• The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on businesses and employees in consumer industries;
  • Business leaders in this sector and beyond must rethink the purpose of work, as well as how and where work gets done in a post-pandemic world;
  • With employees embracing remote working, how to best manage and engage an increasingly distributed workforce is of critical importance.

COVID-19 has hit consumer industries hard. These industries employ 20% of all workers worldwide with retail as the world’s largest private-sector employer. In addition to staggering business struggles and even failures, however, the pandemic has also compelled a much-needed breakdown of long-held orthodoxies about where and how employees work.

Born out of disaster and necessity, these shifts in how work is done have given business leaders a chance to throw away the old employment playbook. The consumer industries can – and should – emerge from the pandemic with new models and a workforce that is sustainably engaged, inclusive, diverse and resilient.

The World Economic Forum’s Consumer Industries Action Group (IAG) has been grappling with how best to capture this opportunity. A series of IAG CEO discussions has begun to articulate a bold path forward, looking through three broad lenses that shape employment: the fundamental purpose of work, where work gets done; and how work gets done, including finding and developing employees.

Jobs at risk in the US owing to the COVID-19 pandemic
Jobs at risk in the US owing to the COVID-19 pandemic
Image: Statista

1. The fundamental purpose of work

We propose that the idea of being a responsible business should not be considered as apart from growth and profit . The new employee value proposition must create a virtuous cycle, where purpose structurally and systemically drives employee development, enables inclusion and encourages economic development in underserved communities.

According to Accenture’s global COVID-19 Consumer Research, two-thirds of consumers expect companies to commit to higher ethical standards and be increasingly responsible to employees, customers, greater society and the environment in the wake of this pandemic. Meanwhile, a recent Global Shapers survey of 30,000 young people found that 40% viewed “an employer’s sense of purpose or impact on society” as the most important factor, after salary, in their decision to work for any company.

Statements of intent and charitable donations are unlikely to be seen as enough. All workers want to say: “My employer makes ethical decisions on behalf of society.”

2. Where work gets done

To follow through on purpose, we believe companies will need to start providing greater flexibility to build an inclusive workforce, without sacrificing productivity. Companies need a blended strategy supporting different parts of the workforce with combinations of in-person and distributed working.

This requires challenging the work that needs to be done in person. COVID-19 has shattered long-standing assumptions. During this time, many employees who have been able to work from home have expressed high levels of satisfaction. Accenture’s study found more than half of employees felt they could collaborate more easily and be more productive at home; while one-third planned to work from home at least one day a week in the future.

But this is not just about office-based workers: consumer industry leaders are increasingly having conversations about distributed manufacturing models, where individual workers are spread across multiple locations, facilitated by remote monitoring and management. The conversation needs to extend as far as it can to retail working and other settings where face-to-face engagement is vital.

How do new remote workers feel about working from home?
How do new remote workers feel about working from home?
Image: Accenture COVID-19 Consumer Research

Widening the lens, such flexibility can create economic growth outside of pre-pandemic “talent hubs”. If employees can locate anywhere, companies have the potential to support economically challenged cities, smaller towns, and rural areas by bringing jobs to people, rather than requiring people to move to jobs. Done right, this offers a huge range of opportunities to address inequality.

Finally, flexible work can address barriers to inclusion. Guardian Life found that flexible work is a significant enabler for persons with disabilities. Ultimate Software study found that 57% of women working remotely in 2019 reported a promotion, compared to 35% of women working in traditional office environments. In 2019 research, Zapier found that female knowledge workers (62%) are more likely than male knowledge workers (53%) to indicate their preference for the option to work remotely and say they were most productive when working from home (50% vs 37%).

All of these ideas have enormous potential, but there are challenges to manage. Some executives in a recent Wall Street Journal article noted that projects are taking longer with collaboration becoming increasingly difficult. To solve this, companies need to actively design these new ways of working. Some are talking about creating small teams blending HR and technology skills to champion the art of the possible, actively designing how physical and virtual engagement can be best combined.

3. How work gets done, including finding and developing employees

In the coming months, executives will need answers to the following questions:

  • How do we democratize decision-making across a far-flung workforce?
  • How do we offer apprenticeships, develop and reward people?
  • What mindset, management and mentoring approaches can supervisors embrace to ensure both productivity and control?
  • How should we manage legal or regulatory factors?

The immediate next step is clear: we need collective industry action on talent availability and development.

Collaboration during COVID-19 has shown what’s possible. When employment needs spiked in supermarkets and other essential retailers while hotels furloughed workers, leaders such as Walmart and Marriott joined the People + Work Connect platform to match underutilized workers with jobs. Companies can come together for the common good.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Remote working can further enable the use of “liquid” workforces, including affiliates, freelancers and consumers themselves. Cross-company professional certifications will enable this, making it easier for businesses to source the right talent. As the industry continues to pivot towards new skills, companies should partner closely with education and government to reskill workers over their entire lifetimes – for example, programmes such as Singapore's SkillsFuture. Collaborating across the industry to enable life-long learning could be one of the positive legacies of COVID-19.

Global survey findings are consistent: employees don’t want to return to old ways of working. It is up to business leaders to determine how far the consumer industries will develop in a way that is far better for workers, companies and the world at large.