CEOs say customers and employees will not accept return to status quo post-COVID

June 29, 2021, 8:15 PM UTC
Erik Nordstrom
Mark Abramson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s become a truism in the business commentariat to say the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes that had been brewing already. But CEOs say that they are significantly and permanently changing how they operate, all the more given that employees and customers alike are more demanding in the wake of the pandemic.

Companies find customers increasingly wanting them to step into the big public debates of the day and be more vocal about their values and how they are reflected in their operations, chief executives told Fortune’s Connecting Employee & Customer online seminar on Tuesday.

“It’s an element of the pandemic that companies are having to take a stand,” said Erik Nordstrom, CEO of Nordstrom. That applies not just to matters of sustainability but increasingly to political and social issues, he added. And sitting out these discussions is not really an option. “It became clear that the consequences of not commenting in these cases were worse than taking a stand.”

And that’s not just in retail. Specialized insurance product company Assurant is experiencing that change in customer behavior too. “We’re seeing more value-based buying behavior,” said Alan Colberg, the company’s CEO. “Our consumers are researching our social responsibility record much more than they were pre-pandemic.”

Investors, too, are paying closer attention. “I’m getting a lot more questions now about what are we doing on climate change,” said Colberg.

Consumers are simultaneously becoming more demanding, especially as they get good service from one company that sets a new higher standard, for any corporation regardless of sector. “People are not just experiencing this from companies that do the same as we do, but they’re experiencing these things from other companies in other sectors,” said Sebastian Picardo, CEO of Canadian luxury department store Holt Renfrew, part of Selfridges Group.

Employees have become more demanding of employers during the pandemic, the group of CEOs said on the call, and are placing more weight on making their work meaningful. The CEO of grocery giant Albertsons, Vivek Sankaran, said helping keep Americans fed during the COVID lockdowns galvanized his employees. “Our employees I think found a sense of purpose, and when they found a sense of purpose, there was incredible creativity at the front line,” he said.

The panelists agreed that happy employees are more important than ever, especially in this tight labor market. “Employees have become much more vocal about what they want from their employers, and they’ll take less pay if they agree with their values,” said Tiffani Bova, global growth and innovation evangelist at Salesforce. And that is something customers will pay attention to as well. “They’re looking at brands to see how they behave during this time and how they treat their employees.”

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