Comment: Reflecting on the Brexit vote: what is there for businesses to learn?

On 23 June I left the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, and after spending some hours on client work, made my way to the lounge at JFK airport for the flight home.  There I watched as the results of the UK's referendum on EU membership came through.  As the picture got clearer, and the leave vote began to look inevitable businessmen of many nationalities paced up and down, muttering expletives, while traders got on their phones to Asia to short the British pound.

While personally the decision to leave the EU has given rise to very mixed emotions, my mind turned quickly to seek to understand what the implications could be for our business.  Would it be harder to trade with the EU?  Where do we invest in the coming months?  Will we need to change our banking arrangements, intellectual property protections and travel insurances?  Questions to which I have, as yet, no answers, but questions which will be on the minds of many and in time, as greater clarity unfolds we and other companies who trade across the EU will need to arrange their affairs accordingly.

But with the benefit of a few months, if we stand back, what else could business take away from the referendum result and the national navel gazing it has unleashed?

It seems that Brexit voters came from many places and were motivated by many concerns, not just those headline issues articulated in the campaign.  The messages seem to be that there are many who are not seeing the personal benefits from globalisation, have had enough of austerity, and the casualization of labour, feel disconnected from political and business elites, and that they are not being listened to.  The referendum provided an opportunity to protest and protest they did. I think the business community need to hear these messages loud and strong as a wake-up call. 

The impacts of international trade on people, especially the most vulnerable, need to be better understood, and more importantly there needs to be a real commitment to addressing them. Further, I believe it is a message that workers no longer necessarily feel connected with the businesses which they work for and the economic system they serve, just as they feel disconnected from politics. Despite the near-term economic challenges which Brexit has unleashed, business leaders are going to need to find the capacity to lift their heads above the day to day, and to look at what practically they can contribute to re-connecting with half of the British public.

 Practically, the place for a business to begin seems to be to look at its current engagement with its workers.  Is more than lip service paid to this?  Are the messages about valuing our employees lived out in practice? For all employees, not just the management?  And are their concerns really being listened to and being dealt with? And we may then ask ourselves whether we are creating the right conditions for our suppliers, and their suppliers to do the same?