And what you should do about it

One of the silver linings about these pandemic times is seeing conventional wisdom get turned on its head. For instance, traditional economic theory tells you that in times of high unemployment, power shifts to the employer. Jobs are scarce, talent is plentiful, and employees keep their heads down and focus on their jobs. Yet, so far in this pandemic, we are seeing the opposite.

Employee activism is becoming even more amplified, with executives resigning at Amazon over worker safety, employees walking out at Facebook to demand the platform take more responsibility for its content, and senior management at Microsoft petitioning to stop providing police departments with facial-recognition technology. It hardly seems like employees are hiding under their desks—if they still have them.

Despite their noisiness, corporate employees are being cherished by their bosses. When asked about their COVID-19 priorities, one CEO after another tells us their top corporate priority is taking care of their people. In a recent survey of AHA clients and CSR colleagues, we found that finding ways to connect to employees was a major concern and priority. Of course, critics might claim this to be virtue signaling after the massive layoffs in March and April, but we believe there is something deeper going on. It’s worth understanding the forces behind this change and what they tell us about the world we’re stepping into.

The social contract is changing

What are the terms for a company’s social license to operate now? It revolves around health and safety first and foremost. What are you doing to keep people safe from the virus? The best way the public—and your customers—can tell this is by how you treat your employees. Each purchase now comes with a potential human cost to everyone in the long chain of people who make, ship and deliver the products and services we buy. And if we don’t think employees are safe, there’s a good chance we won’t buy.

Employees are your base

In many ways, the pandemic has functioned as a great clarifier, making it impossible to ignore the dilapidated state of so many American systems,” notes social commentator Anne Helen Petersen. From our health care system to our police forces, everything looks broken now, and people want more from corporations than standard CSR language and shows of solidarity. They want action. And as we saw in the reactions to corporate responses to George Floyd’s death, employees are often the first to decide if their company is on the right side of an issue.

Borrowing a phrase from politics, employees are now acting as a company’s “base” in the arena of social opinion. Energizing your base supporters is critical in building momentum and creating an expanding ripple of influence. Without the base, all is lost. Smart companies are responding to social issues in ways that signal their values to their employees, even if it costs them customers. Which brings us to a new understanding of the role of purpose.

Purpose is for real this time

The idea of company purpose was overused and losing saliency prior to the pandemic. Now it’s vital connective tissue for a dispersed workforce. Without buildings or human contact to shape culture and belonging, an active purpose can be the thread that keeps the organization together.

COVID-19 has forced us to get in touch with what matters in life, and companies that provide a path to meaningful work are showing themselves to be more resilient in turbulent times. Unilever CEO Alan Jope recently noted that his company sees purpose as a key factor to his company’s performance during the pandemic. “Our company is guided by three deeply held beliefs: that brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive. And we think that refrain is going to be even more relevant in a post-coronavirus world than in a pre-coronavirus world.”

What do employees really want right now? It gets back to simple needs. They want to feel safe. They want to belong to something that matters. And they want to see that you’re throwing your weight behind substantive change in the world. That’s why employee communications have never been more important. Show them purpose. Show them meaning. Give them a chance to be part of that, and you’ll have their hearts—and their tweets.

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