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How the world views business in the age of COVID

Public opinion

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The world is enduring the same pandemic, but its impacts differ vastly between nations and populations. Nevertheless, people across countries and cultures have a remarkable consistency of vision when it comes to what the coronavirus recovery should look like.

They want a recovery that doesn’t simply resuscitate our old economy, but rather delivers a lasting response to the social and environmental challenges of our age. They expect national and local governments to lead the recovery, but they share a powerful recognition of the role of community and their own responsibility, too.

There is an opportunity for business to define for itself a new role: as the bridge between government and community.

Around the world, people are united on the issues that matter.

As a policy partner for government and a delivery partner for communities, businesses can be pivotal in delivering the social, environmental and economic change people around the world demand.

But this begs a question: Is the business world willing and able to step up?

A Bird’s Eye View recently conducted a survey across seven countries to understand people’s hopes and expectations for the future, how responsibility for change should be shared and what a new role for businesses could look like. The report can be downloaded here.

Here are some findings:

People are united on the issues that matter. Nine in 10 people in every country surveyed want the coronavirus recovery to tackle social and environmental issues as well as economic ones. Most people we asked said environmental and social themes had grown in importance since the pandemic.

Responsibility for change must be shared. Eight in 10 of those we surveyed expect their national government to lead the recovery. But the community and regional government are also given high priority. In some countries — Chile is a good example — local and community organizations are expected to take more of a leadership role than the national government.

Businesses and financial institutions are also seen to have important roles. The business community is not seen as being pivotal but could be.

People recognize the need to take personal responsibility, too. They are prioritizing their relationships and their health more, they’re rethinking their values and how they consume. Citizen initiatives such as France’s Citizen’s Convention are helping create new dialogue around the development of policy and empowering people to engage on the issues that matter.

People have clear expectations of how businesses should contribute. COVID has exposed the tensions inherent in people’s relationship with, and expectations of, the corporate world. There is a sense that business operates for itself and is part of a system that is increasing inequalities in societies. At the same time, people recognize its importance to the recovery and see businesses as a powerful force to create more shared economic prosperity.

Companies’ four key roles

When it comes to the role businesses should play in the recovery, people believe the corporate world should contribute in four important ways.

First, large businesses must improve their environmental impact. People expect the recovery to be green, and they expect businesses to lead it. They want investment in energy and low-carbon technology to tackle climate change, and they want businesses to stop polluting and protect natural capital.

Recently, Climate Assembly UK revealed the extent of the U.K. public’s support for a green recovery. People in France, traditionally at the vanguard of environmental stewardship, are focused on green issues, but developing countries such as Chile show growing environmental activism as well.

The second way the corporate world can contribute is to help build a fairer society. People want businesses to deliver fair wage and work conditions and create safer, more inclusive workplaces.

In many developing countries such as Nigeria, a safe and inclusive workplace is the absolute top priority ask of businesses. In Chile and France, people want corporations to improve the distribution of wealth in society. Coronavirus has pushed to the forefront the conversation about whether a new kind of capitalism is possible.

Third, we must recognize that small and midsize companies are vital to the recovery and do more to support their resilience. The International Trade Center has highlighted the impact of coronavirus on small business and rightly says their resilience should be made part of the multilateral trade agenda.

This is certainly the case in Italy, where the small businesses in the north that form one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses are crying out for support. It’s no less true in developing countries such as Indonesia, where small and midsize enterprises and informal workers power the economy. People who have little to no security want government and business to work together to protect them.

Finally, businesses must collaborate better. People want corporations to work more closely with governments for the common good, but also to engage more effectively with all stakeholders. Businesses need to develop the skills of a real team player.

Edelman, in its respected 2020 Trust Barometer, highlights people’s growing sense of inequity and injustice and a lack of trust in government leadership. Trust is a vital commodity that could create permission for more effective cross-sector collaboration. Business can do much to build and facilitate this.

The We Mean Business coalition is inspiring collaborative working between government and businesses to tackle climate change. Businesses can use their clout collaboratively to take on other great challenges such as healthcare provision and access to technology.

People across countries and cultures want a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable recovery. Many seek more collaboration and a return of human values. They look to government to lead and are prepared to take more personal responsibility for their own actions.

This is an opportunity for business to play a new role. Businesses can be an objective policy partner to the government on matters of trade, infrastructure development and investment in new sectors to help tackle key economic, social and environmental issues.

They can act as an interface between government and community to effectively execute on policy through products and services to help people take greater responsibility for themselves.

Those that tackle their environmental and social impact and work collaboratively with government and community to find answers to the biggest challenges our society faces are those that will thrive in the post-coronavirus world.

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