Driving business to Build Back Responsibly

Post author image. Katy Neep
Image of Katy Neep, Head of Campaigning, Education

Katy Neep, Head of Campaigns – Education at Business in the Community (BITC) writes about BITC research on what members have learnt from COVID-19 and how they intend to build back responsibly.

The impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented, not just in the tragic impact on lives, or the disproportional impact it has had on our most disadvantaged communities, but also in terms of what we have seen can be achieved. As lockdown restrictions ease and we all negotiate living in a ‘new normal’, we must not lose the opportunity to understand what factors made change happen at a pace previously unimaginable, and apply this to address the underlying (and pre-existing) inequalities and climate challenges that COVID-19 has so dramatically highlighted.

“Business leaders are the necessary heroes of the next decade and they
are the ones who will change the world.”

Richard Curtis

Now is our moment to not simply slip back to a new normal, seeing the last few months as a series of heroic acts, but instead to seize the opportunity and build back responsibly.

To drive this, BITC has spent the last month in conversation with over 100 business leaders and a further 500 practitioners and partners to understand what COVID-19 has taught us about how we could turn ambitions into priority actions and work together to build back bolder, faster and at scale.

In gathering the insights and hearing from individual and corporate experiences it has been fascinating to understand how ‘what if’ thinking has enabled real change to happen at a pace and scale previously unimaginable — none more so than in the area of flexible working and corporate travel. Overnight, organisations have had to pivot to enable entire workforces to work at home, which has presented real opportunity but also highlighted issues around inclusivity and access.

Moving forward from this emergency response, businesses are beginning to explore the impact that this will have on how they make use of office space moving forward. There is an optimism that this could lead to the end of job roles linked to large HQ’s and therefore the ability to recruit talent regardless of postcodes.

The rapid shift to homeworking has highlighted a risk that greenhouse gas emissions generated in employees’ homes will go unaccounted for, as it is not mandatory to report on. Bulb, an energy company, and EcoAct, a consultancy, estimate that 470,000t carbon generated by increased homeworking will go unreported by business in the UK in 2020 for this reason. Could this offer a point for deeper engagement with employees, as PwC and JLL have done through sharing tailored guidance on sustainable living?

The interplay between wellbeing and working from home — or indeed sleeping at work — was a common and strong theme. Many organisations feel that the move to remote working has empowered colleagues to share their experiences across platforms with access to a much wider audience than before. The interplay between health and nature is revealed as colleagues share photos or blogs about taking time out to walk, or tend to a herb garden thrown together on their balconies.

This optimism is, however, couched in concerns around inclusion and the growing feeling that we may be going backwards on environmental progress. Digital inclusion is now a human right but there are whole communities who continue to live in tech poverty, and an even larger group of people who lack the skills and confidence needed to maximise on the opportunity that digital now presents.

COVID-19 and recent Black Lives Matter activity highlighted some of the vast inequalities within our society. Many expressed that the public attention on these topics had helped employees to find their voice and for bosses to find their ears, leading to more open and honest conversations in the workplace.  

There was a desire from businesses to grasp the same passion and focus, in a bid to tackle the climate crisis: to take the risks seriously, plan for them, and be as innovative and collaborative as we have been when working on the solutions. This is coupled with a real concern about how we can mitigate against some of the changes implemented to protect us from coronavirus: a rise in plastic bag usage, takeaway packaging, bottles of hand sanitiser and disposable masks – where will this waste end up?

Over the summer we will be testing these insights across our members, partners, and communities to create our priorities for responsible business which will be published to coincide with the UN General Assembly. It is then that the hard work will begin as we try to ensure that we drive across an agenda that is now more urgent and ambitious than ever before.