Social distancing – an opportunity for business to reconnect with the society that it serves

    By Cathy Duff and Zyaan Davids Anter, Trialogue

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    There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to demand that all sectors of society act responsibly, ethically and collaboratively. Following his announcement on 15 March of a national state of disaster and the measures needed to combat the spread of Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa described this crisis as “the most definitive Thuma Mina moment for our country”. While we should all be responding to the call to do what we can to prevent the spread of the virus – aside from government – business arguably has the greatest ability to ensure that our people and economy withstand this defining health crisis of our time. 

    Trialogue, a responsible business consultancy, has been tracking corporate responses to Covid-19 and is advocating for businesses who haven’t already, to adopt the following decisive actions:  

    Ensure the health and safety of employees by implementing travel restrictions, work-from-home or flexible working policies, allowing staff who rely on public transport to stay home, and putting in place more stringent hygiene policies and practices. Companies should educate their staff about preventative measures, symptoms, and how to curb the spread of Covid-19 and keep them informed about latest developments and available public services. Companies can also consider covering the cost of testing and treatment for the virus among its staff, where relevant. In addition to ensuring physical health, companies can find creative ways to support the emotional wellbeing of their employees by facilitating support groups or establishing forums to assist staff to deal with the uncertainty and stress that they may be confronting. 

    Honour payment for contract workers, service providers and suppliers, as far as possible. This is especially incumbent upon big business that holds within its power the ability to support smaller business during this difficult time. Negotiating alternative work methods and schedules that avoid the delay of payments could go a long way in supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have far more cash flow restraints than the big businesses upon which they rely. Big business could also consider pre-paying for future services, delaying payment deadlines from SME debtors, and reviewing where the products and services of SMEs can be used or how they can be used differently during these times, for example through the provision of online training and workshops. 

    Protect customers by carefully reviewing the risks involved in accessing the company’s products or services and adapting the customer experience accordingly. Most retailers and restaurants have, for example, significantly upped their hygiene practices and made hand sanitiser readily and freely available for customers. Pick n Pay has introduced a special weekly pensioner shopping hour at their stores, to ensure that their elderly patrons who are more vulnerable to the virus have an opportunity to avoid the shopping rush and are given first access to available stock. Importantly also is that retailers should avoid inflating the prices of in-demand products during this period of panic buying. 

    Leverage core competencies, assets and products to contribute to fighting the pandemic. Healthcare and pharmaceutical companies can make the most obvious impact in this regard, but there are many other industries that can play pivotal roles in combatting the crisis. Banks, for example, can provide home loan repayment holidays to clients whose incomes have been impacted by the crisis, or provide SMEs with easier access to capital or better or delayed loan repayment terms. The media can help to ensure salient, non-alarmist and accurate information, not just with regards to tracking the number of infected people, but sharing information about available public services and support being provided in various communities, and educating the public on how to play their part in preventing the spread of the virus. Health insurers can cover the costs of associated medical care and private hospitals can provide free testing and/or treatment services. Companies can also advocate for and provide services that support resilience during this crisis, for example ICT companies can ensure that websites that share crucial Covid-19-related information receive zero-ratings, making them freely accessible to users.  

    Repurpose impacted assets and skills wherever possible. Many sectors, including the tourism, eventing, hospitality, sports, arts and workshopping sectors, will be severely negatively impacted by social distancing and quarantining measures and their assets and staff will be freed up for use by other, more positively impacted, sectors. Amazon in the US, for example, is hiring an additional 100 000 workers for its dispatch centres and is looking to employ waiters – who rely on tips for income – to join their team. Can retailers in South Africa do the same thing, especially now that restaurants are shutting down? Delivery companies could consider using tourist companies’ vehicles to augment their fleets and companies could use restaurants for food delivery to staff or repurpose guest houses as places for self-isolation for impacted staff. 

    Philanthropic contributions are more important than ever. Companies can support – with money and/or products – non-profit organisations that are working with communities by providing information, education and healthcare. More specific options include offering workbooks and activity books for children in multiple home languages, providing food parcels and testing kits to homes or masks and sanitisers to public transport depots.

    Participate in multistakeholder responses. As governments and business associations set up multistakeholder groupings to deal with the growing pandemic, companies should ready themselves to participate, offer their core competencies, funding and other resources to support these collaborative initiatives. 

    Covid-19 is fast proving to be the megaphone for what was already a growing call to shift from ‘business as usual’ to a more sustainable shared value approach. This period of physical social distancing could in fact also be presenting the business community with an incredibly opportune time to reconnect with the society that it serves, by practicing open and honest dialogue, negotiation and partnerships that benefit all of us in the medium term, as we crawl our way out of the quagmire, and in the long term, once we’ve forged new – and better – ways of working.