Covid, Purpose & Priti Patel

July 15, 2020

A practical approach to corporate purpose could help low paid employees to make the most of their expertise in people – and drive a more enlightened, formal recognition of their skills.

Mockery has been hurled at purpose and mission statements, with good reason: too many are PR exercises.

But the Covid crisis has highlighted graphic examples of vital roles, such as care workers, in which a practical approach to purpose could improve day-to-day decision making, recognise true contributions 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 a misguided, illogical attitude which results in, for example, a June 2020 FT headline asking if “the pandemic has put paid to purpose” (as if purpose were optional) and Boots plc effectively owning 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 – least of all Sony – believes it.

This misuse of language is regrettable, because 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 goods 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, 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 noticing subtle trends in mood and appetite. 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.

Measuring smiles: International hotels train and evaluate staff on their ability to make guests feel good. Care agencies could, too.

Good care workers have great people skills. Patients in their care, feel genuinely cared for. It makes them 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 a specialist medic might be needed – earlier. The result is patients who are not just happier. They also live healthier, longer lives. If a care agency sees that this is what society most wants and will pay for, it can embrace this broader, practical purpose. It could learn from the international hotel industry, how to train junior staff to make customers feel good and how to measure their effectiveness. This could be included in formal qualifications.

Trained care workers who know that their performance will be judged by how much their patients feel cared for, love being given permission to aim for it. Furthermore, those achieving the highest levels of formal people skill training, who can also show a history of superior care, would be able to earn more (patients will pay more to be happier and healthier). Armed with recognised certificates, they would even be able to show Ms Patel that they are far from unskilled. Meanwhile, care agencies which are great employers would attract the best, most qualified staff and the best raw trainees, balancing out the overall cost base (so they’d be expensive, but not too much), whilst securing a solid, high end market position. 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 only at short term costs, not 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 bright, sharp stone on a beach, becomes just another pebble. An articulated, practical sense of purpose can fight that erosion, helping the company as a whole to maintain a distinctive leading position – and control over what it is for.

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