kitchens!”Thankfully, technology has coped remarkably well, which is a good sign for a future with less commuting and subsequent lower carbon footprint.But I don’t see this as the end of office working, as more than ever, we are reminded of the continuing human need for intimacy and the delicate nature of human mental health.BP CEO Bernard Looney is passionate about promoting mental health and never more so than now. He commented: “This is as much a mental health crisis as it is a physical health crisis. I hope we can now make mental health mainstream.”A reminder that the most important conversation we can have at this time is with each other.

Looking back from 2030

Ten years down the line, how will companies feel about the role they played during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis?Yes, of course they’ll want to reflect on how they tackled financial and operational issues.But as Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies, Michael Dell, remarked, “Employees, customers, partners and communities will remember how we treated them during this time.”Our panelists were unanimous on this point, urging businesses not to forget about wider societal issues such as climate change, inequality and diversity.They must remain compassionate and caring – never losing sight of the impact of their behaviours on employees.And they’ll want to be proud of how they helped those in need, offering both business solutions and personal support.In the most simple terms, and summarized best by CEO, Bernard Looney: “I’d like to look back and say, you know, we helped people when they needed help.”

Grounds for optimism

Many businesses continue to struggle to manage through this crisis and may do for some time.We need to work together to help as many businesses as possible through this turbulent time but I remain optimistic that by keeping purpose at the heart of what we do, we can overcome today’s huge challenges and by remaining committed to a future where people, society and climate goals are closely aligned, we can create long term value and a truly sustainable future.


Listen to the webcast here or explore EY’s COVID-19 insights and materials: ey.com/uk/covid

Author: Mona Bitar. COVID-19 Response Leader, EY UK. April 2020