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What changes to industry and society will 2021 bring? Here’s what business leaders say

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Laboratory technician Wardo Abdalla works inside the Medipark Diagnostics Lab that runs tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mogadishu, Somalia October 14, 2020. Picture taken October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RC2ZWJ9BT2X4

Here's how we can drive responsible business transformation and growth. Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

Even prior to COVID-19, our world was facing a number of challenges that made our current systems unsustainable, from rising inequality to a need to rapidly reskill populations for the jobs of the future to accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss, to name just a few.

Now, the pandemic’s health, economic and societal impacts have exacerbated these challenges.

Recovery, wrote Forum Founder and Chairman Klaus Schwab in June, requires a “‘Great Reset’ of capitalism.”

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We must “act jointly and swiftly to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions. Every country, from the United States to China, must participate, and every industry, from oil and gas to tech, must be transformed,” he said. And it demands “private-sector engagement every step of the way.”

What exactly does this reset look like? Furthermore, how can the private sector step up to meet these challenges – including reducing carbon emissions and waste, closing the skills gap, making workplaces more diverse and inclusive, and reducing inequality and promoting wellbeing across their companies and supply chains, to name just a few?

Marking the launch of the Forum’s Great Reset Initiative, The Davos Agenda is mobilizing global leaders to work together virtually to discuss these questions. An entire week of global programming is dedicated to helping leaders choose innovative and bold solutions to stem the pandemic and drive a robust recovery over the next year – with Day 2 (26 January) focused on driving responsible industry transformation and growth.

Ahead of the meeting, we invited World Economic Forum Strategic Partners to share ideas on how to drive better business and a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for workplaces and society.

‘ESG is good for business’

Vindi Banga, Senior Partner, Clayton Dubilier & Rice

We enter 2021 at a time of great – perhaps systemic – challenges, but more importantly, extraordinary opportunity. Businesses have seen enterprise risk associated with environmental and social performance take center stage in the board room. Being responsible means you cannot deplete the planet’s resources for your own business purpose or wealth. In fact, if you shift the debate, you see clearly why ESG is good for business. It’s not something to do because people want you to do it. It’s creating value by doing more with less. It’s enabling productivity by building more equitable and satisfied communities and workplaces. I grew up in India in a house where everything was reused. When you think about the value chain that recycling can offer, you see value in waste. So, there’s going to be threat on one side, but huge opportunity on the other. We live in the same society in which we do business. You can’t separate those two. And that’s how we deliver responsible industry transformation and growth.

4 pillars of stakeholder capitalism
4 pillars of measuring stakeholder capitalism Image: World Economic Forum

‘The power of empathetic leadership’

Mark Foster, Senior Vice President, IBM Services

A staff official wearing protective mask and shield looks on at a Keels super market, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 17, 2020. Picture taken June 17, 2020. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte - RC2SEH97W3CM
Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The pandemic created one of the most disruptive periods in history for businesses – and forever shifted how employees expect employers to support their well-being, skills development and more. Looking ahead, and recognizing that future disruptions are inevitable and unpredictable, leaders must redouble their focus on creating a work environment that accommodates and adapts to employees' personal and professional needs, and the technologies that make this holistic approach possible. We can't underestimate the power of empathetic leadership to drive employees' confidence, effectiveness and well-being amid disruption, and creating a continuous learning culture to acquire skills needed as technology and new ways of working rapidly evolve. Positive change also requires focus on diversity and inclusion – building an environment where people can bring their full selves to work - and new support for physical and mental well-being. If employers fail with their people, there could be major repercussions down the line.

‘Prioritize wellbeing’

Liz Hilton Segel, North America Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

To truly build a more resilient workforce and rebuild the economy in 2021 and beyond, employers should prioritize wellbeing, which is the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy. Wellbeing can be achieved when our mind, body and sense of purpose lead us to feel positive about ourselves and satisfied with our lives. Businesses should treat wellbeing as a tangible skill, a critical business input and a measurable outcome.

