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Return to Growth: Business outlook for 2021 and beyond

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The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in an instant. Companies had to adapt to not only survive—but to be empathetic members of the community.

To better understand the realities of what businesses endured, Sage commissioned a study of more than 1000 CFOs and other top finance executives at U.S. based small and mid-sized companies. The survey focused on how the pandemic impacted business strategy customer retention, employee recognition and community engagement. It also aimed to uncover the confidence and intentions business leaders have for the upcoming year.

Compared to last year, 79% of businesses feel more connected to their customers

As customers increasingly moved online, and government mandates forced closure of stores, businesses had to shift their strategies to be almost completely digital. As offices were closed and many employees were forced to work from home, HR teams had to evolve to better serve their new remote workforce. Finance teams were forced to deal with a sudden halt to discretionary spending; while operating budgets were slashed business leaders had to get creative to retain their existing customers.

Despite all of these challenges – organizations across America managed to not only survive, but positioned themselves to thrive once the pandemic recedes.

How? Flexibility

To attract customers in a digital environment, 55% increased digital marketing efforts, while 45% focused more on social media to connect with customers. Almost one-third (29%) either opened or scaled e-commerce efforts during the pandemic—a significant undertaking even pre-pandemic.

How businesses are evolving to a new way of working

To address the evolving work landscape, 46% of businesses implemented long-term or permanent remote working policies, while 39% offered increased assistance for childcare. In fact, almost one-quarter (24%) of all businesses surveyed added completely new employee recognition programs to better reflect the needs and contributions of staff.

Many of these tactics saw positive returns. Of those surveyed, 79% say they have become more connected with their customers, while only 6% have plans to reduce the budgets allocated to these new employee appreciation programs.

The flexibility shown by businesses not only helped them survive, for many, it’s helped make growth a realistic goal. Three quarters of finance teams are confident in a return to growth by the end of the year with 48% expecting revenue to have reached pre-pandemic levels by the end of September. In what might have sounded outlandish at the end of last year, 19% of finance teams have projected double-digit revenue growth goals for 2021.

Technology and it’s role in 2021 business growth

As we progress throughout the year, technology will continue to play a pivotal part in business growth. Over one-third (38%) of companies surveyed believe technology will have the single greatest positive impact on their business over the next 12 months, while just under half (47%) see their organization investing more in technology to accelerate growth ambitions. It is clear many organizations are reinvesting in digital strategies that saw success over the last year and are intent on finding other areas of their business that can be optimized by technology.

By being agile, and by finding new ways to connect with customers, employees and the community, companies across the U.S. not only survived—they’ve readied themselves to build back stronger.

We’re glad to share the findings of this report so businesses can learn from each other’s successes and continue to emerge from the pandemic.