COVID-19 has changed the world. The pandemic and the associated lockdowns have not merely curtailed the normal life we knew. In some cases they have swept it away entirely. There have been practical issues such as getting used to video conferencing platforms, figuring out how to move around our local supermarkets in one-way systems that preserve social distancing, adapting to being unable to visit pubs, restaurants, gyms and theatres, and learning to plan so many things that formerly would have happened spontaneously and without any particular thought.
But these are merely practical challenges. On a deeper level this situation has called upon us to question, as a society that has been living increasingly close-packed but, simultaneously, increasingly isolated lives, what we actually want and feel we deserve from the world around us, how we navigate our built environment, and how we coexist in it. Abruptly our habits have changed, with profound societal impact.
Social inequality has been accentuated. The economic impact is, and will continue to be, unprecedented in its severity, and hundreds of thousands have found their income, wealth and financial security threatened, damaged or in some cases destroyed completely. Jobs have been lost, businesses have failed, bills have gone unpaid and debts have piled up.
We hear talk all the time, from our politicians and experts in various fields, about the need to adapt to a ‘new normal’. This is all well and good but for the fact that what passes for normal one day is often radically altered the next. How can we adapt to something in a permanent state of flux? Will we return to an ante-COVID normal? No, almost certainly not. Will whatever new normal eventually establishes itself in a stable way be radically different from what we have known? Also almost certainly not.
For all that we have retreated in recent years ever further into our own bubbles, interacting with the world, our friends, our families, often even with people in the same room, via smartphones and messaging apps, the human being remains a social animal. Several million years of evolution has not been wiped out in a few months by this virus, and just as so much of the structure and form of the world around us has evolved over time to suit our needs, so we have evolved to use it. In the immediate term we may need to install plastic screens at cash registers and reserve empty seats on trains, but the fundamental nature of the human being as social and sociable will not change and, ultimately, we will not accept many, if any, of the more outlandish adaptations of our lived environment that have been suggested over recent months.
But that is not to say that we will even want to go back to some of what we knew before. The world of business and the public’s perception of it has been changed irrevocably now and, coming as it does on the heels of the Occupy movement’s raising awareness of social injustice and inequality, this change is a golden opportunity for business to take decisions and directions that might have seemed unfeasible even at the start of this year.
Fairness, inclusivity, sustainability: these are all terms that the world is highly unlikely to let business ignore going forward. So how might the legal sector help?
Studies have shown that across the world people do not want to see a simple resuscitation of old business models. They want to see a change that is led from the top down. National and local governments need to set the example that business then follows, but if this is to work to full potential then it requires a systemic corporate commitment to new ideals, new objectives and new ways of working. There will, of course, be legal consequences here that in and of themselves will provide a role for legal advisers, but with this role will come an opportunity for those legal advisers to educate and help instill and nurture a new mindset.
Society is crying out for increased fairness. The COVID-19 crisis has massively raised awareness of the work done by front line medical professionals and the associated businesses that support them, and this is contributing significantly to a desire to see greater fairness in the pay and conditions of employees throughout society. Businesses are beginning to see the real advantages to be derived from a keen, incentivised workforce. To have such a workforce, staff members need to be paid fairly, treated well, and offered genuine opportunity for input in the direction a business is taking. Put simply, a worker who feels themselves an essential part of the mechanism that makes a business function, who receives a decent wage and knows that their ideas are valued, will likely bring considerable added value to that business and thereby more than justify a wage that is above the minimum required by law.
In so many instances, not just where wages are concerned, that minimum required by law approach must change. Here the legal specialist has a vital role to play. They have a perfect opportunity to advise a business not just on how to comply with the letter of the law, but how to understand the importance and the benefit of going well beyond that. In this way the best law firm will be the one that says to a client ‘Let us help you to be the best you can be, rather than just as good as you need to be.’
So much of what is needed to make working environments safe, inclusive, rewarding, engaging and enjoyable, hinges on understanding where a business can go further than merely what the law requires. Lawyers need now to be pushing this message and, where possible, leading by example, at every opportunity. As thousands of businesses are forced to adapt to new ways of working legal questions will need to be answered. The best lawyers, and the best law firms, will not merely answer the questions. They will seize the opportunity to educate about the limitations of the law, and show the opportunities available for those businesses that engage in a creative and open-minded way with the challenges they face. And in our post-pandemic new normal, what business will willingly choose to appear visionless and close-minded?