Business Change: 3 Trends That Will Be Important in 2021

19th December 2020Change Management


2020 has been a watershed year. Business change has been sudden and rapid.

9 months after Covid-19 swept across the world we are still living with disruption to so many aspects of our personal and business lives.

Even as the first vaccinations take place, this disruption will continue for many more months.

Life will get better, but the world will not go back to the way it was before.

Earlier this year I wrote extensively about the business change caused by or accelerated through our response to the coronavirus crisis.

With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it is now clear that 3 trends will continue to be important in 2021.

Business change #1: flexible working

In April, many people were enjoying the freedom of no longer being tied to the office and the daily commute.

For managers, the overnight transition to working from home was a staggering logistical success.

Moreover, surveys at the time indicated that the majority of workers were happier and more productive as a result.

More recent research reported by the World Economic Forum paints a slightly different picture.

Managers felt that their businesses had handled the move to remote working very well. By contrast, employees did not believe that they had received sufficient support and training.

Indeed, the IBM Institute for Business Value found that many workers are increasingly tired and overloaded.

9 months down the line, the novelty of working from home full time has begun to lose its appeal.

Rather than going to work, work has now come into our homes. It has taken over not only our headspace but also our physical space.

As the vaccination program forces coronavirus into retreat, home workers will start to return to the office in increasing numbers.

However, having experienced the benefits as well as the downsides of remote working employees will carry on working flexibly in a way that best suits their circumstances.

Indeed, in a McKinsey survey of 800 corporate executives around the world, over half of the respondents said they expected employees to continue to work from home at least one or two days per week.

At last, the rigid working practices of the last century really are breaking down.

The Covid crisis has, it seems, changed the way that we work forever.

Business change #2: digital acceleration

From AI to Zoom, digital interactions have proliferated everywhere.

Laggards, whether individuals or organisations, have had no choice but to embrace digital.

This article from Think With Google makes it clear that consumers are spending more time online. Increasingly, they expect the online experience to match the offline experience.

As a result, there has been an explosion in the use of pre-sale digital services, such as virtual “try-ons” for clothes. Customer service delivered through chatbots is also on the rise.

And of course, online sales have increased dramatically.

According to the UK Office of National Statistics, online transactions accounted for 36% of all retail spending in Nov 2020. That’s a massive 67% up on Nov 2019!

Unsurprisingly, as consumers become ever more digitally savvy, they demand an outstanding online experience everywhere.

At the same time, employees working remotely also expect the digital infrastructure that supports them in their work to function flawlessly.

This combination of higher digital expectations from consumers and remotely working employees is driving all businesses, regardless of size or sector, to ramp up their digital capabilities.

Therefore, the message is clear:

“Accelerate digital business or risk the survival of your organisation”

Chris Howard, Gartner: Why Now is the Time to Accelerate Digital

Business change #3: business agility

At a time of crisis you have to act fast.

Consequently, large organisations have had to become more agile because the dangers of inaction far outweigh those of taking calculated risks.

As McKinsey highlight in their latest article on redefining the next normal operating model:

“Businesses reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic have produced previously unimagined gains in speed and productivity, even as the very nature of their workplace was transformed”

In the interests of speed, senior managers have interacted more with their teams and cross-functional teams, delegated more and pushed decision making further down their organisation to customer-facing staff.

Because of this, barriers and silos have come tumbling down.

Results that might previously have taken months or even years to achieve have been delivered in a matter of a few weeks.

At this moment of maximum change, leaders are reinventing their companies to retain the agile ways of working that have served them so well during this year’s crisis.

These include:

  • Flatter hierarchies with cross-functional teams working to solve customer pain-points in rapid, iterative feedback cycles
  • Front-line staff working with a clearer purpose and greater autonomy to take quicker decisions
  • Increased informality in internal meetings to allow new ideas, honest feedback and a thriving team spirit to develop in a non-hierarchical “safe space”

In 2021, large organisations will continue to cut complexity, pull down silos and peel back layers of bureaucracy.

As big business becomes more agile, working in big companies will finally feel more entrepreneurial. Places for talent to thrive rather than simply survive.

In summary: The 3 key trends from 2020 will continue to be important in 2021

“Unprecedented”, and “unexpected” are the 2 adjectives most used to describe the extraordinary changes that we have witnessed in 2020.

Looking back, we are likely to see these changes as a dramatic acceleration of trends that were already evident before Covid19 struck.

As such, they will continue after coronavirus comes under control.

Clearly, there is now no going back to the old ways of doing business. The best organisations are already adapting to this new reality.

The conclusion is therefore inescapable:

Companies that fail to work flexibly, accelerate digital, and embrace agile in 2021 risk losing out in the post Covid19 business environment.

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