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Article: Why are organisations here? COVID-19 and the reimagining of purpose

Rarely will we experience a year in peacetime that has been dictated by a single event to the extent that COVID-19 shaped 2020. 

Not many facets of our personal and working lives have been left untouched. And the pandemic continues to cause tremendous health, social and economic hardship as the global vaccination race attempts to keep up.

For businesses, although there have been a handful of digitally-savvy winners, vast swathes of industries are picking up the pieces left by a trail of devastation caused by various shutdowns and restrictions on activity.

Although it is tough to model, there are estimates which pinpoint the global economic impact of COVID-19 to be the equivalent of 4.5% of global GDP. This, when measured against 2019 values, weighs in at around $3.94 trillion.

But the past 18 months or so have also been a period of transformation, defined by our innate ability to adapt in the face of a crisis.

Drastic reductions in human-to-human contact have forced companies to adopt digital working models at breakneck speed. According to McKinsey, firms accelerated the digitisation of customer interactions by an average of three to four years in the space of a few months in 2020.

Organisations are also realigning and redefining their purpose – not only in response to the immediate situation they face, but in anticipation of what the world might look like on the other side of the pandemic.

Indeed, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on a fundamental question: Why are we here?

In compiling the Nature of Work concept, which views organisations as living organisms as opposed to industrial machines, we are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of enterprise; one which not only has a purpose beyond survival (by making a profit), but also in the role it has in bettering our world.   

A compelling reference point you can use is trees. They absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, fundamental to all life on this planet, and their roots also help to combat soil erosion and run-off by absorbing water.  

“These roots quite evidently exist on one level to feed and structurally support the individual tree, but it is perhaps less obvious that they also have multiple other functions, such as connecting that tree with its neighbours, assisting in a cooperative way with the distribution of resources, relaying signals, and so much more.”

— Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes, Nature of Work: The New Story of Work for a Living Age 

Yes, the surges in digitisation reflect a sense of pandemic survival instinct, but we are also observing a rethinking of purpose at an organisational level. Interestingly, sectors which have been threatened the most provide the most tangible examples.   

Let’s take hotels. Brought to a near standstill by travel restrictions, revenues have almost entirely disappeared, leaving their premises unoccupied.   

A simple and understandable response, one driven by the survivalist purpose, would be to minimize losses by closing and tapping into as much financial support offered by governments as possible.   

Many have done this, but many have also realigned and broadened their purpose during the pandemic to the betterment of the world or ecosystem around them.  

In the UK, large numbers of hoteliers offered their sites to the National Health Service as overflow capacity to help handle enormous surges in demand created by the pandemic. Companies such as Best Western jumped on board, with not-for-profit Process C-19 being established by hospitality and medical leaders to open up hotels to increase NHS capacity.  

Stateside, the American Hotel & Lodging Association offered hotel properties as vaccination centers to help with the country’s ongoing rollout, pointing to how their large venues, meeting rooms, parking facilities and outside spaces can be repurposed effectively.  

Around the world, many hotels are also serving as quarantine centers either for those infected with COVID-19 or for travellers who must abide by isolation regulations.  

These are striking examples of a move away from the survivalist answer to the ‘why are we here’ question, and towards a new precedent set by the pandemic which is to serve local communities.  

Indeed, staycations are set for a big bounce this year. You may be even planning one yourself given the uncertainties still remaining around international travel. For organizations, this means that focusing on locality provides a commercially viable and durable form of purpose which can build on the support offered during the COVID-19 crisis.     

“There's been a reawakening in appreciating small-town life, our families, quiet communities, reconnecting with nature and unplugging from technology. There's an argument to be made that when travel resumes to pre-pandemic levels, it will be done with a greater sense of purpose and appreciation for local communities and the environment." 

— Karan Khanna, Managing Director, UK & Ireland, IHG Hotels & Resorts 

The question as we emerge out of the pandemic crisis is whether more hoteliers will adopt approaches that greater appreciate their locality and immediate community. Likewise, will those hotels which have reimagined themselves during these times of hardship retain this new way of thinking?  

As future generations enter the workforce with differing perspectives on purpose, perspectives which are leaning towards addressing profound societal and environmental issues, employers across all sectors will be challenged to truly identify what it is that makes them a positive contributor to their surrounding ecosystem. 

How does your organisation define its purpose? Has this changed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic? These are key questions that will be addressed at the Nature of Work Festival in September.  


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