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Repurposing your business during the COVID-19 crisis

By Professor Ron Beadle, Newcastle Business School

Many businesses, large and small, have been radically repurposing during the COVID-19 crisis.  From local estate agents using their vehicles to deliver food to elderly people, to hotels offering their rooms to NHS staff and airlines providing snack breaks to hospital workers, businesses have found novel ways to repurpose their operations.

As one of the world’s top 50 universities for business ethics research, it has been an extremely interesting time to see how organisations have risen to the challenge of delivering responsible business in the face of such adversity. But not everyone has got it right. So how can business make sure they operate ethically during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are six Dos and Don’ts.

Stick to the knitting

It’s an old business concept but a really relevant one.  Knowing what your business does best, understanding your core competencies, is key to adding value at these difficult times.  This may involve working in a different way, such as supermarkets enforcing social distancing, or doing something new using your existing resources such as the French perfumier producing hand sanitiser for French hospital workers or Walmart’s car parks being used for coronavirus testing. 

Don’t over-promise

There is a danger for individuals and businesses to think they can do too much.   At a time when businesses are having to furlough staff and deal with reduced incomes it’s important that repurposing is sustainable.  I have been impressed by local greengrocers who have closed their stores to offer pre-packed food to customers.  By pre-packing they are acknowledging that they are no longer able to meet everyone’s individual preferences, they are limiting work time to what is achievable and they are charging to ensure that the service is sustainable in the longer-term.

Work with partners

It’s particularly important to work in partnership during the crisis.  Often this will be partnership with government, national or local, with health services or local mutual aid groups. Other times this will involve businesses working together to provide each other with advice, or to arrange payment holidays.  At a local level it’s critical to work with your local resilience forum who will be able to tell you how you might best help.

Working in partnership develops relationships that will benefit your business in the long-term and enable partners to see what your business can do.

Bring your employees with you

Research at Northumbria has shown that involving employees in making decisions increases their commitment to the business.  So why not ask your employees for their ideas on how to work together to beat Coronavirus?  They will want to help beat Coronavirus and working with fellow employees might be the best way they can do this. Alternatively, if you employ more than ten people, your employees can take advantage of emergency volunteering leave though you must remember that you cannot instruct them to do anything if they are furloughed. 

Bring your customers with you

Customers are now very savvy about green-washing and other types of impression management.  This makes it all the more important to show that your approach is coherent and consistent with your wider values.  Sports Direct’s repurposing of its delivery fleet to support the NHS may not relieve them of the opprobrium caused by their initial reaction to the lockdown. More positive examples include Nat West Bank’s requests for customers to transfer their rewards to Covid-19 causes which repurposes its long-standing offer to customers to pass rewards to good causes.  Its offer to match customers’ contributions will also help bring customers with the bank.

Learn from the best

The experience of coronavirus provides an opportunity for each of us to think about purpose, about what is truly important, both for ourselves as individuals and as employers.  The companies that already put responsibility first, such as Unilever, are leading the way.  We should all be learning from them.

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