ReUnited Kingdoms #3: Maintaining the golden chain

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21 April 2020

ReUnited Kingdoms – a new conversation about the future

As life under lockdown becomes the Temporary Normal, businesses are starting to imagine what the world should look like “afterwards” and ask how we can build on new behaviours and start to build things through a new lens. Our “ReUnited Kingdoms” content series explores life beyond lockdown, looking particularly at how we can all play our part in creating the future. In this piece, we will ask how we as a society ensure that we don’t lose the undeniable sense of community, and the small acts of consideration and kindness that have been some of the positive side effects of the current crisis.

 

COVID-19 and random acts of kindness

We’ve become accustomed to hearing about how crisis in general and the current lockdown in particular has brought out the best in people – random acts of kindness to strangers, looking out for our elderly neighbours and a greater appreciation of the efforts made to keep us all safe and fed, for example. Comparisons have been drawn to the so-called Blitz spirit that forms such key part of British national identity – that when the chips are down, we pull together.

It is very difficult to find definitive evidence for this, at least as far as evidence that goes beyond the anecdotal. But, in this case the anecdotal evidence is so strong as to be undeniable, across opinion pieces from the likes of BBC News (link), CNN (link), the Guardian (link) and the United Nations (link).

Take a case in point. On March 25th the UK government appealed for 250,000 volunteers to “help the NHS, for shopping, for the delivery of medicines and to support those who are shielding to protect their own health”. Such was the response that not only was the target met within a day, but it was rapidly trebled with some 750,000 committing to help (link).

This has been seen before and nor is it a British phenomenon. Research shows that we tend lean into kindness when tragedy strikes. A 2008 US study of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shattered the myth that disasters bring out the worst in people and reported that “most people respond positively and generously”.

 

Why are we kind anyway?

There’s a moment in Friends (S5E4: The one where Phoebe hates PBS) where Joey and Phoebe argue back and forth about good deeds. He ends up telling her that a good deed she’d done (being a surrogate mother for her brother’s triplets) wasn’t as purely motivated as she’d thought. “It made you feel good (about yourself), that makes it selfish”. He goes further, “there’s no unselfish good deeds”.

Even if you prefer to take your moral philosophy from loftier sources than Tribbiani and Buffay, the academics agree. Desmond Morris’s famous Naked Ape, for example, cites examples of “altruism” across the animal kingdom that are more about perpetuating one’s genes than fellow feeling.

From both the point of view of what motivates us to do good and how doing good makes us feel, the evidence is clear that doing good is good both for society and for us as individuals. The power of kindness as a for good over and above its effects on the recipient of an act of kindness has long been recognised:

“Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together”

Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe

Work cited in The Psychologist (link) and Psychology Today (link) confirms that kindness reduces anxiety and stress, altruism is linked with higher social status in their group, giving time gives you more time, spending on others is good for your heart, increases life expectancy and even that empathy reduces the common cold.

Ultimately this doesn’t matter. Our motivations for doing good things for other people is less important than the effects of those good deeds. Of course, it helps that doing good makes us feel good, a phenomenon known as “Helper’s High” (link) and it usually creates a kind of virtuous circle that encourages more good deeds – as embodied in the 2000 Paying it Forward (link) – where those of us in receipt of a good deed become more likely to think about doing a good deed for someone else. The scientific name for this chain of altruism is “upstream reciprocity” – a domino effect of warm and fuzzy feelings.

 

What stops us being (more) kind (more often)?

Why do we need such a major crisis to bring out the best in us? Why aren’t we kinder to each other all the time? Whether we are talking about kindness from one person to another person, withing organisations or from an organisation, such as a brand, to its audience, the barriers to kindness are quite easy to guess. Lack of budget, lack of time, fear of discrimination, unconscious bias, cliques fatigue, overwork, personal problems at home, conflicts, broken relationships and toxic workplace cultures are all sometimes cited as reasons why we aren’t kinder to each other (link).

Just think back to some of those normal pre-lockdown situations when you didn’t present your best self, either by actively being inconsiderate to others (e.g. fighting to get onto a crowded tube train, road rage, online trolling, etc) or even just when you missed an opportunity to actively be helpful, nice or considerate to someone, and more than likely you’ll be able to find one or more of the reasons above to explain why.

Some of those factors still exist in lockdown, but others (such as daily stress levels) are definitely lower than “before”. Even where that is not the case, the current situation is so severe that our minds have clicked over into a different, more communal mode. It is this more societally-focused way of thinking that we need to maintain after COVID-19.

 

Brands and kindness

Right from the earliest days of the outbreak, brands have stepped up offering support to vulnerable and elderly customers, key workers (such as EE offering free data to NHS workers until October Sainsbury’s giving NHS workers priority access to groceries and Morrisons offering them a 10% discount) and indeed to society as a whole. Here are just a few examples:

  • Sassy Cow: is keeping a ‘kindness cooler’ outside of their store fully stocked with free milk (link).
  • SaveOurFaves: Enables community support for restaurants (link).
  • Fashion and beauty brands are saying #HelloToKindness by producing handwash or facemasks (link).
  • UberEats: Waived fees to support small businesses (link).
  • Pret a Manger: Offers daily perks to frontline workers (link).
  • Restaurants and caterers (such as Berber & Q ) launch clever initiatives to deliver food to Londoners, keep hospitality staff in jobs and help the vulnerable in one fell swoop (link).
  • Apple: Provides quarantine care packages to employees (link).
  • Heinz: Replaces 12 million school meals for free (link).

Again, we can be adult enough to realise that brands doing these kinds of things are not being driven purely by altruistic motives, without it totally undermining our appreciation for the action. YouGov, for example, have shared evidence that those brands which are perceived to have put staff and customers first have seen their popularity surge (link). As with individual kindness, this doesn’t matter: the kindness is the most important thing, even if the motives for giving it are mixed.

As with the personal kindnesses discussed earlier, it is vital that these efforts be maintained post-COVID.

 

Employers and kindness

Kindness has also been an issue for organisations in their role as employers. Right back in the early days of lockdown, we recognised the need for employers to be kind to their newly remote workforces, by reframing the WFH acronym as Welfare for Humans (link) and making efforts to remove the “air quotes” that had existed around remote working pre-COVID, accepting that workers might not be as effective as normal because of the need to juggle home schooling their kids with home working, or by ensuring that home workers had ready access to all of the hardware, software and support they need to remain productive and well.

Now four weeks into lockdown, many are settling into an effective routine. Whether we settle back into our pre-outbreak work styles one lockdown ends, remain with our new ones, or create a new blended and more flexible approach, we will still, more than likely continue to expect tolerance, understanding and support from our employers.

 

Keeping the golden chain strong post-COVID

The key question, of course, is how to ensure that we don’t slip into those old bad habits, that we don’t quickly become overwhelmed by the busy lifestyles that stop us being the nicer, kinder, better person we have all proven that we can be. Just as during the outbreak, we all need to do our bit post-COVID too:

  • As citizens, we need to commit to continue to both offer help and ask for it, without the British reserve or embarrassment that makes us think people will be insulted.
  • As employers, we need both to offer our staff the room to not be perfect all the time but also empower them with the time and room they need to be kind to others.
  • As suppliers, corporations need to resist the temptation to throw out all the ground they’ve made in public perception in a headlong rush to balance the books. 

 

What next?

As we acclimatise to lockdown, individuals and corporations are starting to ask, “what happens next?”. We believe the opportunity exists to reclaim and rebuild a better post-COVID future and we’ll be exploring further opportunities to do so in the next few weeks.

 

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group.

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