The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed many aspects about who we are as humans, the state of our economies and the reliance we have on the ability of those who control our purse strings - literally placing our lives in their hands.
On the one hand, the challenges faced by lockdowns, social-distancing, restricted business and the ever present spectre of the unseen disease, have banded people together in solidarity. It has shown how when the chips are down, and our human existence is threatened, that we can dig deep, find empathy for one another and rekindle what has been sorely lacking in the relentless march of materialism and ego, that we can indeed be kind.
On the other hand, it has also glaringly highlighted the fragility of global supply chains and our inter-dependency on them and each other. It has also exposed the underbelly of the cut-throat business of getting ahead of the competition and staying there, along with opportunistic politicking.
No one can really predict what is going to happen post-Covid-19. However, there is a reasonable assumption that there will be several business sectors that will need to experience wholesale change, while some will cease to exist, and others will thrive.
That is true of course of every challenge that faces anyone at any given time but, in this instance, it is the sheer scale of the change that is coming that is making us all sit up and take notice.
However, future business success will not only depend on a business’s ability to re-engineer itself but in how it has gone about its business during the pandemic. By that, I mean how it has risen to the challenge but also how it has treated its staff and its customers during this period.
Before the pandemic there had already been signs of a shift ,with consumers choosing to spend their money on brands that actually do good, not ones that just say they do or will do so. I believe this to be the key to better business and the way the world will work in future.
However, empathy economics to date has swung around how a product or service is packaged and marketed to elicit emotive responses. I believe that is changing. Doing good hardly ever entered a company’s parlance as a means to boost balance sheets. Once the domain of NPOs only, doing good is going mainstream - it’s about time.
Empathy economics during this Covid-19 pandemic has ripped off the Band-Aids and pretty packaging and at the core, it is now all about how businesses are genuinely helping their teams, suppliers and customers. The more genuine they are in their efforts to assist and connect with people on a deeper level of understanding for who they are and what they face, the more likely businesses are to garner support - now and going forward.
I like to think that these actions are predicated on altruism brought on by the desperate need to help others, having identified in themselves a similar need, as well as making good business sense, although I know that it is not always so.
This new era in doing business for good and that feels good, will also extend to the citizenry holding businesses to account, in as much as contracts awarded need to be delivered on. People the world over, have found their voices and they are not afraid to use them. They are more “connected” than ever - not just in terms of the internet and digital communication, but there is a flow of energy that is firing and growing. We are after all, carbon-based energetic lifeforms.
This growing awareness and human inter-connectivity should sound a strong warning to those who in the past, have taken the free ride the bus stops here.
While the people will speak up and vote with their wallets and purses as to who they will support, it is also up to business itself to hold each other to account. Not that I am advocating watchdogs and big sticks, but rather integrity committees.
Yes, we have corporate governance rules and regulations in place across business, but I believe we should go beyond crossing the “Ts” and dotting the “Is” just because we have to, to a state of empathy at foundation level, which will then automatically guide businesses to do the right thing.
The chaos of the last few years, where businesses have been found wanting in all sorts of departments and on all sorts of levels, resulting in cataclysmic crashes, failures, autocracies and dictatorships, has bred a fundamental distrust of corporates and governments alike (from within their own ranks and externally).
This is purely because greed has sat at the core of how business is done - there’s always something in it for someone. Incorporating integrity and empathy into everything we do at a foundation level will serve to redress this deficit and ensure there is always something in it for everyone.
While I salute and acknowledge all businesses the world over, who are donating product, services and money to the cause of keeping the world afloat, without pontificating, it is because of obscene profits that they are in a position to be able to do so.
That, too, has not escaped the attention of an alert and aware populace. While, there is absolutely nothing wrong in making a profit, the spoils need to become more equitable in order to redress the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots.
As I have written about before, Covid-19 has taught us that we can all do with less, which means there is more to go around and it has also shown that quality trumps quantity.
If my opinion sounds too “out there”, then let’s look at the numbers. In 2015 and 2016, a UK company called The Empathy Business, released an Empathy Index. This showed that those companies that ranked high in their empathy in business, increased their value by more than twice those in the bottom of the 100 companies that were reviewed.
They also generated 50% more earnings according to Belinda Parmar founder of The Empathy Business. Likewise, several polls have shown that chief executives the world over, believe that having an empathetic corporate culture increases productivity within their ranks. Take that outside and carry it into everything a company does, and it will naturally multiply.
I read the book Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson and was fortunate to see the interview with her. Her timely book tells us that even at Harvard Business School, the world of capitalism is being thought about differently.
Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in people and in businesses. Going forward, empathy could very well be the medicine the world needs to heal - across the board.
* Dr Iqbal Survé is a physician, philanthropist and entrepreneur. He is the chairperson of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and executive chairperson of Independent Media.