Few could have predicted the events of 2020 – nor how they transformed the way businesses interact with the wider community. But what will 2021 hold for companies and how they connect to society? Here are five predictions that I expect will define the year ahead.
1. Business leaders are no longer just business leaders – they are also society issues leaders
In the light of often-changing government guidelines and regulations that vary from region to region, many will look to business leaders to take a stance – and make clear decisions about the issues facing society. As the world faces unprecedented problems, it may be up to CEOs to make choices about how their particular company can prevent the spread of the virus. We’ve already seen this, of course. In August last year, Airbnb made headlines when it chose to ban all parties and events at listed properties, in response to people taking “bar and club behaviour to homes”. The need for business to go beyond simply sticking to state guidelines is likely to continue this year.
2. Tech acceleration will impact business models and customer experiences
Research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has suggested that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated digital transformation by seven years – and it’s clear that tech will play an ever-growing role in how companies interact with the world. New consumer needs could also transform traditionally ‘offline’ spheres and see businesses focus on new areas – for example, Amazon Pharmacy, offering quick deliveries to its Prime members, launched in the US late last year.
3. The race to carbon-zero will turn the pandemic crisis into a climate opportunity
The pandemic has placed a new emphasis on Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance issues – and a recognition that failing to consider these constitutes a risk to society, the planet, and to companies themselves. 2020 saw names like Unilever, Apple and HSBC make net zero commitments – and businesses will need to continue to reassess their ESG strategies this year, if they want to avoid the reputational damage of lagging behind.
4. The future of work – this may be the beginning of a fitter, happier, more productive lifestyle
COVID-19 has changed the lives of office-workers, with homeworking meaning that commutes and the ‘9 to 5’ have been replaced by kitchen tables and flexible working hours. The UK government briefly encouraged a return to workplaces last year – before reverting to its ‘stay at home’ messaging as cases of the virus rose. Will the vaccine rollout see employees return to the old ways, or will remote working continue for the foreseeable future? While it’s difficult to predict where workforces will be at the end of the year, this subject is certain to be a key focus for business leaders.
5. The pandemic may be a wakeup call to be better prepared for another seismic issue that shakes up society
Back in 2015, Bill Gates warned of the huge impact a pandemic could have in a TED talk. Yet, just two years before the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration disbanded the US National Security Council’s pandemic response team. Will the world simply reset post-pandemic, or will the COVID-19 crisis encourage us all to take action to prevent the impact of future pandemics? This year, CEOs will also need to have real discussions about what the pandemic has revealed about the way their businesses are run, the impact they have on society – and the direction they will take in the long term.