Engagement at a distance
The world has changed and a ‘new normal’ is emerging. The coronavirus is now present in most countries around the world with millions of people infected, and many more likely to be so in the coming months and years. This is a virus that will be difficult to eradicate, even if a vaccine becomes available. The world has not seen such a disruption in daily lives or such a dependence on government decision-making and support since the Second World War.
A few months ago, organisations and individuals were able to engage with decision-makers and key influencers on issues that affect their well-being. All stakeholders benefited enormously, and governments and organisations in particular gained legitimacy of action from such interactions. Today, there is much less interaction between stakeholders whether it involves business organisations or sections of civil society.
However, even in these difficult times, organisations must continue to interact with decision-makers to ensure they have a ‘licence to operate’, so that they have permission to carry out activities that are subject to regulation. They must also find ways to continue to interact more widely within society to ensure a ‘social licence to operate’ since their activities need the support of local communities in which they operate and other interested stakeholders.
The coronavirus emergency, then, raises questions for organisations: on what interactions are possible in the aftermath of this crisis; and on how they can best maintain viable engagement programmes that not only safeguards their operations but also their employees and the communities they interact with.
There are many ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ processes for engagement, be it with decision-makers, key influencers, or the wider community. These processes can be split into three categories going forward: those that can, in the main, continue as before; those that can continue but with more difficulty and perhaps less effectively; and those activities that will be very difficult, at least in the near term.
With the odd exception and perhaps with a little more difficulty, organisations will be able to continue to engage with all the ‘formal’ processes related to government and its institutions. The most prominent involve engaging with policy development through, for example, Consultations and Inquiries which address issues of direct interest to organisations; they can continue to contribute to these since they rely mainly on providing expert written material, submitted online.
Organisations are also often invited to provide expert knowledge to Commissions, Task Forces, and on occasion to participate in Government Missions overseas. Growing confidence in engagement through ‘virtual’ meetings using electronic platforms means organisations can continue to contribute to most ‘formal’ processes. These platforms are not without their problems, but new products and standards, and experience gained by users over time, will improve the ‘virtual’ experience. However, this approach cannot replicate the traditional forums where human behaviour plays an important role in discussion and debate.
Engagement through ‘informal’ processes is much more problematic. About half the activities organisations might be involved in at the corporate level such as the traditional seminars and conferences, networking and hospitality events, or ‘town hall’ events for employees, are not possible, at least for the foreseeable future. The remainder, such as roundtable and group discussions and briefings, are more difficult than before, but once again, the availability of appropriate technology and new communications platforms means some interactions are possible.
‘Informal’ processes, then, are more heavily impacted by the pandemic and this has wider implications, particularly for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and activities that progress the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). CSR programmes often involve employees working with local communities on a range of activities; for example, the provision of amenities, site visits, training programmes and employment opportunities, maintaining the environment, and supporting charities. Without active stakeholder interaction, programmes will be less effective, delayed or even cancelled.
The seventeen SDGs together provide a holistic view of our world. They address the human and environment conditions, human rights, resource use, and the importance of partnerships and shared goals. Many organisations have adopted the SDGs and outlined how they will incorporate them into their business principles. The ability to develop and implement programmes relies on active engagement and, when viewed through the Covid-19 lens, it will be difficult to make progress in many of SDGs.
One SDG of interest to all stakeholders is Climate Change. This is arguably the most pressing long-term global issue and there is a real risk that momentum this decade may be lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that this year’s UN Conference of the Parties (COP 26) has had to be postponed does not auger well. These annual events involve representatives from across civil society; they provide an important forum for discussion, debate and decision-making on the key issues and give impetus for further action.
However, this enforced postponement also provides an opportunity. There were already concerns that the environmental cost of events involving thousands of people from around the world congregating in one place outweighed the benefits. The pandemic may force the Climate Change community, and other similar communities, to find new ways to engage and interact.
The pandemic touches so much of human activity. Improved medical treatments and, hopefully, a vaccine will be forthcoming, and this will allow greater stakeholder engagement once again. But this will take time, and, in any event, organisations can take this opportunity to re-think their engagement programmes. They can begin by addressing three key questions:
1. In what ways have the environments in which we operate changed? What are the implications for our organisation and our stakeholders?
2. What is possible in terms of engaging with different stakeholders in the ‘new normal’? Are there new communities that we can now interact with?
3. Do we, and our stakeholders, have the capability to ensure an effective engagement programme? If not, what do we need to put in place?
Organisations are concentrating on weathering the economic storm brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and reacting to Government advice on what they need to do to keep employees, and communities safe. The first tentative steps to encourage economic and leisure activities are now underway in many countries but set against a much-changed context.
It is now time for organisations to be more proactive, and work with their stakeholders on issues of common interest. As in the past, those organisations that are creative in their thinking, and make the effort to connect with their stakeholders will be more successful than those that do not.
At Opportuneo, we would be delighted to help you to respond to the challenges of the post-Covid era. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss this.
Chris Anastasi - June 2020