Disruption is by its very nature unanticipated and dramatic – forcing us to innovate, to try new approaches.

Historically events like major wars, significant economic depressions or a seismic political change have been sources of immense reinvention. The long bow, the telephone, the welfare state, the NHS, slum clearance, the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, all arose from an event that forced us to find a new approach out of sheer necessity.

The disruption we have experienced over the last year is unprecedented within most modern lifetimes. It’s been challenging and for many exhausting. And we’re still in the eye of the storm. For many the economic and social scars will need time to heal before a sense of optimism returns. However, the resilience, adaptability and creativity that individuals, organisations and industries have displayed over the past 12 months demonstrates what is possible when we’re forced into a corner. It’s been inspiring and represents a great opportunity to reimagine and rebuild.

As part of a new research project, conducted together with leading market-research firm YouGov, we surveyed over 350 senior decision-makers across three industry groupings – government, financial services and critical infrastructure(1)  – to establish the impact the events of 2020 had on them personally, on their organisations and for the industries they work in, and to understand their outlook for the year ahead as many of us plan for the post-pandemic rebuild. We will take this ‘pulse’ once a quarter throughout 2021 and report on the shifts in sentiment and the implications. This first pulse focused on the last 12 months and the look ahead.

In summary, those we surveyed held an unsurprisingly negative view of 2020. There was acknowledgement that this has been a period of immense change, faster than many anticipated, and that we are not out of the woods yet. Many voiced the view that they expect more volatility ahead in 2021, and beyond, as the journey towards recovery unfolds.

From an organisational perspective, private and public sector bodies experienced huge disruption, driven in particular by changes to work locations and patterns. Whilst not everyone moved to a ‘home office’ environment (for instance many workers remained in the field and on the front line) the disruption to ‘normal’ working habits was severe.

On a positive note, there was acknowledgement that, for many, change was actually embraced and that, despite the circumstances, for some productivity was not felt to have suffered. In a minority of cases, it was even felt to have improved. On the whole respondents believed that their industries had responded well to the myriad of challenges the pandemic threw at them, and that they were able to make changes much quicker than anticipated.

There were signs that greater collaboration, more innovation and faster adoption of technologies were points of positive progress. If nurtured, these could all be factors contributing to better outcomes for business and society as we emerge from the pandemic. Crisis events throughout history have frequently resulted in strategic inflections. It’s at these points organisations must make difficult choices regarding the future they will choose, and the capabilities they require for the journey. Focusing on what will be enduring shifts in behaviour for the next decade and beyond will be key to unlocking competitive advantage.

Overall as we reflected on the results of this ‘pulse’ it was clear that the last 12 months have been tough, and that the next 12 months will require equal, if not greater, levels of resilience and perseverance. However, we should reflect on the huge accomplishments of so many, whether that be the individuals who have had to juggle competing priorities at home, the organisations that have dispelled myths about what is possible to achieve and the industries that are responding to years’ worth of transformation in weeks and months.

There are signs of recovery, both in the sentiment expressed, and in the wider socio-economic environment. The levels of determination, persistence and ingenuity shown during this most difficult of periods gives us hope and optimism for a brighter future.

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[1] Government covers Central and Local Government, Police, Army, Navy and RAF; Financial Services covers Retail Banking, Investment Banking, Wealth and Asset Management and Insurance; Critical Infrastructure covers Telecommunications, Utilities, Oil and Energy and Transport

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