When the coronavirus outbreak led to widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the world, many were forced to adapt and shift parts of their daily routines. Some of these adaptations have relied heavily on technology, including adults working from home and students engaging in online learning.
Succeeding during this era of isolation has required, unsurprisingly, a heavy reliance on technology — which you could assume would lead to higher levels of trust for the sector. But much to our surprise, the pandemic has accelerated a downward trend of trust in technology, with a 7-point drop in tech across 11 markets studied between May 2020 and January 2021 alone. In addition, this seems to be a global trend, as out of 27 countries surveyed, 17 have reached all-time low levels of trust including China with a record year-over-year decline.
People have always had a love-hate relationship with technology, and the events of this past year complicated things even more. Whether it’s hyperbolic headlines alleging that robots will steal people’s jobs, or great hopes placed on tech to solve climate change or a global pandemic, technology bears the weight of enormous expectations from global citizens.
Amid a global pandemic, emerging fears around job loss accelerated, with 56 percent of respondents reporting concerns about companies replacing human workers with AI and robots in a jobless, “touchless future.” Fears over data privacy and sharing also increased, with a 6-point decline in willingness to share personal data with government to help track the virus from May 2020 through January 2021.
The phrase these uncertain times has been dramatically overused over the past year. I’m allowing myself to use it one last time, with gravitas. People are worried because we actually have no idea what tomorrow will look like, not only on a personal level but on a global, societal level. It’s a fear of the unknown that none of us have ever experienced, and in the face of it, we look for guidance.
Specifically, many expect CEOs to step up and take the lead with 86 percent of respondents saying that they expect CEOs to publicly speak out on challenges such as the pandemic impact, job automation, societal issues, as well as local community issues. But talk isn’t enough. To stay credible, today’s businesses need to act before they speak. And this is where we have another significant finding: the greatest opportunity for business to gain trust is by becoming a guardian of information quality, confirming that only reliable, trustworthy information is being shared and consumed.
Our data shows that people are looking for business to act for the long term. In the long term, that means embracing sustainability and focusing on long-term thinking over short-term profits. In the short term, that means delivering a robust response to COVID and aiding in economic recovery. But business can’t do it alone. It must partner with the other institutions to address societal challenges. And, crucially, it must also ensure that both consumers and employees have a seat at the table.
It’s now time for tech companies to lead by acting on a broader set of concerns for the good of their companies and the betterment of society. For example:
- Tech companies can play a pivotal role in upskilling workers whose jobs are threatened by automation.
- Tech can advance the dialogue and commitment to responsible artificial intelligence – ensuring the ethical, transparent and accountable use of AI.
- Tech can advance the use of AI in safeguarding information integrity by helping to detect and root out disinformation.
- Tech companies should also lead with facts, act with empathy and put the human experience at the center of responding to the needs of employees, customers and business partners.
Companies must do all of this while continuing to provide trustworthy content by pledging to truthful and reliable information. CEOs can lead by providing trusted information, starting with their employees. This is especially important in building trust in vaccines. Advocacy and education, rather than mandatory vaccine requirements, may be the most responsible course of action.
Most of all, tech needs to become a better partner to other institutions. As much as people want business to lead and fill the void where other institutions, such as government, have faltered, business can’t do it alone.
To help address vexing social issues, Tech should lead by forging new kinds of partnerships with other institutions — government, academia, NGOs and demonstrate how these can be solved by technology like IoT or blockchain (think of vaccine supply chains).
For tech companies, this is a new way of thinking that requires a new type of leadership. It will require them to embrace a new framework of stakeholder capitalism, to communicate clearly and transparently across all stakeholder sets and to actively focus on reputation-building activities with the same laser-focus many have brought to their skyrocketing valuations over the years. It’s a moment that shouldn’t be lost.
Sanjay Nair is global chair of our technology practice.