Interview with Jon Khoo, Head of Sustainability (EAAA), Interface

Jon Khoo is Head of Sustainability (EAAA) for Interface. In a recent interview he shares his optimism about the wave of positive changes that Covid has started.

‘We all see things a little bit differently now’

Where are we at after 18 months? I think individually and collectively we’re in self-discovery mode.

The pandemic has thrown everything we know up in the air. It’s tested our hearts, heads and souls – challenged everything we’re used to. And we’re inevitably going to come out of it re-evaluating things.

As a society, and as individuals we’ve suffered a massive jolt. Out of that has come a time for reflection. We all see things a little bit differently now.

We are more open to realizing the urgency of the climate crisis, more willing to challenge governments and businesses.

I believe that the discussions they’re having at COP 26 this week are very different and more human because of the pandemic.

‘The pandemic is much simpler to understand’

The difference in perceptions of climate change and the pandemic is interesting.  People try to show lots of parallels, but the pandemic is much simpler to understand.

As an international community we measured the pandemic with infection rates and deaths. But the metrics for climate change are a little more complex and are not so universally understood or accepted. Putting up the parts per million of carbon on a screen doesn’t elicit that same visceral response.

Maybe there’s a lesson we can learn around simplifying it. Such as how many people have been affected by some form of climate change – have been displaced, lost their lives, or livelihoods. It would be more powerful and humanize it.

Effectively, we need to be better at taking the IPCC report impacts and translating them into a clearer narrative.

‘The impact of the pandemic is like a wave’

It’s too early to tell whether peoples’ values have changed. Anyone that says there’s been a definite shift in values is on unsafe ground – it’s too soon to tell.

The impact of the pandemic is like a wave, starting out small in the middle of the ocean. We will only see the impact when it hits the land.

There’s a jolt and the wave has started. But the real, long lasting, impacts won’t be felt until that wave hits land – maybe in a couple of years from now.

A lot of things will change for the better – we’re only touching the surface of that now.

‘We’ve had to confront our own vulnerability’

What is different about Covid is that it doesn’t matter who you were – the virus doesn’t discern.

As human beings we’ve had to confront our own vulnerability. And question our responsibilities to others.

We’re less likely to go back to being apathetic or oblivious, thinking everything’s going to be okay. People are more invested – there’s a realization that life is short.

Coming out of Covid, people feel less fatalistic than they did before. There’s a greater willingness to make a difference.

‘A big driver in terms of our ability to affect change’

Covid and working from home has helped people realize that they have a voice – more potent than it’s ever been before.

We’re more aware of our connections with other people, with nature, our local communities and the global world. It’s been a big driver in terms of our ability to affect change.

And through social media we have the access to exert our influence on these big issues – to challenge not just our friends, but governments and businesses.

Everyone has a platform to be an agent of change at a national and global level. If I’m annoyed at the politicians, I’m going to tell them about it. That wouldn’t have been the case a couple of years ago.

‘We could engage in a discussion with much wider audience’

If you’re interested in a subject, whether it’s the environment, wellbeing, diversity or equality, it’s much easier now to connect with your tribe internationally.

At Interface, we ran some CPD courses about embodied carbon and sustainable procurement. We would normally have a sandwich lunch for 12 people. Suddenly we could engage in a discussion with a much wider audience – up to 100 people.

The voices that you hear have become broader. It’s democratized a lot of discussions that people might previously have felt excluded from.

Covid has enabled people to listen a wider range of voices – ones that may have been under-represented in the past. We’re not at our destination yet, but it’s a beginning – you can’t bring those walls back.

‘Having to rethink what company culture looks like’

If your company had a good set of corporate values that people were living by, then Covid would have had a lot less impact. But if not, then it would have really demonstrated and magnified the gaps.

Building and maintaining a company culture now is a challenge that every organization will face.

When everyone’s together it’s much easier than having to rethink what company culture looks like when people are hybrid working.

It’s an interesting time for those working in HR and change management. And a good time for them to question things – providing they have the experience to be responsive to work in a post-Covid world.

‘We need to encourage more flexibility’

A lot of companies are still trying to work out how much office space they need. How much time is needed in the office and how they are going to be hybrid.

There’s no perfect blueprint for how people should return to their workspaces. It really depends on your industry, your culture, your people.

The general trend is that we need to encourage more flexibility. It’s inevitable that hybrid working will be a part of this. In terms of office working, it’s never going to go back to being the same as it was before.

The smartest thing a business can do is develop a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Then try to pivot those based on what’s going to be successful in the future.

‘When Covid struck, our culture of innovation kept on going’

Sustainability is a core pillar for Interface – it’s our vision of how we can mitigate our negative impacts and find ways to have a positive impact.

But we’ve never accepted the status quo – we are always looking at how to reinvent ourselves. That’s something we learnt from Ray Anderson and has been fostered ever since.

When Covid struck, our culture of innovation kept on going, there was no pause button. We just continued to innovate and even launched our first cradle to gate carbon negative product.

As a business we set out to make things better to change the market. And if other companies follow us and choose more sustainable means, I’m delighted. Because moving businesses in our sector in the right direction shows that we’ve succeeded.

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