The pandemic's most vital lesson? Business can't go it alone

We must embed humanity at the heart of 21st-century business

We must embed humanity at the heart of 21st-century business. Image: Unsplash

Nhlamu Dlomu
Global Head of People, KPMG
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

• The pandemic has reminded us that business organizations are primarily about people.

• Employees will demand more say in how their companies are run.

• Leaders must move from the top-down style to encouraging collaboration.

For some time, we’ve talked about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. About the blurring boundaries, as the physical and digital worlds collide, impacting people, business and society.

Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 has changed a lot of that. It has forced us to focus on wider societal issues like physical and mental health, inequality, climate change and legacy. It has made organizations question their very purpose. And it reminded us that organizations are first and foremost about people.

COVID has forced technology to step up to keep our businesses running – far faster than anyone could have imagined. Ironically, it’s strengthened our sense of working collectively, and made it OK to be vulnerable and more human with each other. Yes, we miss the serendipity that comes with human contact. But personalized video calls have brought us closer together by taking us into each other’s homes. Into each other’s families. We’ve learnt to recognize the isolation and loneliness that many are feeling and shared our feelings of vulnerability.

A virus has no national boundaries. We’ve all shared the pain and we must share the solution.

Nhlamu Dlomu, Global Head of People, KPMG

The pandemic has reminded us just how much we depend upon each other. Pre-COVID, the tension between globalization and nationalism had been building. There was a sense of isolationism and putting up barriers. But a virus has no national boundaries. We’ve all shared the pain and we must share the solution. Face our vulnerabilities together and collaborate to build back better. There’s really no other option.

As we address COVID, and seek sustainable growth in a rapidly changing environment, we need to be agile, resilient and human. Which means rethinking our people and skills, our culture and our leadership styles. With some hopeful first signs of recovery in sight, we are looking to grow sustainably in what is a new reality.

We can’t go back to the way things were before. If we do, the speed of change will quickly make us obsolete. Instead, we need to be courageous and proactive, shaping our world rather than letting the world shape us.

We need to give our people permission to innovate, to experiment, to be curious, to not fear failure – working within a culture that is consistent with their values. They expect adult-to-adult and not hierarchical relationships, with a greater say in how the business is run, and more flexible working hours as they seek to balance the demands of their work and lives at a challenging time.

And we need leaders who can show empathy, compassion, honesty and integrity. During COVID, senior figures everywhere have had to admit they don’t know all the answers. The pandemic has shown that leaders don’t always have all the answers, and that sometimes all it takes is to listen, hear and act on that basis. That’s quite a breakthrough, and a lot of them have become better leaders as a result.

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When things change so fast, we can’t do it alone. We must collaborate, reach out for help. Just like we’ve all done during the pandemic. Which is a pretty big shift in mindset when you’ve traditionally been expected to have all the answers.

Digital transformation will continue, but technology alone won’t realize sustainable growth. We need to embed humanity into technology. When you have got half your team in the office and the other half working remotely, it’s vital to keep everyone connected on a human level.

For a long time we have battled to change the perception that, to be successful, we have to be tough, and mainly oriented around revenue and profits. Today there’s no excuse for continuing to have that viewpoint. Companies are now assessed on their wider impact upon people, society and the planet.

And if there’s one thing that COVID has taught us, it’s that vulnerability, compassion and empathy are signs not of weakness, but of strength. They encourage us to learn, to collaborate and to work towards a common purpose, to help drive sustainable growth and profitability. We have to embrace our humanity to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

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