Women, LGBT employees and people of color are more likely to report acute challenges during the pandemic
Women, LGBT employees and people of color are more likely to report acute challenges during the pandemic. Image: McKinsey & Company

Diversity is ‘business-critical’

Thomas Kim, Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, Thomson Reuters

We are in the middle of a cultural shift in many corporations. Having a diverse workforce that reflects our customer base is business-critical. There is overwhelming evidence that diverse companies are more innovative, productive and perform better financially. The role of an executive in shaping the future has never been more important than now.

Across industries, executives and managers have had a unique opportunity to drive conversations around social justice and racial inequality, while juggling the need to keep a remote workforce together and engaged over a sustained period of time is a challenge. Leadership must help maintain morale, remain productive, and delight customers while facing unprecedented personal stress and pressure.

It is a great privilege to be a member of an executive team that works collaboratively to navigate these tumultuous times and take our company forward into the future.

Drive ‘resiliency, profitability, sustainability’

Christian Klein, CEO, SAP

In this unpredictable environment, companies need to achieve incredible business outcomes – across all dimensions. They need to drive resiliency – allowing them to steer their company through challenging times and adapt quickly to change. They need to drive profitability – both top and bottom line, enabling growth and increased productivity. And they need to drive sustainability – by reducing carbon footprint, waste, improving working conditions and transitioning to the circular economy.

‘Be actively anti-racist, in any form’

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman of the Board, Kearney

Racial injustice isn’t a U.S. problem; it’s a human problem. Fighting it requires more than personal commitment to change and a decisive shift from intent to action. Business leaders must be authentically engaged stewards to drive progress for the next generation, to deliver fundamental outcomes of belonging and workplace joy and justice. We must be actively anti-racist, in any form, whether micro-aggressions, discrimination, segregation, conscious bias or blind spots. While all people want to be safe, and to be seen and to be supported, we need to go even further and actually inspire. Lead by example and tenacity. Kearney is all-in committed to partnering for racial justice in business.

Create workplace cultures ‘where underrepresented minorities thrive and advance’

Manny Maceda, Worldwide Managing Partner, Bain & Company

The past year underscored our shared humanity. We saw how we depend on one another for our health. We also saw, as a racial reckoning shook the world’s conscience, that we have done too little to address inequities in our society. Racial inequity is a complex global challenge, particularly acute in the US. Companies have a unique opportunity to attack the wealth gaps that epitomize and perpetuate inequitable outcomes. Hiring is critical, but I believe 2021 will see higher priority placed on retention, on creating cultures where underrepresented minorities thrive and advance. People stay at companies where they feel they belong. They thrive when they get the support they need. They have confidence in their own potential for success at companies they trust. In 2021, companies must begin a journey of continuous improvement by asking: Do we create a sense of belonging, offer sufficient support and earn the trust of every employee?


‘Public-private cooperation’

Bob Moritz, Chairman, PwC

If we are to realise the ambitions of a reskilling revolution, and effectively close the global skills gap, it will mean pulling on a series of levers that are all underpinned by public-private cooperation: lifelong learning, proactive redeployment and re-employment of people, funding, and the ability to anticipate what skills are needed in the jobs market. We must address both the supply and demand sides — upskilling people and having good jobs ready for prepared workers. This will necessitate collaboration and commitment among governments, businesses and educators.

While the challenges are large, they are not insurmountable. Because in times of great crises, we can respond with great purpose. It’s time to seize the opportunity before us and create lasting change for generations to come.

Perceived barriers to the adoption of new technologies
Skills gaps are seen as the top barriers to the adoption of new technologies in the workplace. Image: World Economic Forum

‘Come together around a shared purpose to shape a healthier future’

Vas Narasimhan, M.D., CEO, Novartis

The international community is at the tipping point of a new era in health – an era in which we have the opportunity to embrace digital healthcare and dramatically improve human health on a global scale. In the face of a devastating pandemic that has rattled the world, we’ve brought within our reach the right technological advances, the right talent and a renewed sense of commitment to meet this moment.

