As we look back 2020, there are clear trends that have emerged in the world of business and others we expect to see on the horizon as 2021 unfolds, from flexible working to automation to adaptability. 

1. Ways of working 

This year, working from home became a necessity for businesses mostly based in offices. For many, this shift has been a welcome change to the regular 9-5 as it allows employees greater flexibility and potential for a healthier work/life balance. It even seems to have resulted in higher productivity in many workplaces – a positive outcome for all involved. 

As Xheladin Pira MBA, Course Director for MSc International Business at Ulster University branch campuses puts it, “One of the key elements I would highlight is that I didn’t think we knew we could adapt to online so quickly. To paraphrase Darwin, it’s the survival of the fittest – it’s not the strongest or the most intellectual that survives, it is the one that is best able to adapt.” And those companies that have adapted to remote work have discovered this to be true. 

If the move to remote working becomes more permanent in a post-pandemic world, one of the things businesses will need to invest in is better IT and communication software. This has already begun to an extent but in many cases is only a temporary fix; it will need more thorough and thoughtful investment in collaboration tools and security solutions in order to be a successful evolution. 

Another trend that has emerged in the way people work this year is the rise of the gig economy. During the financial crisis of 2008, contract work and freelancing grew in popularity and has since become a way of life for many. A recent report even suggests that, by 2027, gig workers will outnumber traditional employees. 

2. Business resilience 

Following on from the theme of adaptability, businesses that have been able to pivot and open up new streams of revenue during 2020 have found it to be an invaluable tool for survival. Commercial airlines offered cargo flights as holidays abroad were restricted, hotels introduced day rates for WFH employees and distilleries began producing hand sanitiser. These are only a few examples of how businesses got creative as the pandemic swept the globe and caused so many companies to reassess. 

This quick thinking has worked well in the short term, as restaurants start selling groceries and fitness studios introduce online classes, but it has shown that the key to long term success is through multiple revenue streams and diversification. In short, a resilient business model means the ability to flourish in an emergency and when times return to normal.  

3. The rise of Gen Z 

In previous years, a large business focus has been on millennials: their habits, their interests and their expectations of companies. However, Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2015) are now moving into the workforce, becoming key consumers and are thought to have a spending power of around $143 billion. 

Gen Zers are digital natives, they’ve grown up with the internet, as well as with smartphones, touch screens and apps. This means they have strong tech skillsshort attention spans and an expectation of personalised experiences with brands. Additionally, their values are different from those who have come before, something that businesses have had to reckon with this year as younger employees and customers ask for the “why” behind that “what”.  

As a result, businesses are starting to align themselves with causes and with movements, as Ben & Jerry’s showed with their response to Black Lives Matter and Burger King have recently done in promoting independent competitors over themselves. Companies are being asked for accountability, and a large part of that is down to Gen Z. 

The future 

2020 has taught businesses that nothing can be taken for granted. Projections and estimates are important and can be good indications of what is to come – but they are not guaranteed. Here are some of the predictions for 2021 as we come to the end of an unprecedented year: 

  1. Customer service and convenience is becoming more and more important. A recent survey showed that 96% will leave for bad customer service and they also want what they want now, which means investing in convenience and customer experience will be a priority for 2021 
  2. Remote working in some form is here to stay. Although some businesses are opting to get rid of office spaces entirely, the reality for most is likely to be a mixture of remote working and showing up in person. The key will be flexibility, something that suits the working styles and needs of different workers and will contribute to higher job satisfaction overall. 
  3. Automation and digitisationCOVID-19 forced companies to embrace both of these, sometimes years earlier than they might have otherwise, which has in turn facilitated quick expansion for some businessesHowever, this shift has also impacted the job market and is something that will require employers to reskill and retrain employees in 2021to ensure that accelerated automation is balanced out with new opportunities for workers 

In terms of business, 2021 is likely to present its own unique set of challenges and opportunities for innovation. In turn, companies will continue to adapt and evolve to meet to whatever the new year brings. 

Interested in learning more about business and the climate in which companies operate? Visit our MSc in International Business page to find out more or contact us here for further information about our business courses.