COVID has killed the corporate. Now, working on the principle that said corporate was soulless, lazy, and divinely uninspired, this is no bad thing; perhaps we needed the break. After all, the pre-virus business world was an Old Boys’ playground, rife with the elitist persecution of anyone whose fathers didn’t row together at university. You know the sort. Worst of all was the disillusionment: that, perhaps, the Ol’ American Dream was nothing but goading fabrication, that every thankless climb to the top was thwarted by a Gordon Gekko type ready to prise weary fingers from the top rung of the corporate ladder. Simply put, something needed to change. So whilst many are quick to decry the economic car-crash that was COVID-19, there is one singular, inviolable truth to the whole thing that comparatively few seem ready to talk about: the chance to start again.
Sounds biblical. And, like some decidedly woke, millennial ancestor of the snake from the Garden of Eden, you might disregard me as bringer of a truth that will never come. Corporate relations are too far gone, you say. Don’t tempt us with something that will never happen. However, as businesses tanked and mass redundancy rendered many destitute and hopeless, we saw this ‘chance’ made good. For, despite all the trauma of the last two years, we’ve seen a new kind of venture arise: the compassionate corporation.
It might seem too good to be true; businesses that care about their employees, independent shops run by creatives channelling their artistic brilliance in the wake of unemployment, those who took the opportunity offered by COVID to wriggle free from beneath the wheel of industry and start the kind of businesses that they wanted to see more of. But it’s happening. And in a kinder, freer, post-pandemic world where these businesses may just have a chance to succeed, we need some new rules to replace the ones that the virus destroyed.
Rule Number One? Empathy.
Now, empathy and business might seem like the weirdest pairing since Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, but as our master-toking, Dutchie-passing D-O-double-Gs can attest, just because it’s strange, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And, much like the Dogg-Stewart partnership, empathy in business is about making connections which might seem alien and unfamiliar: particularly in larger companies, it’s not possible to talk to everyone individually, but it’s crucial to know who’s working for you and what makes them tick. Post-pandemic empathetic leadership has to reflect this; not only should you own your story, but accept other people’s too.
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It’s about understanding that not everyone has a sure-fire way to the top, that they’ve carved their own path and might need a little more help getting there. It’s about supporting the needs of clients in a way that puts your employees first. Entrepreneurship should feel like a family experience; empathetic leadership is how we should understand the crazy, dysfunctional, mutually-encouraging dynamic that we all want to foster in our own workplaces. An empathetic leader listens, champions differences, and advocates for diversity and inclusion in a way that shows they care about names, not numbers. In our new, post-COVID business age, it’s important that we appreciate those we interact with beyond mere niceties if the virus has taught us anything, it’s that being a little kinder to those we depend on doesn’t hurt.
That makes Rule Two kindness, right?
Not according to Vishal Garg, the charming Chief Executive of US mortgage firm Better.com, who, this week, fired 900 employees en masse. Via Zoom call. You have a great Christmas too, Vishal. While that puts Mr. Garg and Co. firmly on the naughty list until at least the next recession, it’s also a masterclass in demonstrating everything that internal communication should not be. In our first year post-COVID, we’ve learnt the hard way that it’s crucial to be decent to everyone. Everywhere. At all times. It’s that simple. Do it.
I’m kidding, of course. But in all seriousness, the time for cruelty is over. The last two years were awash with worker exploitation, from British Airways’ unscrupulous ‘fire and rehire’ schemes, to Amazon, that bastion of corporate probity, culling employees who complained about feeling “terrified and powerless” at their maskless, unsanitized working conditions.
Simply put, it’s not fair. And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is someone who matters. They’re a mother, a sister, a daughter or a son, a father or a brother, a cousin or a friend. They deserve an employer who recognises that. During COVID, this kind of internal communication was crucial for all enterprises, not only industry titans like Amazon and BA. As their employees would attest, a little kindness from Lord Bezos and his lackeys might have gone some small way to communicate what was going on in an unprecedented time for everyone. It’s no coincidence that new businesses started not despite, but because of the pandemic, showed corporate behemoths how it was done. Because they were built from nothing during a period of international crisis and economic uncertainty, these businesses brought a fresh perspective to internal communications that focused on team spirit, not stats or competition: it was the empathetic leadership of people facing huge adversity who made lockdown ventures work. Many of these businesses began because there was little else to do; from African home-cooking delivery services to grow-your-own seed farms, COVID entrepreneurs from all over the world spoke out about the difficult conditions that led them to found their own companies in authentic and sustainable ways.
That brings us onto our final Rule: Honesty.
Not so hard, really. You might call this the Big One. Why? Because it’s so easy to do. Post-pandemic corporate honesty is all about owning your story, telling the truth, and striving to do better for those around you. It means creating a more authentic form of internal communications, whereby you create a team, not a hierarchy- it doesn’t mean weakness. It’s not some kind of business conspiracy, reserved for spineless entrepreneurs who have no other way to control their founder story. It’s explaining what it means to be you and how you got where you are today.
In other words, it’s time to kiss the Boys’ Club goodbye. It’s no more telling your secretary to follow you on LinkedIn, that, yeah, you do believe in increased corporate transparency between employers and employees. “I’m sensitive too,” you say, as she subtly prepares to staple your hand to the filing cabinet.
Believe it or not, this no longer constitutes networking. Macho business relations are dead. Honesty, integrity, and authenticity are the orders of the day for anyone who understands that the pandemic has (rightfully) forced us to re-evaluate how we present ourselves to those we work with. It’s more than just ‘not lying’. It’s warmth, openness, frankness. It’s about laying bare your mistakes, and working with your employees to make it better. Business means more than Fortune 500 bigwigs in glass offices. It’s owning your story, decluttering your narratives, and being brave enough to admit imperfection in a world that’s known for shutting out those who don’t fit in.
So, there you have it: the revised Holy Trinity of internal communications. Of course, it’d be easier to ignore them, to pretend that the tide hadn’t turned on the Old Order, that the pandemic hadn’t served to sweep decades-long abuses of power back out to sea. It might not happen immediately, but before too long, we’ll see the lessons of COVID-19 made good: starting with these intrepid Corona-time entrepreneurs, empathy, kindness, and honesty will become the norm in boardrooms all around the world. For now, though? We wait.
Besides, if you ever happen to feel the familiar, unscrupulous pull of Bezos and his ilk dragging you back to the depths of Business Hell, remember this: ‘Blue Origin’ won’t be the last time we’ll see Jeff in a jumpsuit.
(Author: Anna Hanlon)Interested in the Own your Story program? Please drop us a line