5 predictions from the C-suite for 2021

What opportunities do leaders plan to capitalize on in 2021? More than 100 met to share insights; here are their top predictions.

Illustration of business leaders in a hybrid meeting

Susan Etlinger

December 18, 2020

min read

At a recent digital gathering hosted by Autodesk, senior business executives from across the world shared their experiences of and insights into the past year. They discussed the impact of the pandemic and other macroeconomic, technology and industry factors on their customers and their companies, as well as what they intend to bring forward into 2021 and beyond. Following are their insights and predictions.

1. Business continuity and resilience are no longer an activity—they’re a mindset

The discussion focused on a number of expected themes: financial uncertainty, slowing investment decisions, geopolitical pressures, competition, impacts to supply chain and projects overall. But leaders also shared what they have learned from the past 10 months; for example, the need to re-evaluate business continuity plans to account for employee, customer and workplace impacts, as well as the “unknown unknowns” that have changed how, where and when we work. The concern, said some leaders, is that, once the pandemic is over, they will return to the old ways and be vulnerable­ to the same types of disruption again.

In 2021, expect to see business continuity strategies shift from a focus on crisis response to an imperative for organizational resilience more broadly.

2. Increased focus on creativity and social connection as competitive advantage

This year we learned that many businesses can work remotely; just in different ways. Some of the most prominent issues of remote work are the highly concrete and specific (connectivity, equipment, physical workspace), while others are less tangible.

For example, how does distributed work affect culture in the longer term? Can we provide experiences that are as satisfying and engaging digitally as they are in the physical world? How can we design hybrid work environments fairly and in a way that sustains creativity and minimizes fatigue? This is especially important given that many employees now expect distributed work to become a permanent fixture in their lives.

In 2021, expect increased focus on improving the experience of remote work, especially ways to promote organizational cohesion, trust and relationships in digital and hybrid environments.

3. Operationalizing distributed work for the long term

Work/life balance—which seemed to improve at the beginning of the pandemic as people gained back their commute times—now appears more like burnout as employees “donate” commute time to work and struggle to navigate an increasingly blurred line between their work and personal lives. As a result, leaders are spending more time on communicating, checking in and monitoring staff welfare and morale. Is this sustainable? From a pace perspective, probably not. But it is likely to give rise to innovation that focuses more on digital insights and scaling meaningful interactions across the organization to make more room for the offline, one-on-one relationships that leaders, employees and customers crave.

In 2021, expect more focus on operationalizing distributed work, with a particular emphasis on workplace analytics, collaboration and other tools that can help leaders better connect digital and physical sources of information.

4. New models for customer relationships

One common refrain from leaders was that they are spending more time talking to customers than ever before, and about a broader range of topics. Beyond products or services, customers are interested in how to increase their ability to work digitally, and in a distributed environment, how to plan for future disruptions, and, more than anything, to share observations with people who are experiencing similar issues in their own business. Leaders also shared examples of changing or developing new offers, implementing COVID-19 resource portals and offering a broader range of help and guidance on industry and business issues overall.

In 2021, expect more focus on relationships and offer innovation—finding ways to enrich relationships with customers to drive preference and value over time. More than anything, expect that the most successful customer relationships will become less transactional, more interactional, and an even greater driver of competitive advantage.

5. There has never been a better time for business model innovation

The abrupt shift to cloud computing, and the acceleration of digital transformation efforts, was unlike anything leaders had ever seen. Executives who resisted digital tools found themselves converted, while processes that had thus far resisted digitalization became digitized virtually overnight. Granted, much of this was a question of business continuity and survival, rather than considered strategy, and there is far more work to be done, but the opportunities are beginning emerge.

As vaccines begin to roll out and we enter a new and more promising year, leaders will more fully assess the opportunities presented by cloud computing, artificial intelligence, sensors and 3-D visualization to bring insight, depth and intelligence to processes, products and services. They will focus on building ecosystems, unlocking the value of converged and networked industries, and use the hard-won insights from the past year to position their businesses for innovation and growth.

Susan Etlinger

About Susan Etlinger

Susan Etlinger is a globally recognized expert in digital strategy, with a focus on artificial intelligence, technology ethics, and data. She is director, AI & Innovation, at Microsoft and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Her TED talk entitled “What Do We Do With All This Big Data?” has been translated into 25 languages and has been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

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