Sometimes it takes a crisis to make the impossible possible — and the current COVID-19 pandemic is just such a crisis. The disease has forced many companies to change how they work, in ways they had always dismissed as impossible before.
For example: many employees, especially 50+ workers and disabled workers, spent years requesting simple changes to how they did their jobs — only to be denied. Up until just a few months ago, it was common for managers to believe that remote work wasn’t feasible, that flexible scheduling would decrease productivity, or that paid sick leave was too expensive.
With COVID-19, that all changed. Suddenly, companies were scrambling to find new ways to stay in business — and what many managers had seen as impractical “special accommodations” suddenly became vital adaptations. “I was told I could never work remotely,” one worker told MarketWatch. Now he has the option — and so do all his coworkers, allowing the company to get the best out of all its employees.
Already, the companies treating their workers compassionately are winning. Just Capital, a nonprofit that evaluates business ethics and practices, found that companies which did well on their COVID-19 index also did well in the markets.
As Scott Frisch, the COO of AARP, puts it: “This pandemic is an adaptation accelerator. Fully understanding the value of an age-inclusive workforce is part of that adaptation.”
JUST Capital has been closely tracking companies’ reactions to the pandemic. In March, they created the COVID-19 Corporate Response Tracker, a tool that creates a comprehensive report on “how America’s largest employers are treating employees and consumers” during the crisis.
The tracking tool opens with a graph showing which measures were the most common — from opening community relief funds to closing stores. Scrolling further, readers can also drill down to find out exactly how each of the 301 companies included in the report reacted, and how their policies played out.
The data show that many companies are taking advantage of the pandemic to think compassionately and create solutions that keep employees — and the company — not only functioning, but adaptive and prepared for the future.
Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, these are changes that will also support a multigenerational and multi-ability workforce. That creates more diverse and deeply resourced workplaces, allowing companies to draw on their workers’ lived experience to respond quickly to a future in flux.
“Business leaders, in this period of great uncertainty, have to consider new ways to ensure business continuity and organizational resilience,” Frisch said. “A multigenerational workforce, with four or five generations working alongside each other—if not physically, then virtually—helps to meet these challenges.”
These companies “are prioritizing their focus on supporting the economy — their workers, communities, and consumers — and will see this benefit long term,” JUST Capital concluded. “It’s why we believe the COVID-19 pandemic will be the turning point in which we finally see the stakeholder-first model overturn shareholder primacy.”
Investors are taking notice. “In light of an unforeseen pandemic wreaking havoc across entire industries, measuring companies based on criteria like profits or shareholder returns just won’t feel right,” Fortune’s Dria Roland wrote. “Analysts predict that this year, the most important metric of corporate stewardship will be how a company responded to COVID-19.”
And consumers are also paying attention to which companies prioritize their workers’ health and safety. According to business analysis company Statista, consumers surveyed worldwide indicated that “a brand’s behavior during the outbreak would have a huge impact on their likelihood to buy their products in the future.” In short: “global consumers base their future decisions on how brands currently respond to the crisis.”
But it’s not just a matter of gaining a reputation for doing the right thing. Disruption from COVID-19 has created open space for companies to redefine how they do business in a way that maximizes the potential of all their workers — and that will have effects that last long after this crisis.
Faced with imminent destruction, companies began listening to their employees’ pain points — not just as a PR exercise, but as a survival strategy. For example, Walmart, which previously had 347,000 workers going without paid sick leave, announced and later extended an emergency paid leave policy for workers stricken by the virus. McDonalds, which had previously denied 517,000 of its workers paid sick leave, also announced a new sick leave policy. Those changes were presented as temporary, but the New York Times reported that another company, Darden Restaurants, which owns chains such as Olive Garden “has taken the lesson and announced that it will henceforth provide paid sick leave on a permanent basis.” Although these changes don’t address all factors that would help workers ensure their health and financial security, it is a good start and progress that will require a much longer commitment to job quality.
And for workers who haven’t been taken ill, companies have begun co-creating flexible systems, partnering with their employees for input. As more and more people work from home, it opens possibilities to maximize the capabilities of all kinds of workers – workers with disabilities, young workers who can save money by living further from the office and older workers who may be caring for small children or for aging parents. Using programs such as Slack and Zoom hasn’t proved as cumbersome as managers feared — in fact, they’re user friendly, and employees have been quick to adapt to them.
As Frisch said: “Workers across the age span are proving adept at teleworking. This will have lasting consequences.”
If we think creatively, we might change the way we work, for the better — and emerge to a better world.