• Bill Thomas, Leadership |

In January 2020, we began conducting interviews for our annual CEO Outlook Survey, and by the time we’d completed the field work in March, the world had changed. So, we shelved the original findings and went back to CEOs in August of last year to find out how they were dealing with the outbreak of one of the deadliest pandemics in a generation.

Last week, we concluded our second follow-up CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, and although many thought it was improbable just 6 months ago, we now have a viable pathway to end this health crisis through the hope and promise of not just one, but multiple vaccines. Despite the vaccine rollout, according to our 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey released this week, nearly half of the business leaders we interviewed at some of the world’s largest companies do not see returning to business-as-usual until sometime in 2022.

In fact, more than half of the global CEOs we spoke to are concerned that employees will be unable to access a COVID-19 vaccine. Before they call their people back to the office, 61 percent want to see more than half of the population vaccinated and 76 percent want to see governments encourage their return. Their people’s safety remains top-of-mind, and leaders are having to prepare for scenarios where key markets face vaccine shortages—impacting operations, supply chains and most importantly, people in those markets.

As vaccines go, so goes the company

Corporate leaders are now faced with a bifurcated working world defined by vaccine access. Not ideal, but not too dissimilar from what many global organizations have faced over the past year.  

KPMG has offices in 146 countries and jurisdictions, and at each step of the pandemic, different offices faced a different set of realities. We were impacted by the pandemic from the very beginning when our firms’ offices closed in China, then Korea, Italy and beyond. Some people were able to go into the office. Many were not. But our people’s safety was always paramount, and local infection curves and preventative measures dictated our working policies throughout the year.  

Vaccine availability doesn’t transform these challenges overnight. Supply hasn’t met demand. Instead, availability will likely shape corporate policy and strategy this year and possibly next—just as infection curves have and do now. 

Hybrid working in a bifurcated working world

As localities become inoculated, worries about the next infection spike can be replaced with thoughts on how to accelerate normality. This helps explain why our survey found that only 17 percent of global executives are looking to downsize their office space and only 21 percent want to hire a predominately remote workforce—a near complete reversal on both counts compared to August last year.

This isn’t to say we’ll go “back to normal” or back to the pre-pandemic ways of doing things—far from it. In fact, I don’t think there’s a workplace norm to go back to for many organizations. It’s been too long, and we’ve all learned too much about how we can work differently (and spent too much on new technology) to go back.

Instead, we need to look to harness the things technology does very well, like connecting workers seamlessly and giving leadership more ways to listen to the organization. But we also need to appreciate that there are things technology can’t replace, like catching up over lunch or shaking hands to close a deal. In many ways, because I am not on a plane anymore, I feel more connected to my colleagues at KPMG than ever before, but I am looking forward to seeing colleagues in-person rather than through a computer. 

Leading with empathy

Over the next year and months, business leaders will need to deal with these two universal issues: (1) how to manage the effects of vaccination access across their workforce, and (2) how to balance new ways of working gained in the pandemic with the human interaction we so dearly missed throughout it.

For the near future, businesses will be required to mesh two separate playbooks—one they’ve used this past year to help manage through the crisis and a new one to help lead the company into the post-pandemic future. But perhaps even more importantly, both issues will require and perhaps cement a new style of corporate leadership fueled by compassion and empathy.

The pandemic has changed everything—and it has given us a better understanding of why we do what we do. My favorite part of the work week is listening to my colleagues, and that’s what I plan to do more of this year.