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Leon Kaye headshot

Business Resilience During a Pandemic: An ESG Perspective

By Leon Kaye

It’s been said the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made history; it has simply fast-forwarded it. We could say the same about the ESG (environmental, social and governance) movement. The COVID-19 crisis has forced many companies to act fast, act decisively and act with purpose.

This new reality we’re all facing framed the conversation last week during Episode 1 of the 3BL Virtual Forum.

If you had planned in the first place…

Intel is one company that was able to act swiftly at the onset of this pandemic. Much of that agility lies in the fact that the company had created an in-house Pandemic Response Team when the SARS crisis hit East Asia in 2002, so a structure for rapid planning and pivoting was already in place.

As Suzanne Fallender, Intel’s director of corporate responsibility, explained during Episode 1 of the 3BL Virtual Forum last week, that response team was only one part of securing the company’s resilience over the past several months. In hindsight, the company’s leadership seemed unfazed during much of 2020, deciding to unfurl a long-term strategy designed to guide the company to 2030. While employees bought into this approach, so too did investors.

Fallender said the pandemic sparked an increase in interest from investors and other stakeholders, and in turn the company received more questions about its overall response — ranging from ongoing safety issues to racial equity and inclusion. Further, the company’s executive team has acknowledged that investors are asking about how companies like Intel are supporting talent while investing in purpose. Bottom line: We’re all distracted, but investors and other stakeholders are keeping an eye on the ball.

“Everyone is looking for meaning in these times, and meaning in how their work connects to something bigger than us all, so I think it’s a hopeful time. But we have a lot we need to do to support people,” Fallender said as she wrapped up her appearance on the virtual stage.

Go beyond a 'focus' — take care of your core customers and stakeholders

The images of ambulances bringing critically ill patients to hospitals in New York and New Jersey are still burned on many of our minds, as are the memories over initial fears of massive shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).

To that end, those concerns prompted Johnson & Johnson to act, according to Lauren Moore, the company’s vice president of global community impact. She said J&J did what it could to leverage its supply chain to find critical PPE when it was in short supply — and it developed plans to support frontline workers for both the long and short terms. “If frontline workers have what they need, then we all have better care,” Moore said. “Instead of feeling like [the pandemic] is just happening to us, let’s learn from it and make sure something like it doesn't happen again.”

Don’t overlook your employees’ needs during this pandemic

Aflac depends on a large nationwide force of independent insurance agents in the U.S. and Japan to sell its insurance products — and those agents live off the commissions they earn. Darcy Brito, Aflac's business public relations manager, said the company offered those agents zero-percent loans to help them through that time and launched an $11 million fund to help out with financial support. “If there is any time where communicators have a value, it is today. It is important for all stakeholders to not only understand how important your position is, but also understand what they can do,” Brito explained.

As for its internal corporate employees, Aflac had to quickly cope with a workforce that went from being almost uniformly in offices to becoming completely dispersed and working remotely. Each company may have different tactics to ensure everyone is connected, whether they are town halls, virtual happy hours or meal deliveries. But Brito’s message to all managers and execs is: “Whether you are small or large, [it’s critical] you have the lines of connection with employees, that you’re understanding, and that you’re also aware about what’s happening to employees.”

For those of us who simply consume entertainment, whether doing so via the television or streaming on our laptops, we often assume it all just “happens.” But Crystal Barnes of ViacomCBS reminded us that an entertainment company’s workforce is a complicated one, and the shutdown of theaters and studios in the early days of this pandemic resulted in a huge impact on many livelihoods. The media giant moved quick to partner with organizations such as the Actors Fund of America and the Motion Picture Television Fund to ensure that crew members, supporting cast and other workers who support the production of television shows had some level of financial support, Barnes said. And all of this happened just as the two companies, Viacom and CBS, had their merger green-lighted.

Yes, legacy and family-run companies can turn on a dime

What, your supply chain can’t move fast enough? Tell that to Shelley Williams of SanMar, the company few have heard of but almost all of us have touched. It creates such products as promotional caps, T-shirts and fleece.

Clearly, the need for such items dissipated overnight in early March. But SanMar moved quickly, Williams explained to the virtual Forum’s audience. After meetings to sort out the role it could play during this pandemic, the company decided to partner with other apparel makers and the U.S. government to produce a million masks.

How did the company pivot so fast? SanMar stopped the production of its usual products, trained employees, developed new safety protocols, and worked with governments such as that of Honduras to bring employees back to work and provide them with resources to ramp up production. The results speak for themselves: Williams said SanMar has manufactured over 200 million masks to date including many that are now included in its line of promotional products. In the end, for this family-owned company, its advice is: “Lead with purpose and lean into it in times of crisis,” Williams concluded.

On Thursday, October 15 from noon to 2:15 p.m. ET, Episode 2 of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands - Business Elects to Lead will focus on one of the most important issues with which we as a society have got to honestly reckon — racial and economic inequities — and the importance of business leadership at a time when it’s needed most. 

During episode 2, we’ll feature conversations with senior leaders from BET Networks, Pizza Hut, Zeno Group, Newman’s Own, Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP), Fresh Energy, Porter Novelli, Northern Trust Asset Management, UnidosUS, The Cavu Group, Tides Foundation, Okta and Ben & Jerry’s. Registration is free.

The pandemic and the fight for racial justice - it's front and center October 15.

Image credit: Jack Vessels/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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