If we come together around a shared purpose to shape a healthier future in our time and for generations to come, we can ensure the story of the COVID-19 pandemic ends with a bold global movement that embraces digital healthcare. And we can ensure we come out on the other side of this pandemic with stronger health systems and a refueled, refocused, cross-sector collective of leaders that will prove once again, as our species has for centuries, that science-based progress rises to the occasion when humanity is most in need.

‘Unite together for racial equity, justice and economic empowerment’

James Quincey, CEO, The Coca-Cola Company

As part of our purpose to refresh the world and make a difference, The Coca-Cola Company believes we must unite together for racial equity, justice and economic empowerment – critical pillars for both inclusive societies and the future of work. Alongside civil society, government officials and fellow business leaders, we can find solutions that help bring an end to the cycle of systemic racism. Together, with our employees and local bottling partners, we are committed to creating positive change.

A Thai activist attends an online protest via Zoom to observe 8 minutes 46 seconds of silence against police brutality and to call for justice in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Bangkok, Thailand, June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva - RC274H9U4KVT
Image: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

‘Everybody in.’

Lesley Slaton Brown, Chief Diversity Officer, HP

Achieving social justice will require, what I like to call, “Everybody In.” We all have the power to affect change, and together, we can create measurable, sustainable impact for our people, our communities and the planet. Global businesses have the platform, the influence and the resources to be a force for good. At HP, we're identifying and executing on the biggest opportunities that we have as a company to drive societal change through the HP Racial Equality and Social Justice Task Force. Social injustice is one of the most profound issues of our time. We must step up to do our part, embed diversity, equity and inclusion into our business strategy (even more so than we have already) and inspire and empower others to take action.

Prioritize ‘sustainability, social justice and economic inclusion’

Theodor Swedjemark, Group Executive Committee Member responsible for Sustainability, ABB

A woman works in a house while workers are forced to work from home and demand payback for extra home office costs during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sassenheim, Netherlands October 2, 2020. Picture taken October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Eva Plevier - RC2HDJ99NUAC
Image: REUTERS/Eva Plevier

As the world starts to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, the future of work is taking shape right before our eyes. I am glad to see matters of sustainability, social justice and economic inclusion now being prioritized and addressed with the seriousness and urgency they require.

All these issues are not coincidentally core to our purpose as an organization. We are committed to diversity and inclusion because they expand our access to the skills and talents of more individuals from around the globe. And we firmly believe that our emphasis on technology, sustainability and the circular economy has strengthened our business model.

In seeking to bring about positive change, we have embraced these priorities, and I am confident we are not alone. That is why, in 2021, I believe people will try harder to do what is right, value differences and make our world more sustainable and equitable.

Accelerate progressive reforms

C. Vijayakumar, President and CEO, HCL Technologies

The future of the workplace is going to be digital, so it’s only axiomatic that India – with its massive demographic bulge and technology industry with its transformative history – is showing the way. The Indian Government has continued to push the accelerator on reforms that have significantly impacted the ease of doing business, eliminated ambiguity and increased our sector’s market resilience. Such progressive policy support will be the crucible for future competitiveness of not just a country’s own technology sector but for the entire economic and social fabric of today’s hyperconnected world.

Find out more about World Economic Forum partners here.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalStakeholder CapitalismJobs and the Future of Work
‘ESG is good for business’‘The power of empathetic leadership’‘Prioritize wellbeing’Diversity is ‘business-critical’Drive ‘resiliency, profitability, sustainability’‘Be actively anti-racist, in any form’Create workplace cultures ‘where underrepresented minorities thrive and advance’‘Public-private cooperation’‘Come together around a shared purpose to shape a healthier future’‘Unite together for racial equity, justice and economic empowerment’‘Everybody in.’Prioritize ‘sustainability, social justice and economic inclusion’ Accelerate progressive reforms

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