The Ethics Alliance Business Pulse asked members how the pandemic has changed them and where they see the challenges of the next 12 months.

It’s been a year like no other. The pandemic unearthed unprecedented complexity for business leaders and a host of ethical challenges to navigate now – and into the future. The Ethics Alliance Business Pulse survey asked senior business leaders how the past 12 months have shaped their experiences and their perception of leadership, business, prevailing societal issues and those to come.

Hybrid is here to stay

Last year corporate Australia was thrown a curve ball – to rapidly, in almost real time, move from a face-to-face, nine-to-five culture to a completely remote way of working. Twelve months later, the experience has transformed expectations and posed a new question: Do we return to business as usual?

Our survey results suggest not. Of those surveyed by The Ethics Alliance, 63 per cent would prefer to adopt a hybrid model, one that blends work-from-home time with office time, 27 per cent are ready to go back to business as usual and 10 per cent wish to work remotely permanently.

Our results aren’t an anomaly. A survey conducted on LinkedIn by tech company Atlassian found 62 per cent of office workers want the flexibility to mix in-office and at-home work, while 32 per cent would prefer to work from home and seven per cent want a return to the office. Later on in Matrix, we explore the challenges and opportunities that a no or low-contact culture poses for organisations.

DR SIMON LONGSTAFF AO Executive Director The Ethics Centre

Just as it is common for individuals to make radical changes to their outlook on life following a major illness (or other life-threatening experience), it is not surprising that corporations are reappraising their place in the world during a time of catastrophe.

Whether the cause lies in the pandemic, climate change or the disruptive force of technology, people are looking for evidence that their interests will not be ignored (or sacrificed) by the powerful (whether in business or politics). Thus, the greater focus on equity, the need for strong ethical infrastructure, etc.

Of course, as The Ethics Alliance Business Pulse survey reveals, all of this is taking place in an environment of increasing ethical complexity – in which the rewards do not flow to those who are absolutely certain that they are ‘right’ but to those who are open to the possibility they might be wrong and can adjust accordingly.

No jab, no job?

COVID-19 vaccines are now available in Australia, with reported ‘jab hesitancy’ sparking debate about mandatory vaccination and incentives to participate. But what does that mean for employers? Is it ethical for an organisation to make vaccination mandatory for employment?

The most recent organisation to take a vaccine stance is Paralympics Australia, which notified athletes and officials in May that COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory for selection ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics. All quarantine-hotel workers in Western Australia must also be vaccinated under the state government’s new public health direction.

We asked survey participants if they believed it was wrong for companies to mandate vaccination for their employees. Opinion was divided, with 48 per cent against, and 36 per cent in support, while the remainder were undecided.

Meanwhile, a survey recently released by The University of Sydney and The University of Western Australia found that three-quarters of Australians support government-mandated vaccination for work, study and travel. But it’s not currently on the cards, with Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly announcing at a press conference in May that incentives were under consideration instead.

“I think we really do need to look for incentives, as many incentives as we can, for people to become vaccinated,” said Professor Kelly.

Systemic bias and inequality

Tens of thousands marched through the nation’s cities and towns during COVID in June last year in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement and millions more took to social platforms to voice their support for marginalised populations. Following multiple allegations of bullying and harassment against women in parliament, voices rose again in protest, both in person and across media platforms.

The collective outpouring appears to have moved the opinion of Australia’s business leaders. A substantial 55 per cent said they had changed their views on bias and inequality toward Indigenous Australians and people of colour, and nearly half of the respondents (49 per cent) reported that their views on inequality and bias toward women have changed in the past year.

Sixty per cent support the implementation of gender quotas across board, executive and senior government appointments. However, nearly all respondents (90 per cent) believe equality can only be achieved with systemic change.

Expectations, leadership and a call for transparency

So how did the past 12 months leave people feeling about their organisations and leaders? Sixty-three per cent of our respondents feel better about their organisations as a result of the way they handled the COVID-19 crisis. That does, however, leave 14 per cent whose attitudes have worsened and 23 per cent whose attitudes were unchanged. Three-quarters of respondents said they thought corporate leaders were more ethical than five years ago, while a quarter said they were less ethical.

Asked to rank factors that demonstrate an organisation’s ethics, our respondents put accountability and transparency top of their lists, along with a clearly stated purpose and values, publicly acting on issues and ethical reputation.

Did companies serve and support their customers throughout the pandemic? The vast majority (88 per cent) of our respondents feel their companies met customer expectations during the pandemic, leaving just five per cent who feel their companies didnt meet expectations and six per cent who didn’t know.

Social responsibility has been in the spotlight in recent years, with plenty of debate as to whether organisations should take a public stance on social issues. Thirteen out of every 20 respondents (65 per cent) say “yes”.

Looking forward, we also wanted to know what are the big ethical concerns of the next 12 months. Systemic bias and inequality were flagged highest by our respondents, followed closely by social license and community responsibility. Other high-ranking issues in order were climate change, followed by AI, cyber threats and data privacy, and health and disease prevention.