A practical approach to corporate purpose could help front line employees to get better pay and formal recognition of their people skills.
The Covid crisis has highlighted graphic examples of vital roles, such as care workers, in which purpose could be used to improve day-to-day decision making, reward staff in a commercially viable way and even overcome unfair border controls on those branded ‘unskilled’.
Purpose, in many business circles, has come to mean ‘something worthy and high-minded that’s vaguely relevant to what we actually do’. It’s an illogical attitude which results in, for example, a recent FT headline asking, as though purpose were optional, if the pandemic “has put paid to purpose”. Boots plc has effectively owned up to the pretence, by having two purposes – the real one (presumably still to be the most trusted pharmacist on the high street) and, according to its website, a separate“CSR purpose”. Consumers see through this manipulation of meaning: the Playstation fan site Push Square recently dismissed Sony’s new video on the subject as a “Purpose Puff Piece”. They know that no one – not even Sony – believes it. This is regrettable. Real purpose should be central to corporate strategy and, properly understood, can boost culture, value proposition and profits.
Most businesses and jobs exist to provide useful good and services. Society wants them. If provided by people and companies who pay their taxes, are considerate to each other and who strive to minimise environmental damage, that’s enough. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed to offer what customers want, for a fair financial reward. We should, though, look at the overall impact of what we do and, crucially, at what society uses us, for. Which brings us back to the care workers.
Care workers (along with waiters, shop assistants and even phlebotomists) are classified as unskilled and paid little, not because they are unskilled, but because the basic physical tasks needed (e.g. bed changing) can be taught quickly and measured objectively. In contrast, the skills which distinguish a poor care worker, from a brilliant one, are people skills, such as listening attentively and noticing changes of habit. These take time to learn and are hard to measure, so they are excluded from formal qualifications. Which is why, no matter how good you are, it’s hard for a care worker to get paid well and even harder to convince Ms Patel’s border police that your skills make you worth letting in. How could a practical, societal approach to corporate purpose, help here?
You have to look at outcomes, not intentions.
Good care workers have great people skills. Those in their care, feel genuinely cared for. It makes patients happier and better at explaining what they need. This helps the care worker to keep improving the service provided and to see signs – such as when medical intervention is needed – earlier. The result is patients who are not just happier. They also live healthier, longer lives.
If a care agency sees that a service like this is what society most wants and will pay for, it can embrace this broader, practical purpose. Learning from, say, the international hotel industry, it can measure the effectiveness of staff in making customers feel good and train them in doing it better. This can then be included in formal qualifications.
Care workers love being given permission and time to be kind. They welcome knowing that their performance will be judged on their ability to do so. Furthermore, those who can show high levels of training and experience in the relevant people skills, will be able to earn more because, given the choice, patients pay more to live healthier, longer lives. Care workers who can show they are more valuable in this way, need work only for good employers, whose cost base would then be balanced by an ability to attract the most desirable trainees, keen to work alongside the best mentors. Armed with recognised certificates, those mentors should be able to convince even Ms Patel that they are far from unskilled and low paid. By starting with a practical approach to purpose, everybody wins.
BUT – the biggest buyer of care services in the UK is the state. It sets the base level for pay. For the great majority who cannot afford private care, this is bad news, because the state looks not at purpose, but at short term costs. It gives little weight to what its patients most want, or what might be less costly over a longer period. Care agencies are thus forced to provide the basic physical services required, as fast as possible. Under stress to get in & out in under fifteen minutes, kindness takes a back seat, especially when you’re on your tenth patient and having to take half of your allotted time to change all of your PPE gear, yet again.
When ignored, your company’s purpose is shaped over time by market forces, sometimes for better, sometimes not. Either way, the market wears away at what makes your business special, just as surely as a distinctive stone on a beach, becomes just another pebble. An articulated, practical sense of purpose can fight that, helping the company as a whole to maintain a clear leading position – and control over what it is for.