We gathered at The Record Hall for the latest Workspace Business Insights Dinner to discuss the power of community in business and the benefits and challenges of building relationships

Why do businesses invest in ‘community’? Is it all about altruism or is it fundamentally linked to commercial need? Who benefits the most from the connection made between a business and members of the community? And who should be the driving force behind Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – employees, a leadership team, or a committee made up of both?

These are just a few of the questions the panel grappled with and discussed at The Record Hall for a WBI Dinner that really got people talking. After a brief introduction from Centre Manager, Stuart Lancaster, our chair Rachel Smith, UK Director of Programme and Operations at GlobalGiving, chatted with panellists Andy Lang, Public Sector Manager at O2 (Telefónica), Alyson Walsh, Commercial Director at Fareshare UK, Chris Lewis, Independent Analyst and RNIB Solutions Board Member, and Claire Davey, Global Community Manager for CSR at Dentsu Aegis Network

Rachel brought The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer findings to the panel’s attention. They reveal how activities linked to sustainability and CSR can help to enhance trust. According to Edelman’s analysis, public trust is in crisis but there is some good news for businesses: “Three-quarters of people agree that companies can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities where they operate, and increasingly expect businesses to lead.” So, what are companies doing about this?

“Businesses are starting to think as much about purpose as they are about profit” stated Rachel, and the panel agreed. It is not enough anymore for companies to simply drive their business concerned solely with making money. Claire added that “society is now an official stakeholder in our business,” meaning that it is no longer appropriate for companies to not show that they are doing something to address their CSR initiatives and connecting with their communities.

Businesses are behaving in a far more proactive way when they invest in local and larger communities and this not only increases people’s trust in them, it also has commercial benefits. Alyson explained that a recent study found that for every £1 a company invested in better food management, £14 went back into the business.

Returning to the ‘trust factor’ that a business can earn by doing good and facing social issues in the local and wider community head on, Andy spoke about how the key is understanding what customers want. He said: “I think engaging strategically and examining the outcomes our customers are looking for and really understanding their organisation and our mutual customers is key to winning trust.” Andy believes that “open and honest dialogue” can help too. “It’s important to invite our customers in to meet our people, to get to know our culture.”

On the subject of the role that technology plays when it comes to CSR, Chris argues that it’s a far more “inclusive” environment thanks to advances in tech. Communities that might never have been able to connect with others, such as the blind and partially sighted, can now use devices to be in touch with almost any other group. This can only be a good thing says Chris as “people belong to many different communities.” 

Andy agreed with this sentiment. Earlier this month, O2 joined over 100 individuals from businesses and civil society for the Inclusive Economy Partnership. The partnership will develop solutions to societal challenges and Mark Evans, CEO of Telefónica UK (O2) noted: “We also firmly believe that ‘doing good’ is good business and we are committed to playing our part in creating a fairer and more sustainable world.”

Andy said: “I think this is a really exciting development and I love Mark’s comment that ‘doing good’ is good business! This shows the O2 leadership team really understand the value of business relationships that deliver positive societal impact. I am a big advocate of digital inclusion and accessibility and think that there is a great opportunity for O2 to be the network that is relevant to all. He likes to think of O2 as a “connectivity partner for life” for customers.

Claire reminded us that technology also gives us “instant access to global issues” that we previously might not have even been aware of. 

All our panellists agreed that CSR is for everyone. “You don’t have to be a big brand in order to support your community” said Alyson. Possessesing a wealth of knowledge of the food and retail sectors, Alyson previously worked for Kingfisher Plc and Sainsbury’s before Fareshare, who for more than 22 years has been the UK-wide charity that tackles hunger and food waste by redistributing good food that would otherwise go to waste. Instead, it goes to frontline charities and community groups that support vulnerable people, including homeless shelters, children’s breakfast clubs, and domestic violence refuges.

Alyson believes that “it’s not about being a huge corporation or brand, it’s about how you use your resources and time”, which was echoed by Claire Davey who’s incredibly passionate about the role that businesses can play in social and environmental issues.

As well as her work in the Global CSR team of advertising giant Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) for the past 18 months, and more widely in Corporate Social Responsibility for 5 years at consultancy Three Hands and London City Airport, Claire also runs volunteering programmes and projects for the London-based DAN functional teams, and CSR Leadership Development Programme 'Route to Good' in collaboration with GlobalGiving. Claire agrees that businesses of any size should be actively involved in CSR, and “approach it with creativity.”

A significant discussion happened around Rachel’s posited question of who should be leading on CSR projects – should it be initiated by leadership or start with the employees?

All of our panellists think that there should definitely be staff engagement, or the project will most certainly fail. That’s why it is so important for the lines of communication to be open when it comes to deciding on which issues are the most important to that organisation. Claire and Andy both spoke of how relevant “sharing stories” is, when making sure that everyone feels included in the CSR mission. Claire pushed this idea one step further by suggesting that these stories can also be passed on within the community and wants there to be interested in sharing “life skills” too.

Chris pondered whether management should be the ones leading the charge, so to speak. “Age can be a factor here” he said, he referenced recent studies into millennials – reportedly 84% want to make a difference through the job they do – and Claire agreed as she stated: “50% of our employees are millennials” and sustainability is at the forefront of their concerns.

With no ultimate conclusion reached on this matter, the main focus remained clear: Everyone needs to be involved in CSR at some point.

Looking forward, the panel explored how much further companies could take their CSR initiatives. After all, as Alyson cleverly suggests: “Your communities are part of who your future corporation could be.” Chris and Andy are keen to see a world in which people with a disability get the best service possible, from staff who are trained and possess the knowledge to truly help them when they step into an O2 store to innovation in the devices available to them.

The work that RNIB and O2 do together has mutual benefits for both brands. O2’s Guru community learns directly from the RNIB on how to achieve the best service possible by making technology more accessible to all and in turn O2 (Telefonica) help the RNIB expand their levels of engagement and raise awareness of the brand.

Rachel’s final question to the panel was “what advice or tips would you give to businesses looking to get more involved in CSR?”

  • Alyson said: “Have passion – find out what the people in your business really care about and start there.”
  • Chris added: “Know what good you can deliver.” In other words, recognising both the possibility and the limits of the change you as a person can make is a key factor before involving your whole business.
  • Andy would encourage businesses to “look for the opportunities for collaboration.” There might be another brand or company you can align with to create a farther reach for your project or share resources with.
  • Claire thinks that CSR committees should be commonplace in businesses across the country, if not the world. “Build a team” she urged. “Get people taking positive action and meeting regularly to share and discuss ideas.

Here what our WBI Dinner attendees had to say of the event

“The WBI Dinner was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people and discuss topics of interest.” Vanessa Zenon, Marketing Manager at the BBC

Farah Qureshi, Director at The Record Hall commented: “I thought that it was great that workspace introduced a topic for debate on a more altruistic level. It was both educational and inspiring. Good to meet some of the other attendees as well.”

“Good speakers who were passionate about their subject. and panel was well chaired. Excellent food and hospitality which supported good networking before and after the debate.” Said Chris Stanley, Director Anthesis based at The Leather Market.

At Workspace, Doing The Right Thing is part of everything we do. We will continue to get involved with our communities and strive to make a real difference, both in business and in the world. Why not join us?

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