If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic so far, it’s that existential threats don’t just go away. Not even if you ignore them. (Actually, they get worse if you ignore them.) We’ve all been touched by the events of the past few months and we need a new way forward. Whether it’s climate change or public health, we need to face these threats head-on and solve them.
We’re also rediscovering the fact that resilience is the key to surviving and thriving – whether as a business, a community, or a species. “In the search for efficiency, we abandoned resiliency,” says Chamath Palihapitiya, CEO of Social Capital and Chairman of Virgin Galactic. “We have to pivot to a more resilient economic model.”
For businesses, this doesn’t mean simply saving more cash for the next rainy day or redoubling efforts to stay ahead of the competition. It also means working to address the human and environmental issues that threaten our businesses indirectly.
In other words, a time of crisis is no time for hitting the pause button on sustainability and social responsibility.
Our first sustainability report is now available. Read it here.
From an investor-relations perspective, sustainability has quickly become the issue on the minds of long-term investors. “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” said Larry Fink, CEO of investment giant Blackrock, in a recent shareholder letter. “Companies have a responsibility – and an economic imperative – to give shareholders greater transparency on issues of sustainability.” As investors assess risk, it’s become increasingly obvious that companies striving for social engagement and impact are better positioned to weather downturns and succeed over the long-term.
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But shareholders aren’t the only stakeholders. Companies also need to consider customers, as well as their own employees – both of whom are increasingly mobile. “We’re at a tipping point. There is now enough data to show that companies who put their customers, communities, and employees first consistently win in big markets,” says Matt Sonefeldt, Atlassian’s VP of Investor Relations. While common sense says that customers prefer to support businesses they can feel good about, employees’ appetite for sustainability and social responsibility has been less understood until recently.
To that end, Atlassian partnered with PwC on original research that found that, in the face of governments that are slow to respond, US and Australian workers are looking to their company leaders for action. 69 percent of workers in Australia and 60 percent of U.S. workers agree businesses should be just as concerned with their societal impact as they are with their financial performance. 72 percent say companies should be taking specific action of one kind or another.
Although the study found that companies who encourage workers to get involved in issues they feel passionate about are attractive to job seekers, most workers agree their employers aren’t doing enough.
Aside from misconceptions about the return on social responsibility and our oh-so-human tendency to procrastinate, it’s not easy for company leaders to identify the issues they should focus on or how hard to pursue them. That’s why it’s critical for leaders to listen to – and ask! – their teams, and for employees at all levels to provide feedback up the chain.
Whether you’re an executive or an intern, if you want to help your company operate more sustainably, start by prioritizing a set of issues that have the most direct impact on your business. What are the emerging concerns in your industry? Where can you have the greatest impact? You can do this individually or as a leadership team, either with or without the help of outside consultants.
In Atlassian’s case, we began by benchmarking ourselves against peer companies on issues related to climate change and socioeconomic inequality. (If you don’t have the budget for benchmarking via an external consultant, you can review other companies’ sustainability reports.) We also used platforms like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Women’s Empowerment Principles, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as reference points. From there, we partnered with corporate sustainability experts BSR to assess which issues are most pressing for our business and our stakeholders.
Next, develop a set of first principles to guide your thinking and measurable targets to make sure your actions are focused on what’s most important. For example, we chose climate change as one of our focus areas, with the guiding principle of working with other companies and public sector entities toward a future of net-zero emissions. In concert with that, we publicly stated our goal of operating on 100% renewable energy by 2025.
Finally, collaborate. We’re not alone in the fight for a sustainable future, and neither are you. There’s much to learn from companies and organizations that have come before us. Organizations like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA) and the Step Up Coalition are great examples. Likewise, it’s our responsibility to share what we learn along the way so others can achieve their goals faster.
For our part, we’ve learned that it’s useful to set big, hairy, ambitious goals (such as our net-zero emissions by 2050 goal) even when you don’t know how you’ll reach them. We know a lot of companies have reservations about making ambitious commitments when the “how” is unclear. But ambiguity has never stopped successful companies from going in a direction they know is right, and we firmly believe addressing climate change is the right thing for us and everyone else on the planet.
We’ve also learned that transparency is the best way to hold ourselves accountable. That’s why we’re sharing our first-ever sustainability report publicly today and encourage other companies to do the same. Besides the accountability benefits, the act of assessing and reporting on a regular basis creates momentum and urgency.
Like many of you, we are just getting started on this journey. We have a long way to go across each of our four focus areas: addressing the climate crisis, building trust with our customers, creating strong and balanced teams, and increasing access to education. By being open about where we’re at and what we’re doing, we hope to inspire other companies to take their first steps as well. We’re all in this together, and together, we can build a more sustainable and resilient business community.
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Special thanks to Sarah Goff-Dupont for her contribution to this article.