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Nearly half of global CEOs don’t expect to see a return to ‘normal’ until 2022: KPMG study

CEOs of the world’s most influential companies are planning what the ‘new reality’ will look like post-pandemic.

CEOs are planning what the ‘new reality’ will look like post-pandemic.

  • Majority of CEOs will wait for more than 50 percent of population to be vaccinated before returning to the office.

  • Nine out of 10 leaders intend to ask their employees to report when they have been vaccinated in order to protect the wider workforce.

  • A steep decline in the appetite of global executives to downsize their company’s physical footprint as global CEOs reconsider the need for in-person business to resume when countries emerge from the pandemic.

23 March 2021 – CEOs of the world’s most influential companies are planning what the ‘new reality’ will look like post-pandemic. The 2021 KPMG CEO Outlook Pulse Survey finds that almost half (45 percent) of global executives do not expect to see a return to a ‘normal’ course of business until sometime in 2022, as opposed to nearly one-third (31 percent) who anticipate this will happen later this year. The changes prompted by the pandemic have resulted in one-quarter (24 percent) of CEOs saying that their business model has been changed forever by the global pandemic.

The study conducted by KPMG in February and March of this year asked 500 global CEOs about their response to the pandemic and the outlook over a 3-year horizon. A majority (55 percent) of CEOs are concerned about employees’ access to a COVID-19 vaccine, which is influencing their outlook of when employees will return to the workplace. A significant majority (90 percent) of CEOs are considering asking employees to report when they have been vaccinated, which may help organizations consider measures to protect their workforce. However, one-third (34 percent) of global executives are worried about misinformation on COVID-19 vaccine safety and the potential this may have on employees choosing not to have it administered.

Bill Thomas

Bill Thomas, Global Chairman & CEO, KPMG, said:

Before any major decisions are made, CEOs want to be confident that their workforce is protected against this virus. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is providing leaders with a dose of optimism as they prepare for a new reality. CEOs are scenario planning for difference across certain key markets that could impact their operations, supply chains and people, leading to uneven economic recovery.

Our research shows that some executives have taken strong measures during the crisis to transform their operating model and ways of working, accelerating the rollout of key transformational projects, some by choice, some out of necessity. The pandemic has also been a catalyst for CEOs to evaluate the role their companies play in society. Many have given voice to issues they may not have previously commented on publicly — from tackling climate change to supporting the diverse communities they operate in — and we need to keep hearing those voices. There is much more to be done.


Honson To

Honson To, Chairman of KPMG Asia Pacific and KPMG China, said:

This survey shows that, compared with CEOs of other countries, China CEOs are more confident about their domestic economy and generally believe it will strengthen over the next three years. Eighty percent of China CEOs, a higher percentage than the global average, believe that the introduction of vaccines and the increase in vaccination rates have a strong role in terms of driving economic recovery. China CEOs said they will still take strict measures to prevent a rebound of the epidemic. The speed of the vaccination programme will be one of their priorities this year. With the large-scale vaccination in China and the gradual relaxation of epidemic control measures, we expect that China’s domestic consumption will continue to improve in 2021 and become the main driver of economic growth.


Key Findings

Government and vaccination rates driving decision-making

Three-quarters (76 percent) of CEOs see government encouragement for businesses to return to ‘normal’ as the prompt for businesses to ask staff to return to the workplace. In addition, 61 percent of global executives said that they will also need to see a successful (over 50 percent of the population vaccinated) COVID-19 vaccine rollout in key markets before taking any action toward a return to offices. When employees can safely return to workplaces, one-fifth of companies (21 percent) are looking to institute additional precautionary measures by asking clients and other in-person visitors to inform them of their vaccination status.

Global CEOs are less likely to downsize physical footprint compared to 6 months ago

The research finds that only 17 percent of global executives are looking to downsize their office space as a result of the pandemic. In contrast, 69 percent of CEOs surveyed in August 2020 said they planned to reduce their office space over 3 years, which demonstrates that either office downsizings have taken place or, as the pandemic has drawn on, strategies have changed.

