The legacy of 2020: a year of turbulence, transition and change?

Posted on 14th January 2021 | Thought Leadership

The legacy of 2020: A year of turbulence, transition and change.

Rob McKay, Managing Director of Sherrington Associates, looks back on 2020 – a year that has changed our society in ways that no one could have imagined 12 months ago – and asks how we can take the challenges of last year to create something more sustainable for the future...

Even before the pandemic struck the UK in March last year, many of us were already looking at the business landscape in the knowledge that elements of our society needed to change. With climate change rapidly moving up the agenda and the advancements in green energy, the time felt right to start implementing some fundamental adjustments across the business world. However, I am sure that very few of us were prepared for the catastrophic changes that were rapidly coming our way, thanks to the impact that Covid-19 had – and continues to have – on our lives.

As we face the early days of lockdown 3.0 in England, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also in the midst of their own lockdown restrictions, it’s hard to identify the positives of the last 12 months. However, while the pandemic has impacted our lives, our economy and to a large extent our freedom, there has also been an opportunity to take stock and reassess our personal and business priorities. Have we learned anything from our recent experiences that will help us navigate future challenges in a more resilient and sustainable manner?

A time to think, a time to change...

For many people, the initial few weeks of the first lockdown back in March 2020, was a time of great stress and uncertainty. When it happened, it felt like it came without warning, although in reality there had been plenty of signposts. Businesses across the country – and across the world – were forced to close or relocate to the home environment. There was genuine, warranted fear about the virus. To some extent almost 12 months on, the situation is much the same. However, the intervening months have provided some time to take stock and reflect.

Some commentators have already started to draw parallels between the urgent actions that were required at the start of the pandemic, and those that we need to take to address the big challenges, like climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and societal inequalities. In all these cases, the signs are stark, but in the majority of cases, the preparation just hasn’t happened. But to tackle the big issues, we need to consider how we can use the opportunities presented by the pandemic to make small changes in our everyday lives. Changes that will ultimately help in the wider battle with the issues that will impact us in the coming years.

Just two of the changes that should remain:

One thing the pandemic has taught us is the fact that, with the right support and IT infrastructure, there are many instances where employees can work happily and productively from home. Many large organisations are acknowledging this and are looking at developing their policies to enable a more flexible approach to location to become commonplace long after the restrictions of lockdown have been lifted. This will most likely develop into a hybrid of home and office working, to suit the business and the individual.  However, it is not only the company and the employee that wins in this instance – there is a positive carbon impact too, with fewer people commuting to work on a daily basis. 

The working world has become more human.  As meetings transitioned from in-person to online, people became more forgiving of technical issues and home-life interruptions – from barking dogs to needy children. Challenges around mental health became more recognised and widely discussed, with people taking the brave step of sharing how they really felt, while others took the time to listen.  While ensuring the necessary IT infrastructure is in place is important, businesses will do well to remember that their employees are first and foremost people – each with their own lives, pressures and challenges outside the working environment.

Rising to the challenge

The time to act is now. It is important that leaders harness these opportunities as they present themselves.  Now is the time to address previously unanswered questions and look at ways of implementing positive and lasting change. Phrases like ‘pivot’ and ‘reset’ are currently being overused, but for good reason. Even before the onset of Covid-19 there was an appetite for change. The UN introduced its 17 interlinked Global Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, with the aim of providing a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’ by 2030. These include goals from ‘good health and wellbeing’ through to ‘gender equality’, ‘affordable and clean energy’ and ‘sustainable cities and communities’.

However, for many companies a shift in organisational culture will be needed too. A business’s culture is at the heart of everything it does and even if it is not writ large on posters on the walls, it will still be visible through the team’s actions in a thousand different ways, every working day. 

How sustainability recruitment can make a difference...

Culture is set from the top. Leading businesses are starting to recognise the importance of hiring senior executives with a sustainability mindset as a means of change and improving a company’s profitability, productivity and employee engagement. Recruiting sustainable leaders makes good business sense, as it helps balance the, sometimes contradictory, requirements of people, profit and planet.

Simply setting sustainable goals is not enough to make a business sustainable. There needs to be a true commitment to sustainability, throughout the organisation from the top. Recognising the qualities that make a sustainable leader and recruiting specifically for those attributes will go a long way towards reforming a company’s culture. 

We have seen a rapid acceleration in the level of awareness of the need for ‘purposeful business’ in the last 12 months. Whilst the debate about business’s role in the world has gone on for decades, in many ways, the pandemic has been the catalyst for widespread acceptance that things truly need to change.  Let’s hope as we move through 2021 and beyond, more and more organisations evaluate their place in the world and consider how they can contribute to the collective effort of tackling global challenges that affect us all.