As lockdowns lift (and are reinstated) around the world, and the economic impact of COVID-19 starts to become clearer, we are beginning to see the impact of decisions made in haste in response to an unprecedented global crisis which few businesses or leaders anticipated. Now is the time to pause, take stock, and carefully consider how ready you are for the challenges ahead.
In the early days of the pandemic, businesses and institutions were firefighting and dealing largely with logistical issues - how to operate (if at all) within new and changing restrictions, how to fix broken supply chains, and how to adapt or flex their services to meet (falling or soaring) consumer demand. The focus was on survival, and few businesses had bandwidth for considerations about how their decisions would be perceived and judged in the long term. Now that the dust has started to settle, we are starting to see the themes that will dominate as decisions are picked over and the mudslinging and recriminations start.
It is clear that leaders will be held to a different set of standards than has historically been the case. The human impact of a global health emergency, including its reminder of our own mortality, has reiterated how employees' wellbeing is no longer a peripheral concern. Businesses will be judged by how they have treated their people, and leaders will be criticised if they lack empathy and a genuine connection with their teams and their consumers. The overnight shift to wholescale remote working affected us all differently, and the huge disparities between those dealing with lock down in isolation and those trying to juggle work and childcare ought to be factored in when managers judge performance and reward during these extreme times. As lockdowns lift, those who manage physical spaces will also be closely watched in terms of how they act to keep people safe, and how they respond when protocols are breached. Such human considerations must also play a part in decisions around reward and remuneration, and characteristics including resilience and kindness may start to be better appreciated and applauded in the management and promotion of talent.
Business owners can expect greater scrutiny around the sustainability of their practices and the impact they have on the world. There is pressure – rightly – to "build back better". The pandemic has called into sharp focus the health of the natural world and the fragility of our engagement with it.
Society will increasingly focus on perceptions of fairness and ensuring that the greatest sacrifices are seen to be shouldered by those who can most afford it. Whether or not a business relied on Government support (including the furlough scheme), considerations around executive pay and shareholder dividends must be carefully thought through in order to strike an appropriate and acceptable balance.
So how then can organisations protect their reputations as they navigate at a time of unprecedented change?
One part of the answer is not to forget the fundamentals. It is tempting, when dealing with an all-encompassing and ongoing crisis, to focus on the most immediate concerns. We tend to push the broader and more familiar risks - like cyber security, regulatory compliance or whistleblowing - to the back of our minds. But the court of public opinion is unlikely to forgive failures to address known threats, even in the midst of a pandemic. At the same time worrying about, but not dealing with, latent issues, can drain you of the energy you need to tackle a real crisis and hamper your response.
The second part is about spotting and defusing underlying risks, and scanning the horizon for crises to come. Now is the time not just to address known threats, but to look ahead and think laterally, and to consult a broad range of advisors. Whatever it is keeping you awake at night at the moment, facing the problem and being prepared will be key to mitigating potential reputational damage in the months and years ahead.
It can be hard not to settle into a reactive mindset when the future is so uncertain, but informed planning is rarely wasted and always better than starting from scratch in the throes of a crisis. The businesses that have thrived in recent months are those that were agile and confident, rather than racing to catch up. Now is the time to pause, reflect, and look inside as well as outside your business for the issues that could escalate and, ultimately, threaten your reputation. A good reputation depends not just on what you do, but how you plan for what you do next.