Sue Halliday and Jack Harding explore how the reality of Covid-19 has challenged our assumptions about the purpose of business.
In A Grief Observed C S Lewis describes reality as the ‘great iconoclast’: it undermines our beliefs and destroys our idols. The reality of the pandemic has exposed the terrible myths and idolatrous dysfunction of our business world. Rather than return to business as usual, how might a more Christian ‘new normal’ look as a post-Covid reset of the business world? In this article we look at three pairs of competing ‘I’ words, relating to our humanity (individual or interconnected); our society (independent or interdependent); and our character (image or integrity).
Our humanity: individual or interconnected?
It's interesting to note that three of the countries that have suffered the most from the pandemic are among the most committed to the individual rather than a communal approach to society. These three (US, UK, and Brazil) also have the greatest disparities between the pay of the average employee and the top executives in firms, matched with a denial that this widening gap is any cause for concern. Current Covid-19 statistics suggest that the Enlightenment focus on the individual has weakened national resilience to this infection. Is this evidence that the heroic individual –a frequently invoked business idol –is weak rather than strong; is at odds with the physical and psycho-social realities of embodied, social, human beings? Reality is the great iconoclast.
Additional spikes of Covid-19 are appearing across Europe and in poorer north-western UK cities, as lockdowns ease, all the while the first wave of Covid is spreading around the world. Many UK citizens took skiing holidays in the Italian Alps at half term in February. During just one week in March 30,000 a day returned to the UK from Spain, a hotbed of the crisis at that point. Where we remain interconnected and when we connect, Covid flourishes. Security guards, bus drivers and carers have died in greater numbers than other jobs; they each interact with large numbers of the public in the course of their duties. This disease has shown how we are interconnected. Our response to this is to say, ‘Of course!’ We had an excellent spokesperson back in the 17th century, ‘No man is an island, entire to himself’.
The real world’s first lesson is that although business as usual tends to assume we live in a (false) context of individualism, instead we are undeniably and unavoidably interconnected. This assumption has maintained idolatrous dysfunction in the business and wider system.
Our society: interdependent or independent?
We are not only interconnected; we depend on one another. I am drinking a cup of coffee that feels absolutely necessary, yet I didn’t roast the beans, grow the plants, or even drive the delivery van. We may join with Tearfund noting, ‘Communities have come together and made huge sacrifices in order to save lives. Our interdependence has never been clearer, and we have realised what we are capable of as individuals and as a nation’. Many streets have created WhatsApp groups that arrange shopping for those unable to get out, etc. Families have needed the insights and wisdom of their older members; they have missed the care provided by grandparents.
Independence is our culture’s icon. To be successful is to be independent. Not all have suffered equally; the reality is that in the sea of Covid-19 we are in very different boats. City professionals have been able to leave Canary Wharf and the daily commute on crowded trains to ‘stay home’, where they have been largely unaffected directly by the disease. Yet the growth of online deliveries is a perfect example of the ‘independence’ illusion, showing how much the wealthy have in fact depended on ill-paid delivery drivers and vulnerable warehouse workers whose work has led them to take a hit from the Covid-19 virus.
Our economic wellbeing has been seen to be dependent upon our health, despite attempts to pit business and the economy against health in demands to exit lockdown and return to normal. Sick sandwich makers cannot continue; dying bus drivers cannot work; sick health workers reduce the time available for patient care across the health service; sick teachers mean class closures and parents needing to take time off work. Our health has also been so very clearly linked as dependent upon our economic wellbeing in a time of failing mental health. This pandemic has highlighted the falsity of the independence of our economic wellbeing and our physical and mental health.
Reality’s second lesson for us is that we are, and will continue to be, dependent on each other as part of interlocking social communities. From ‘the top’ to ‘the bottom’ of society we are all bound to one another in a meaningful sense. Business in the ‘new normal’ could take a lead in owning this, for the common good.
Our character: integrity or image
Tesco were quick to re-organise their stores into one-way systems and had a protocol to implement in the face of the pandemic, due to a dummy-run in 2018 for a catastrophic closure of their Headquarters. Their investment in planning, reviewing, and making further plans ‘just in case’ paid dividends in assuring staff and customer safety. ‘Côte at home’ was a new way of working for one branded chain of restaurants enabling staff to be employed and customers to be satisfied during lockdown. Online companies upped their delivery game and increased employment of drivers and instituted new systems to keep them two metres from meeting their customers at the door. Many small businesses soon set up online versions of themselves and connected to delivery companies to meet their customer and employee needs. The John Lewis Partnership is re-inventing its real estate into needed social housing from no longer needed retail space. Cycle shops increased their orders and switched up purchase of e-bikes as those relying on mass transit to work and shop moved to foot and pushbike to travel. Large companies such as Marks & Spencer, and small start-ups like Plumo, have donated percentages of sales to NHS charities. Hays is an independent travel company that publicly pledged to support its staff for as long as was possible. Integrity is the organising virtue that determines to do the right thing, and accepts reality as it is.
One Christian in political power, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, spoke very straightforwardly about the nature of the virus. It presented a genuine reverse to the kind of life Australians were accustomed to: individual, independent, and imagistic, much like the US and UK. The need for real change for the sake of solidarity with all fellow Australians was paramount in the real ‘new normal’ world. He was calm and clear about this in his televised talks. He has not sought one-liners that over-promised and under-delivered. Meanwhile other leaders in our family of nations have promised more than they were able to deliver, ignoring warning signs, describing a world that does not correspond to the one we call home. Those of us who long for a better ‘new normal’ wonder if there might not be ‘a truth’, ‘an end’, ‘a story’ that could begin to heal and unite us once again?
Reality’s third lesson is that a principled, characterful approach to life and leadership ensures that those led are aware of what is really happening – the good and the bad – and are able to imagine and act accordingly. Sweeping things under the carpet does not make them go away, and soundbites are not a nutritious diet.
In conclusion, intentioned.
The neo-liberal dogma that the purpose of the firm is to make financially defined profits for shareholders has been seriously questioned after some 40 years of pursuing this narrow focus. It is seeming more probable that ‘purpose’ or ‘ends’ is an essential point of reflection in business. Resilience is the ‘new normal’ watchword. It replaces efficiency, which is merely internal – it faces reality. Colin Mayer’s British Academy project on the purpose of business is sowing the seeds of business that could support the common good, could be seen as a positive force for intentionality and telos. He defines purpose as that which can ‘release the potential of business to profitably solve the problems of people and planet, and to prevent business from profiting from harm’. This definition of purpose gives room for intentional innovation. Net zero carbon emissions is likely to be achieved only if corporations include this as the business’ aim, since we must acknowledge it is business that contributes to overuse of resources. If the notion of a social licence for business is pursued, business could develop an intentional role in building up our society post Covid-19.
Rather than seeking a false, damaging, individual, independent, and imagistic existence, Christians in business should model a better ‘new normal’ for business. This means intentionally building interconnectedness, interdependence and integrity, that seek to honour and steward the resources, people, and natural world that God has made. Can we frame an approach to business that fits this story? Could that world better fit a story of a relational God wanting purposeful and intentioned business to help human flourishing? Intentionality needs to become the cornerstone of our business culture as we survive and thrive post-pandemic. The pandemic offers a possibility of a reset.
Prof Sue Halliday is the convener for Jubilee Centre's post-coronavirus task force on the purpose of business. This article was written with assistance from Jack Harding, research assistant for the taskforce.