Two things that none of us are going to run short of during this crisis are analysis and predictions. 

A chaotic and fast-moving situation, and many people stuck at home with time on their hands, has combined to produce a torrent of visions, think pieces and opinion – not always based on a great deal of evidence. 

With this in mind, we decided early on in the crisis that it might be helpful to pull together some contacts from our network into small discussions, give our views and get their feedback, to help refine the signal of true insights from the general noise. 

Our most recent of these discussions took place last week, and focused on the challenges that face values-driven organisations in particular as we start to think about the future after the pandemic. 

In attendance were:

  • Louise Barfield – Head of Marketing, hgh consulting
  • Anna Fielding – Senior Advisor, Economic Change Unit, and Ex-CEO, Finance Innovation Lab
  • Mark Gordon, Director of Communications and Partnerships at Power to Change
  • Anna Merryfield – Research & Fundraising Consultant, former Head of Community News at Social Spider
  • Christopher Moseley – Senior PR and Public Affairs Manager, London Business School
  • Simon Matthews and Daniel Stanley – Cohere Partners

As you might expect in such an event, the discussion ranged far and wide, but there were four main areas that emerged as the key challenges ahead, from the on-the-ground practical to visions of a future society:

Winners and losers of the new way of working

  • At a previous roundtable we’d heard about research showing individuals responded to the last financial crisis by seeking autonomy and independence over financial security and stability.
  • If the response to Covid is similar, we need to consider how else we can provide for autonomy, beyond pushing more people into an increasingly precarious gig economy. 
  • More participative and democratic governance structures could have a role to play here, particularly within larger organisations. 
  • Among the most obvious and ubiquitous of trends has been the rise in remote working. For some this has been a welcome change, but for others – whether those with children, or those living alone, for example, it has greatly increased pressures.
  • Values driven organisations should have a role in trying to address these discrepancies, supporting social contact and combating the negative mental health impacts. It’s not yet clear what the healthy middle ground between the centralised office, and the isolated homeworker looks like – helping find it should be a priority.

Time for Purpose to grow up

  • Corporate attempts to communicate their values during recent events have struggled – whether the widely mocked similarity of Covid Ads, or the statements of support for Black Lives Matter that have often been out of step with the evident lack of diversity in those organisations’ leadership. 
  • In general the confusion and complication of the last few months (and likely the future) is almost certain to increase public appetite for clarity and action on social issues over discussion and statements of intent.
  • Crucial will be how the ‘saviour’ mentality and sanctimonious tone of many corporate communications, asking people to make sacrifices,  will translate into them taking real pro-social action, for example on climate.
  • For many organisations, their ‘Purpose’, however well articulated and embedded, will have been designed for a very different cultural and economic context, and thus may not provide much of a useful guide in this entirely new setting. This could be true even for non-profit organisations.
  • How can you be purposeful when making employees redundant? When deciding where and how to cut costs? How do you balance your organisation’s mission and values with doing what it takes for it to survive? These are likely new questions for many.  

A collective response to a societal challenge?

  • When facing the challenge of the scale and universality of this pandemic, understandably central governments have taken the most prominent role, putting forward large programmes of public spending and support. 
  • Previously, values-driven organisations have sometimes shied away from venturing into politics – a few ‘activist brands’ aside (and then mostly in a US context), and notwithstanding the extraordinary cultural shift on racial justice of the last month.  
  • Given government decisions will be crucial in determining the future of society and economy post pandemic – and facing the climate crisis –  how and where can values driven organisations influence the shape of what comes next on a societal level? 
  • Beyond traditional policy advocacy or activism, what kinds of collaborations might be effective, and what are the barriers for this?
  • The relative lack of support for the third sector has already driven soul-searching about how that sector can have more influence – perhaps it is time for a wider cross-sector collaboration. 

The long transition – visions of the future on hold

  • In some of our early discussions, the general outline phases of the crisis seemed fairly clear – the emergency response of lockdown, followed by a transition period of new arrangements, hopefully progressing quickly to a debate on what comes next, between those looking to largely rebuild the system we had before, and those looking for a more fundamental reset in how our society and economy is arranged.
  • However, the last few weeks have seen us stuck in what seems now like a ‘long transition’ of indefinite length. Milestones that seemed crucial, like the track and trace system, or shops reopening, have passed with little fanfare. 
  • As this period has elongated, the debate over a future reset has seemed to quieten. Will the muddle of the transition result in the triumph of the status quo? Or are we optimistic to think we are even in a transition period, and will likely look back on this as part of the crisis proper, with an undulating pattern of release and restriction, and many of the heaviest impacts – particularly economic – still to come? On the horizon Brexit still looms, with the spectre of a ‘lost decade’ ahead.
  • The lack of clarity is most evident when looking at what is still the biggest issue of all – Climate. While there remains hope that the mass scale of coordinated action that has taken place in response to Covid-19 could pave the way for a similar mobilisation on climate, undoubtedly it has been knocked down the agenda by recent events. ESG stocks have performed better – but the pressure for economic growth at all costs will be strong. Regaining the initiative will be key. 

We’ve found the roundtable sessions we’ve held so far to be both interesting and useful discussions, and plan to hold more of them  over the next few months. If you are interested in attending one of these, please get in touch with Simon or Daniel – simon/daniel [at] coherepartners.com

 

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