There is no denying the past two years have turned the world of work upside down. Employers are tangling with a labour shortage and employees are now sitting in the driver’s seat - 2022 is the year of the workers. And yet, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 revealed ‘my employer’ is trusted above all other institutions, organisations and governments. Encouragingly, employers wield great power in addressing the challenges of 2022 and beyond.

The virtual Davos Agenda 2022 conference hosted by The World Economic Forum at the end of January starkly set out those challenges. Gathering world leaders, CEOs and NGOs, it was an occasion to reflect on recent developments and glean insights for the year ahead. The theme was the chasms in society that the pandemic has amplified. There is no denying that the world has continued on that track since the virtual conference concluded. From a tense geopolitical landscape culminating in the Ukraine conflict, to an ever-evolving post-Covid world, to more and more stark reminders of the climate crisis and its consequence, things have moved on in 5 months.

In anticipation of the annual Davos meeting and its likely focus points, we look back on the five priorities for business leaders which arose from the virtual conference.

1. Foster an even economic recovery

The pandemic has deepened the rift between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Far from a great equaliser, the epidemic caused inequalities but also exacerbated existing ones - on a political, social and economic level.

The world will need to renew its social contract to recover and tighten the gap. In the words of António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, "we need to reform the global financial system in a way that it can work for all countries without being biased."

Businesses need to reimagine their people strategies to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. For example, 80-90% of hires in the engineering industry are still male. In the context of talent scarcity, a gender gap of such worrying magnitude severely limits the talent pool. In fact, PwC found in its 25th Annual Global CEO Survey that the most highly trusted organisations are 1.4 times more likely to have gender diversity targets in their CEO compensation plans.

Challenges aren’t limited to the gender gap, but include other markers such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religious beliefs. Fostering an authentically diverse and inclusive workforce requires a long-term commitment and a transformative mindset. Business leaders participating in the event came to a consensus; evaluating pathways into the company, creating the necessary support systems to individuals’ unique needs and maintaining open lines of communication with staff will go a long way in building an environment of belonging.

2. Encourage collaboration

Coordination and partnership underpinned the entire conference - a perfect juxtaposition to its warning of growing division. In a session on ESG metrics, the Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, Brian Moynihan, said standardised and transparent collaboration between businesses and governments has the power to “move the needle of progress.”

For that to become a reality, businesses will have to move from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. Businesses are facing low trust and high expectations from consumers. They must embrace this challenge and actively work to serve not just their shareholders but their customers, suppliers, workers and communities.

Especially in the context of ‘The Great Resignation’, genuine collaboration with employees is also essential. Adopting corporate empathy should be part of the solution to attract and retain talent, as Adecco Group CEO, Alain Dehaze, proposes. Not unlike emotional intelligence or the philosophy of ikigai, corporate empathy means genuinely listening and understanding the feelings of workers. To put this into practice, many businesses have introduced ‘stay interviews’ to their people management processes. When employers really understand their employees, they can offer them the perks and development paths that they crave.

3. Leverage technology to support people and economies

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen inspired headlines when she announced a new European Chips Act to support the development, production and use of microchips as “the European need for chips will double in the next decade.”

Digital skills are now a basic requirement for workers. In the words of Intel CEO, Pat Gelsinger, “we stand at the precipice of a digital renaissance.” And yet, access to key digital skills is uneven. Businesses must help employees to learn; not just to rectify the inequities in the workforce, but to protect businesses from the looming threat of cyber attacks.

Dmitry Samartsev, CEO of BI.ZONE, specifically stressed the need to integrate cybersecurity into the development strategy of businesses. Human error remains the most common cause for cyber security breaches, so providing key training is a survival strategy as much as an exercise in future-proofing.

4. Promote Covid-19 vaccination

Hailed as one “one of the most successful public-private partnerships in human history”, the Covid vaccine rollout has played a tremendous role in shaping 2021 and beyond - but it is not finished yet. Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, Group Chairman and CEO of DP World, says supporting the vaccine drive “should be the business of every business.”

Building vaccine confidence can happen in the workplace by encouraging staff to get vaccinated, but it can also occur outside of the company. Brand credibility can help to tackle vaccine hesitancy. Bin Sulayem explained that harnessing networks and seeking out partnerships can project the global vision for immunization.

5. Fight climate change

“Humans are not good in the boiling-frog scenario,” according to Zurich Insurance Group’s Chief Risk Officer, Peter Giger, who believes humankind has always responded better to immediate threats such as the pandemic. So, Davos built on the momentum gathered at COP26 to highlight the urgent need for action on the climate front.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, was abundantly clear when he said “nobody is moving fast enough”. Business leaders can speed up the net-zero transition by supporting and incentivizing new technologies such as clean hydrogen. By striving towards science-based targets, looking beyond net-zero finance and embracing new standards and methodologies, business leaders have a pivotal role to play. For Accenture Chair and CEO, Julie Sweet, it’s a no-brainer: private companies have to embrace sustainability across their entire value chain because “this is how they are going to win.”

Looking Ahead to WEF 2022

So, May's congregation will be as much about providing a status report on some of the most significant action points from January as it will be about addressing brand-new challenges. The ever-present themes of technological progress, the climate crisis and division will require new input, but they will likely be joined by the Ukrainian conflict and other pressing issues. While Covid may have somewhat faded from the immediate zeitgeist, its implications continue to affect the world of work. For all of the above, collaboration remains a key part to the solution. Davos is, above all, an opportunity to align priorities, share impetus and build up collective momentum. The key message of the forum must be that the world has herculean tasks ahead of it, but that they are not unsurmountable if addressed by a united front.