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Sustainable COVID Recovery

By Brett Lyon & Llyswen Berna

As we adjust our realities to accommodate the next phase of the pandemic, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the questions we posed last year to help make your organization more sustainable, and see how things have changed over the past year. The topics we addressed last year, which included remote work, protecting employees from economic uncertainty, DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), supply chain disruption, and business travel have all evolved in the past year. Here are a few observations on these topics through the lens of sustainability to consider impacts to people, profits and the planet.

Working from Home

The first question we asked last year was: “Can you make working from home effective for your business?” With U.S. offices beginning to open again, it has been interesting to see how companies are dealing with the option of working from home. Some companies are returning to how they operated prior to the start of the pandemic, some have employees coming in 2-3 days a week, while others have given employees complete control over where they work. The benefits of working from home have been expounded on in the past year and there is no doubt that workers are beginning to demand more flexibility in their work options

While working remotely is beneficial for some employees, not everyone works best in that environment. Extroverts lose the energy of teams, the distinction between work and home life becomes blurred, and you miss out on natural conversations that occur when you are working in person, instead having to set up a meeting whenever you want to connect with someone. Recognizing that employees have varying needs is important and may inform how your company moves forward. Consider the following as we navigate into a new “normal”:

- Are your employees feeling supported by their managers and business leaders?
- What challenges are employees facing working from home and how can you help?
- Do you offer flexibility to your employees when it comes to working remotely?
- What is missing as a result of working remotely?
- Is your company culture still being represented within the new work environment?

One thing that became apparent during the pandemic, is that not all employees can work from home. Frontline and essential workers, often those with the smallest paychecks, did not have the choice to switch from in person to remote work. A study by census.gov illustrated that households earning $200k and above had a 73.1% chance of switching to work from home during the pandemic compared to 12.7% of households earning less than $25k. What can your company do to support workers whose jobs can not be done from home? Can you provide flexibility outside of their essential job description? What additional resources can you provide so that your lowest paid employees are not facing the highest level of risk as we recover from the global pandemic?

Protecting Employees

Last year we discussed how companies can protect their employees from further economic impacts. As the economy recovers from the pandemic, we have seen the job market switch from favoring employers to favoring employees, giving jobseekers more power and making them more selective. With this switch, employers who are able to show they have a safety net in place allowing them to protect their employees when the next crisis occurs will end up attracting the best talent.

Significant components of this are company transparency, operating in a manner that creates openness between managers and employees, and creating a recovery plan. Companies that exude transparency tend to be more successful and are more likely to foster employee trust and loyalty. Pepper Foster did just this when, at the beginning of the pandemic, our leadership team made the decision to forgo or delay compensation and 2019 bonuses in order to prevent layoffs. Pepper Foster was in a unique position, our leaders had planned for emergency situations and knew how to protect employees without compromising the firm. Leadership was transparent about where the company was financially, and communicated that these financial decisions were made to prevent job loss. Our firm survived the worst of the pandemic without any layoffs or pay cuts and now that the economy has recovered, our paths toward career growth and development have been restored.

If you have yet to do so, start building your recovery plan now for the next disaster. Make sure your organization is run in a way to minimize job loss and protect employees. If you take care of your employees during stressful times, you will see the benefits in loyalty and performance for years to come.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A year of increased social justice movements combined with the global pandemic has led many companies to put more energy into their DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) programs. While many companies have made strides in this area, especially around inclusive hiring and education, there is still a lot of work to do. It can seem difficult to address such a systemic issue but taking the time to acknowledge these inequities is a step in the right direction.

Pepper Foster has spent the past two years growing and evolving our DEI program. We have implemented a DEI education program that includes required onboarding training and regularly bringing in outside DEI consultants for additional support. We revamped our recruiting and interviewing processes to be more inclusive. We also engage with the community providing pro-bono and reduced cost services to help underrepresented communities, small businesses and nonprofits to thrive. We are always looking for new ways to raise the bar internally for responsible and ethical operations that support our DEI goals.

How has your company stepped up in the DEI space? Are you advocating for your employees who come from traditionally marginalized communities? Have you addressed any of the inequities that surfaced during Covid for your workers? What are you doing to address inequity within your community? Remember that your company relies on the community around it to succeed, if those around you are not doing well, how are you expected to flourish?

Supply Chains

In addition to disruptions brought on by pandemic-induced shutdowns, we saw the impacts of global supply chains when the Suez Canal was blocked for several days in March of 2021. The impact of that event is estimated to have cost the global economy billions of dollars. Many companies have had to rapidly change their supply chain in response to the pandemic. For example, when FitBakes (a UK based cake producer) was faced with a stall in their supply from Belgium, they were able to find local back-up suppliers to help meet their demand in the short term. This is just one example but there are many lessons seen and noted that highlight the need for agility, collaboration, and visibility within supply chains. Finding local or national alternatives to your supply chain is not easy, can be costly, and will take time. However, once done it can to alleviate some of these logistical challenges, allow you be more agile when getting products to your customers, and provide better value.

Mapping supply chains to your second tier, third tier, and beyond upstream partners (the suppliers of your suppliers) can reveal indirect risks and vulnerabilities you are exposed to through your partners. Disruptions upstream can become amplified downstream, where a shortage of a single crucial manufacturing component from an upstream partner can halt downstream production altogether. Fortunately, businesses can protect supply chains by broadening supply bases to a variety of suppliers, ideally locally or nationally based, and collaborating to identify multiple second and third tier supplier options. In the event that multiple upstream partners experience delays impacting end production, proactively holding safety stock is an effective method to maintain a steady stream of goods and revenue until new suppliers can be found or disruptions resolved.


The answer to our question “Is all the travel you did before COVID still necessary?” became obvious over the past year: NO! As restrictions lift, many people are escaping from their homes, going on road trips and taking to the skies. However, just because your employees feel comfortable travelling in their personal lives, does not mean you need to resume work trips, especially air travel. We have gone 18 months working from home and in most offices productivity has not been hindered due to lack of travel. Evaluate if you truly need a meeting to be in person or if you can continue using virtual platforms.

Consider using a cluster meeting; a hybrid model integrating virtual and in-person meetings. The concept gathers regional employees together in clusters while connecting these clusters together using a virtual platform. This idea reduces the amount of cross-country and international travel, gathering employees in local clusters rather than a single national corporate meeting. Local travel cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions from air travel, while also fostering community and collaboration with co-workers. The cluster meeting offers the potential to reduce travel time, improving work-life balance for your employees.

Looking Ahead

It will be interesting to see how companies continue to adapt their business practices to the new reality. How will business change post-pandemic? Will sustainability be a forethought? Or will it fall to the wayside? We would argue that now is the perfect time to bring sustainability forward. As you adjust operations due to the pandemic, now is the best time to incorporate changes that matter to your firm.

Keep an eye out for more sustainability insights from the Pepper Foster team over the next few months.

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