November 2021 | Point of View

Bulls vs. bears: The C-suite’s confidence in economic recovery hinges on how their organization is addressing 3 big trends

The latest West Monroe poll data reveal insights into how a company’s strategies on talent, hybrid work, and sustainability affect executives’ confidence in the future

Bulls vs. bears: The C-suite’s confidence in economic recovery hinges on how their organization is addressing 3 big trends

In West Monroe’s final Quarterly Executive Poll of 2021, most respondents (75%) said they feel optimistic about the U.S. economic recovery, while the rest feel bearish. We took a deeper dive into that data—and found stark contrasts between the bulls and bears on:  

  • how hard they’re working to solve talent shortages 
  • where their organization is in developing their hybrid work models 
  • what, if any, actions their companies are taking on sustainability  

Here’s what we learned: 

The war for talent rages on—but not every company is doing enough to win it 

We’re still in a challenging labor market—talent remains as scarce as toilet paper and hand sanitizer were in the early days of the pandemic. Recent research from the Manpower Group found 73% of U.S. employers reported difficulty filling roles, above the global average of 69%.  

Yet almost three-quarters (71%) of respondents to West Monroe’s poll say they expect to hire more people in Q4 2021. Only 5% expect layoffs, while the rest say they’re not planning any staffing changes.

But executives who feel bearish about the U.S. economic outlook appear to be less focused on winning the war for talent. We asked about strategies like higher salaries or wages, flexibility of location, greater investment in retention efforts, higher signing bonuses, and more. For each one, across the board, the bears are doing less than the bulls to address a shortage of talent.    

At the same time, more of the bearish respondents cite “The Great Resignation” (i.e., employee turnover) as the event that had the biggest impact on their business in 2021: 27% of bears versus 15% of bulls. In fact, bearish executives say employee turnover was their second-biggest challenge in 2021—behind only COVID-19/the Delta variant. 

Doing more to address the talent crisis would go a long way toward feeling more confident about the future. For the bearish executives lagging behind their more optimistic foils, it might be time to rethink hiring and retention strategies to keep pace with their future staffing plans—and to remain profitable in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.  

Existing hybrid work models might need refinement 

A report from Forbes Insights and Capital One, based on a survey of executives conducted in the last two months of 2020, found 63% of respondents were focused then on building out tech capabilities that establish and enhance remote collaboration. More than half (54%) said they were accelerating their migrations to the cloud—in recognition that cloud-based applications and data management platforms are better suited to today’s distributed, decentralized, work-from-anywhere environment.  

The most recent West Monroe findings reflect the outcomes of those goals: 73% of respondents say their hybrid model is either already fully operational, or will be by the end of this year. That’s due, in part, to investments like those cited in the Forbes Insights report.  

Yet—of the 40% of respondents who say their hybrid model is already fully operational—more are bearish (46%) than bullish (38%) on the U.S. economic recovery.  

Is there a correlation between how these executives feel about the future and their existing hybrid models? Maybe. Perhaps they feel their model—while operational—isn’t working for their organization as expected. To make their hybrid workplaces successful, their organizations may need further investments in technology, an overhaul of policies or processes, and/or a greater focus on company culture. 

What’s more: It would seem having a hybrid model that is not yet fully operational would make the C-suite feel more negative about the future, if they were concerned they’re not keeping up. But these executives—those whose models are not yet up and running, but expect them to be by the end of this year or in the first half of 2022—feel more optimistic: 59% of that group are bullish on economic recovery, versus 46% who are bearish.  

These executives might be more confident in spite of their longer timeline because they’re using an iterative approach—adjusting and refining strategies in real time, and leveraging data-driven insights to see what’s working and what isn’t—to develop a hybrid model that is not only operational, but also right for their company. 

True digital leaders have a permanent work-in-progress mindset, making them better able to pivot or course-correct as situations and circumstances change. Such businesses have the agility to fail fast, shift to a new strategy quickly, and arrive at more effective solutions. Becoming a digital business will help an organization create the right hybrid work model—and succeed in other areas as well.  

Organizations are taking action on sustainability—and supply chains are in the spotlight 

As organizations ramp up their sustainability efforts, more of the executives with a bullish outlook on economic recovery say their organizations are taking some sort of action on sustainability (78%) than their bearish associates (68%). And companies are thinking beyond the sustainability of their own organization—they're looking at their suppliers, vendors, and partners, too. 

Here are two of the most popular actions overall that organizations are taking—and how they look when we break out the bulls versus the bears:  

In fact, for all of the actions we asked about, the executives who are bullish work for companies doing more to address sustainability.  

Why would such action translate into higher levels of confidence in the C-suite? Because sustainability is fast becoming a business imperative—for several reasons. For starters, most consumers say a company’s sustainability is important to them: nearly eight in 10, according to a survey fielded in 2020 by IBM and the National Retail Federation.  

Investors—and regulators—have begun taking note, too. David Bailin, chief investment officer at Citi Global Wealth, told CNBC investors will place “enormous emphasis” on sustainable and responsible investing in the next five to 10 years—suggesting a company’s market valuation can grow in lockstep with an increased commitment to environmentally responsible practices. And in March 2021, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced the creation of a Climate and ESG Task Force, intended to protect investors from risk by proactively identifying ESG-related misconduct.  

Unsustainable supply chains, especially, pose a business risk. Organizations that don’t prioritize sustainability in a supply chain—end to end—may face skyrocketing costs due to environmental risks: up to $120 billion by 2026, according to a report from CDP, a global nonprofit environmental disclosure platform. The sectors with the most potential cost increase? Manufacturing ($64 billion), food, beverage, and agriculture ($17 billion), and power generation ($11 billion). 

Three-quarters (75%) of respondents say their companies are taking some action on sustainability. It’s not too late for the rest to start working to create a healthier planet—and a healthier bottom line.  

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