As regional businesses make sense of a tumultuous recent past, they will be struck by their vulnerability. Whether a thriver or mere survivor of the pandemic economy, the modern enterprise must face certain realities, among them the undeniable power of their communities.
Shareholders’ bugbears now pale next to those of the general public to which enterprises must sell their products and services, and from which they must recruit their talent. Consumer and employee attitudes towards issues like climate change, diversity, pay parity, energy efficiency and resource rationalization are increasingly informing corporate policy.
Startups, SMEs and global heavyweights - all will sink or swim on their approaches to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. In essence, ESG has entered the mainstream.
The good news is that the ESG imperative is gaining momentum in the region. According to PwC,, 46 per cent of Middle East CEOs are planning at least a moderate increase in investment in sustainability and ESG initiatives over the next three years as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
But the challenge will be in the transition between “brown” and green assets. Organizations must plan to adjust their positions and accommodate the attitudes of consumers/customers and employees, both of whom now have more choice than ever — in where and who they want to consume products and services from, and in where and how they work.
Businesses know they must now walk the talk because their communities - whether local, regional, or global - demand it. But what does ‘the walk’ look like?
Enterprises must find ways to become environmental champions, not just by painting themselves as such, but by verifiable and measurable action in areas such as resource efficiency and net-zero carbon goals. Successful organizations will find ways of making every employee a stakeholder in the journey.
As employees are a major impetus for ESG in the first place, businesses should find them willing. Feedback and incentivized innovation should be encouraged.
Go easy on meat
While many discussions may be outside the realm of standard discourse for business executives, talking about ‘Meatless Mondays’, for example, is of great importance to the communities they serve. Many millennials and Gen-Zers will regale their peers with tales of how the average burger takes as much as 2,000 liters of water to make.
When we consider encouraging the employees of an entire company to go without meat once a week, we are soon talking about how many swimming pools of water we are saving. This is an exceedingly important achievement in the Middle East, where water shortages are becoming major areas of concern.
Organizations must think long-term. Much as they would have five- and 10-year business plans, they must adopt similar roadmaps for energy use, sustainable procurement, and waste management. Look to the science, set realistic goals, and brainstorm the minutiae, such as the impact of buying this product or that for the office, or the sustainability of current executive-travel practices.
The future of work should be focused on providing more opportunities for more people — each individual has a right to be respected, heard, belong, participate and ultimately reach their full potential.
For regional organizations this starts with the employees. To attract (and retain) optimum talent in the hybrid-work future, businesses must ensure that work itself meets the expectations of candidates.
Consider the needs of each worker to make work accessible and rewarding for all. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB); employee health and safety; compassionate, supportive leadership; training opportunities, especially as they relate to digital skilling and pay parity — all these approaches and more will be necessary to accommodate the digital labor market.
Beyond catering to employees, organizations must consider how they can address broader social issues. Given that the UAE is fast becoming a hub for startups, banks can help foster entrepreneurship in the region by launching programmes that will offer seed capital and connect founders with venture capitalists.
Corporate integrity was a perpetual demand for past generations, but they had considerably less power over companies than the media-savvy digital-natives of the 2020s. In the past, companies would have appeased shareholders by avoiding outspokenness on issues that may have been controversial.
Today, they dare not remain silent on an issue, for fear of anti-brand campaigns on the Web-based airwaves.
Ethical, transparent business practices — particularly when it comes to how organizations deal with consumer or customer data — is central to good governance and building brand equity. Organizations would be well served to set up a cross-functional team of senior executives — IT, data security and privacy, AI, and legal — to discuss innovative uses of data that are consistent with company values and review current data privacy and security issues.
Futureproofing corporate image
To amend Mahatma Gandhi’s great aphorism, be the change your customers and employees wish to see in the world. The region is changing, and markets are becoming ever more globalized. Regional businesses must see through the eyes of their communities and become champions for the range of issues that people hold dear.
Champions also win prizes. Continuity is just the beginning; next comes longevity. And the only price is taking the time to recognize the obvious - people come first.