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America’s CEOs Start 2021 Concerned About Taxes, Optimistic About Trade, and Eager to Return to the Office


U.S. CEOs think vaccine distribution will have an outsized impact on their businesses

Published on January 15, 2021

As 2021 begins, a new survey from The Conference Board reveals the biggest issues that will keep business leaders up at night in the new year. CEOs in the United States are more worried about higher corporate taxes and increased regulation, but less worried about global political instability and disruptions to global trade. And compared to their global peers, U.S. CEOs are more eager to have staff return to the physical workplace. U.S. executives also see the widespread availability of a vaccine as a game-changer for their businesses.

The survey gauged CEOs and C-suite executives from around the world about their biggest business challenges in 2021. Among the top stressors worldwide, respondents primarily cited COVID-19, recruiting and retaining top talent, recession risk, vaccine availability, and accelerating digital transformation.

The survey, C-Suite Challenge™ 2021, was conducted between November 7th – December 10th. More than 900 CEOs and more than 600 C-suite executives weighed in from primarily three regions: Europe, Asia, and North America. Highlights and insights include the following:

External Challenges in 2021: Highlights

U.S. CEOs think vaccine distribution will have an outsized impact on their businesses.

  • U.S. CEOs: They see vaccine availability as a game-changer, ranking it 2nd (the highest among CEOs globally).
  • CEOs Globally: Among CEOs worldwide, it ranks 3rd.
  • Chinese CEOs: They rank it much lower, at 9th.

U.S. CEOs are more worried about regulation & taxes, less worried about trade & global turmoil.

  • More concern about corporate tax rates: In 2020, it was U.S. CEOs’ 14th top worry; in 2021, it rose to 5th.
  • More concern about regulation: In 2020, it was their 9th top worry; in 2021, it rose to 4th.
  • Less concern about trade disruptions: In 2020, it was their 4th top worry; in 2021, it dropped to 7th.
  • Less concern about global political instability: In 2020, it was their 4th top worry; in 2021, it dropped to 10th.

Recession fears: Chinese CEOs are more worried than U.S. CEOs about another downturn.

  • U.S. CEOs: They rank recession risk as their 3rd top worry for 2021.
  • Chinese CEOs: They rank recession risk 1st – their top worry.
  • CEOs Globally: Among CEOs worldwide, it ranks 2nd.

Internal Challenges in 2021: Highlights

Turbocharging innovation: COVID-19 has accelerated the need for creativity.

  • Accelerate pace of digital transformation: Both U.S. CEOs and CEOs globally rank it 1st.
  • Improve innovation: Both U.S. CEOs and CEOs globally rank it 2nd.

As recession fears linger, companies stay defensive by prioritizing cash flow & controlling costs.

  • Lower costs: Globally, CEOs rank the need to control costs as 4th; U.S. CEOs rank it 3rd.
  • Improve cash flow: Globally, CEOs rank it 6th; U.S. CEOs rank it 7th.

Human Capital Management Challenges in 2021: Highlights

Returning to the office: U.S. CEOs are most committed to bringing workers back.

  • Bringing workers back to the physical workspace: Among CEOs globally, it ranks 9th; U.S. CEOs rank it 3rd.

Remote work stabilizes: Few CEOs plan to further increase or decrease their remote workforce.

  • Increase number of remote workers: Globally, CEOs rank it 17th; U.S. CEOs also rank it 17th.
  • Decrease number of remote workers: Globally, CEOs rank it last, at 21st; U.S. CEOs rank it 18th.

Talent reigns supreme: Recruiting and retaining the best and brightest remains the top priority.

  • Recruit and retain top talent: Regardless of a company’s location or size, attracting and retaining top talent ranks as the top priority for CEOs and other C-suite executives globally in 2021. This was also true in 2020.

COVID-19’s Legacy: CEOs Rank the Pandemic’s Long-Term Impacts

Reduced business travel is likely here to stay.

  • U.S. CEOs: They rank reduced business travel as the 2nd most likely long-term impact of COVID-19.
  • CEOs Globally: They rank this scenario as the most likely long-term impact.

Will my work office shrink? U.S. CEOs expect reduced office space.

  • U.S. CEOs: They rank reduced office space as the most likely long-term impact of COVID-19.
  • CEOs Globally: They rank this scenario as the 5th most likely long-term impact.

CEOs expect automation to accelerate.

  • U.S. CEOs: They rank more automation of tasks as the 3rd most likely long-term impact of COVID-19.
  • CEOs Globally: They rank this scenario as the 2nd most likely long-term impact.

Commentary on the survey results

“In 2021, a hybrid model with a mix of onsite and remote workers will likely be the new norm. In this environment, as new employees join teams and have little personal contact with existing team members, leaders will need to ensure that all have a sense of belonging. Organizations should take a hard pause to ask themselves: Is the culture we had – and, perhaps, want to preserve – the right culture for this new environment?” – Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Human Capital, The Conference Board.

“While CEOs continue to fret about a possible downturn, 2021 is poised to be the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. In most regions – especially the United States – CEOs believe the distribution of a successful vaccine will have a significant impact on their businesses this year. The spread of COVID-19 vaccines will, among other benefits, provide greater clarity and predictability around short-term planning and operations.” – Dana Peterson, Chief Economist, The Conference Board.

“The current crisis means the luxury of having a years-long lead time to digitally transform is gone. Investment in digital technology is only a piece of that puzzle. Organizational culture, enlightened leadership, and talent will ultimately create a sustainable competitive advantage. Recovery will require finding the right balance between conserving cash and investing in innovation needed to succeed in a new commercial landscape.” – Chuck Mitchell, Executive Director of Content Quality, The Conference Board.

“Looking beyond reduced business travel, altered landscape of commercial office space, and increased automation of tasks, CEOs believe the need to address the resilience of global supply chains will be one of the most likely long-term legacies of COVID-19. During the pandemic, many policymakers and companies learned that a heavily optimized supply chain often lacked the agility to substitute alternate sources of supply. While concerns about global trade disruptions diminished recently, the global pandemic has exposed new vulnerabilities in supply chains.” – Ataman Ozyildirim, Global Research Chair, The Conference Board.