Global executives remain apprehensive about a fully remote workforce

CEOs are considering what the new reality will look like, but post-COVID, only three in 10 (30 percent) of global executives are considering a hybrid model of working for their staff, where most employees work remotely 2–3 days a week. As a result, only one-fifth (21 percent) of businesses are looking to hire talent that works predominantly remotely, which is a significant shift from last year (73 percent in 2020).

Linda Lin

Linda Lin, Partner, Head of People, Performance and Culture, KPMG China, said:

The new reality, impacted by COVID-19 in particular, has been reshaping our work. After this epidemic, we can see that a hybrid working model is inevitable in the future. In the new environment, building trust is more important than ever to create a workplace that empowers our people to be future-fit, reinvent relationships and collaborations. We need to be flexible and agile to respond to our people’s needs and not go back to the old way of working. In 2020, we conducted an internal survey on the ‘Future of Working’ to understand what our people think and to collect their innovative suggestions. Based on a hybrid work model and with flexible operation practices, a diversified office space and different initiatives to be launched in stages, we will build and demonstrate our corporate culture and values.


Cyber security is now the top concern for CEOs

During lockdown, remote working has become the norm, which poses new data security risks to organizations. As a result, global business leaders identified cyber security as the top concern impacting their growth and operations over a 3-year period. Cyber security was named ahead of regulatory, tax and supply chain concerns.

Reynold Liu

Reynold Liu, Partner, Head of Technology and Innovation, KPMG China, said:

As a result of enhanced digital transformation, there is greater emphasis on data security. China has implemented the Cybersecurity Law nationwide and has stepped up the formulation of the Data Security Law and the Personal Information Protection Law, while accelerating digital development is also one of the main priorities during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. At KPMG China, we have adopted the KPMG Global Privacy Policy which assists us in establishing and maintaining an adequate level of protection when collecting, processing, disclosing and transferring personal data of past, present and prospective employees, clients, suppliers, contractors and business associates of the firm. In terms of data security, we use a globally consistent and locally based approach and policies to protect our client information and technology assets. Every year, all staff are required to attend annual training such as Information Protection Fundamentals and Cloud Confident programmes in order to inform them of the latest data security requirements.


ESG continues to climb up the corporate agenda

With COP26 taking place this year and the US re-joining the Paris Accord, 49 percent of CEOs plan to put in place more stringent ESG practices. A vast majority (89 percent) of business leaders are focused on locking in the sustainability and climate change gains their companies have made as a result of the pandemic. Nearly all (96 percent) global executives are looking to upweight their focus towards the social component of their ESG programs.

Tracy Yang

Tracy Yang, Partner, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs, KPMG China, said:

KPMG China’s first environmental, social and governance report for FY2020 highlights our ESG progress and performance via four key areas of focus: principles of governance, prosperity, planet and people. Focusing on the most important ESG issues can help us better utilise our resources to address these problems and reduce the associated risks. Our material issues were identified and selected through a materiality test. This allows us to better understand how we are performing in different ESG aspects against our peers and international standards.


– Ends –

About KPMG’s CEO Outlook Pulse Survey

The 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey asks CEOs from the world’s most influential companies to provide their 3-year outlook on the economic and business landscape, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This Pulse Survey looks at how their views have evolved since July/August 2020.

Five hundred CEOs from 11 key markets (Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK and the US) were surveyed from 29 January–4 March 2021. All respondents represent organizations that have annual revenues greater than US$500M and 35 percent of the companies surveyed have more than US$10B in annual revenue. NOTE: some figures may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding.

About KPMG

KPMG is a global organization of independent professional services firms providing Audit, Tax and Advisory services. We operate in 146 countries and territories and in FY20 had close to 227,000 people working in member firms around the world. Each KPMG firm is a legally distinct and separate entity and describes itself as such.

KPMG International Limited is a private English company limited by guarantee. KPMG International Limited and its related entities do not provide services to clients.

Media enquiries:

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