Updated: Aug 14, 2020
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.”
In the space of a few months, we have experienced a life-altering shift as COVID-19 has upended life—from our health and the economy, to how we’ll live and work in the future.
During trying times like these, “commitments” are tested and are either affirmed or debunked. As the saying goes, “Crises don’t define ethics and character, they reveal it.” The COVID-19 pandemic is just such a situation. This crisis will show us the best of humanity or the worst of humanity—or likely a bit of both. On which side of the spectrum will your firm emerge?
As I write this article, it’s the first week of what health officials expect to be at least a six- to eight-week period of extreme “social isolation” to help lessen the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. I think this will turn out to be a very conservative timeline. This is the beginning stage of a “new normal.”
During this crisis, it’s evident that environmental and social governance and corporate social responsibility programs are more important and relevant than ever. And the authenticity (or not) of these programs at companies and professional services firms is more obvious.
It’s easy when times are good
When financial markets are doing well and businesses are thriving and growing, it’s relatively easy to devote a bit of time and energy to a “side program” called corporate social responsibility as a “nice thing to do.” Employees, customers, clients, and markets expect it. Many companies, during good times, declare that their CSR program is strategic and critical to “who they are” and to the role they fulfill in their communities.
The story of your firm will be most tested during the hard times
Last week, I learned of a brilliant example of social impact leadership during a crisis. The law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison launched a new program to harness the power of the firm to help those facing economic ramifications of the pandemic, according to Brad Karp, the firm’s chairman.
As federal, state, and local assistance programs and other resources are rolled out, 400 lawyers at the firm will work to aggregate, interpret, explain, and help ensure those who need these services can access them successfully. They’re even offering a 24-hour hotline to answer questions.
All of this is being managed while Paul, Weiss employees (and indeed, most of the nation) are working remotely. Karp is estimating this program will take 2,500 pro bono hours each day—and even that won’t be sufficient. He’s inviting others from the legal industry to join this effort.
This pro bono effort is clearly an example of the best of humanity. It’s an example of incredible social impact—leveraging the highest and best skills of the firm in difficult times to provide assistance and resources to our communities.
What will we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic? Before anyone had heard of or even uttered the word “COVID-19,” I was having conversations with professional service firm clients about their carbon footprint. At most firms, the largest contributor to their carbon footprint is NOT paper usage, insufficient recycling, or using incandescent instead of LED bulbs in their offices. (Curiously, however, this is where most firms have focused their efforts.) Very few firms have addressed what is likely their biggest contributor to carbon footprint—their air travel.
While clients were interested when I broached this subject, the consistent response was, “we have to travel to meet with clients and to do our client work.” They expressed very little interest in changing the way they do business. In these conversations, I advised them to at least consider reductions in air travel—such as attending client board meetings in person twice per year instead of quarterly and using videoconference technologies alternately, which are readily available to all of us. Or, I suggested they start by reducing air travel for internal firm meetings, such as committee and task force work. This would not only reduce the firm’s carbon footprint, but save money.
To illustrate another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollutants and warming gases over some U.S. cities and regions are showing significant drops as the virus affects work and travel. Global emissions, including in China and Northern Italy are also declining.
And, whether for firm business or for client work, reducing air travel is a tremendous benefit for each of us when it comes to nurturing our own health and well-being. Attending a half day or even a full-day meeting via video conference can be painful. But that pain pales in comparison to the time and wear and tear that comes with traveling. Too often (and I speak from experience) the travel time and the overnight hotel stay far exceeds the few hours of face-to-face time with colleagues.
Will this be your new normal?
Like many others, I have had speaking engagements, conference attendance, new client contracts, and meetings with prospects postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19. The prospect of staying home for the next four to six weeks and “hunkering down” to get my work done remotely and via video-conference is intriguing. I believe this period of social distancing and telecommuting will teach us that:
Business as usual that we have been used to for our entire careers will no longer be the norm. Travel restrictions due to this pandemic will teach us all that we CAN reduce air travel going forward, helping to reduce our carbon footprint and slow climate change—our next global crisis. Additionally, reduced business travel benefits our health.
We all MUST familiarize ourselves with readily available technology and video-conferencing platforms. Professional service firms historically have been slow to adopt and deploy technology to improve client collaboration and service delivery. This pandemic will force us to do it, and we’ll all be better positioned when this crisis is behind us. Our firms, our lawyers/advisors, and our clients will ultimately benefit from these improved practices.
The greatest lesson of all
The global response to this pandemic shows that we can come together in times of crisis to adjust and adapt as needed. Business as usual (before the COVID-19 crisis) is not sustainable. We must find new ways to work, and in many respects that is a good thing.
This pandemic is traumatic and tragic. Will it also be transformational? Will we emerge as more conscientious, thoughtful global citizens in the future? The answer lies in each of us.
Stay safe and stay healthy.
“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earthy fully, as they had been healed.”
If you’d like to measure your current program and create a transformational strategy, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Pamela Cone has more than 25 years' experience in the professional services industry in marketing and communications roles, and more recently, building social responsibility programs in collaboration with clients and in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. She is the Founder and CEO of Amity Advisory, a consultancy to help firms strengthen their CSR programs beyond transactional to achieve truly transformational social impact outcomes.