The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, and its effects will last. Some factors can be vital for business leaders as they prepare for the next normal.

Text by Kevin Sneader and Shubham Singhal 

Businesses have spent much of the past nine months scrambling to adapt to extraordinary circumstances. While the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet won, with a vaccine in sight, there is at least a faint light at the end of the tunnel—along with the hope that another train isn’t heading our way.

2021 will be the year of transition. Barring any unexpected catastrophes, individuals, businesses, and society can start to look forward to shaping their futures rather than just grinding through the present. The next normal is going to be different. It will not mean going back to the conditions that prevailed in 2019. Indeed, just as the terms “prewar” and “postwar” are commonly used to describe the 20th century, generations to come will likely discuss the pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras.

In this article, we identify some of the trends that will shape the next normal. Then we discuss how they will affect the direction of the global economy, how business will adjust, and how society could be changed forever as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

The return of confidence unleashes a consumer rebound

There are lines outside stores, but they are often due to physical-distancing requirements. Theaters are dark. Fashions are in closets rather than on display. If the Musée du Louvre were open, the lack of tourists might even create the opportunity for an unobstructed view of the Mona Lisa. In these and other ways, consumers have pulled back.

As consumer confidence returns, so will spending, with “revenge shopping” sweeping through sectors as pent-up demand is unleashed. That has been the experience of all previous economic downturns. One difference, however, is that services have been particularly hard hit this time. The bounce back will therefore likely emphasize those businesses, particularly the ones that have a communal element, such as restaurants and entertainment venues.

That isn’t to say that consumers will act uniformly. McKinsey’s most recent consumer survey, published in late October, found that countries with older demographics, such as France, Italy, and Japan, are less optimistic than are those with younger populations, such as India and Indonesia. China was an exception—it has an older population but is conspicuously optimistic.

But China’s profile proves a larger point. The first country to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also the first to emerge from it. China’s consumers are relieved—and spending accordingly. On Singles Day, November 11, the country’s two largest online retailers racked up record sales. That wasn’t just a holiday phenomenon. While manufacturing in China came back first, by September, so had consumer spending. Except for international air travel, Chinese consumers have begun to act and spend largely as they did in precrisis times. Australia also offers hope. With the pandemic largely contained in that country, household spending fueled a faster-than-expected 3.3 percent growth rate in the third quarter of 2020, and spending on goods and services rose 7.9 percent.

How fast and deep confidence will recover is an open question. In late September, for example, the US consumers surveyed were more optimistic than before but still cautious, reporting that they planned to buy holiday gifts for fewer people and keep an eye on discretionary spending. Only around a third had resumed out-of-home activities, compared with 81 percent of consumers in China, 49 percent in France—and just 18 percent in Mexico. New lockdowns and, critically, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines have and will affect those numbers. The point is that spending will only recover as fast as the rate at which people feel confident about becoming mobile again—and those attitudes differ markedly by country.

Leisure travel bounces back but business travel lags

People who travel for pleasure will want to get back to doing so. That has been the pattern in China. The CEO of one major travel company told us that, beginning in the third quarter of 2020, business was “pretty much back to normal” when referring to growth. But it was a different normal: domestic travel was surging, but international travel was still depressed given pandemic-related border restrictions and concerns about health and safety. In China as a whole, hotel occupancy and the number of travelers on domestic flights were more than 90 percent of their 2019 levels at the end of August, and over the October Golden Week holiday, more than 600 million Chinese hit the road, around 80 percent of last year’s figure. Because of confidence in the country’s health and safety measures, domestic travel is almost back to the level seen prior to the pandemic, and high-end domestic travel is actually ahead of it.

By definition, leisure travel is discretionary. Business travel is less so. In 2018, business-travel spending reached $1.4 trillion, which was more than 20 percent of the total spending in the hospitality and travel sector. It also brings in a disproportionate share of profits—70 percent of revenues globally for high-end hotels, for example. During and after the pandemic, though, there is a question about business travel: Exactly when is it necessary? The answer is almost certain to be not as much as before. Video calls and collaboration tools that enable remote working, for example, could replace some onsite meetings and conferences.

The larger context is also informative. History shows that, after a recession, business travel takes longer than leisure travel to bounce back. After the 2008–09 financial crisis, for example, international business travel took five years to recover, compared with two years for international leisure travel.

The crisis sparks a wave of innovation and launches a generation of entrepreneurs

Plato was right: necessity is indeed the mother of invention. During the COVID-19 crisis, one area that has seen tremendous growth is digitization, meaning everything from online customer service to remote working to supply-chain reinvention to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve operations. Healthcare, too, has changed substantially, with telehealth and biopharma coming into their own.

Disruption creates space for entrepreneurs—and that’s what is happening in the United States, in particular, but also in other major economies. We admit that we didn’t see this coming. After all, during the 2008–09 financial crisis, small-business formation declined, and it rose only slightly during the recessions of 2001 and 1990–91. This time, though, there is a veritable flood of new small businesses. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, there were more than 1.5 million new-business applications in the United States—almost double the figure for the same period in 2019.6

Yes, many of those businesses are single-person establishments that could well stay that way—think of the restaurant chef turned caterer or the recent college graduate with a cool new app. So it’s intriguing that the volume of “high-propensity-business applications” (those that are likeliest to turn into businesses with payrolls) has also risen strongly—more than 50 percent compared with 2019. Venture-capital activity dipped only slightly in the first half of 2020.

The European Union has not seen anything like this response, perhaps because its recovery strategy tended to emphasize protecting jobs (not income, as in the United States). That said, France saw 84,000 new business formations in October, the highest ever recorded,7 and 20 percent more than in the same month in 2019. Germany has also seen an increase in new businesses compared with 2019; ditto for Japan. Britain is somewhere in between. A survey published in November 2020 of 1,500 self-employed people found that 20 percent say they are likely to leave self-employment when they can.8 At the same time, however, the number of new businesses registered in the United Kingdom in the third quarter of 2020 rose 30 percent compared with 2019, showing the largest increase seen since 2012.9

On the whole, the COVID-19 crisis has been devastating small business. In the United States, for example, there were 25.3 percent fewer of them open in December 2020 than at the beginning of the year (the bottom was in mid-April, when the figure was almost half).10 US small-business revenue fell more than 30 percent between January and December 2020.11 But we’ll take good news where we can get it, and the positive trend in entrepreneurship could bode well for job growth and economic activity once recovery takes hold.

Digitally enabled productivity gains accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution

There’s no going back. The great acceleration in the use of technology, digitization, and new forms of working is going to be sustained. Many executives reported that they moved 20 to 25 times faster than they thought possible on things like building supply-chain redundancies, improving data security, and increasing the use of advanced technologies in operations.12

How all that feeds into long-term productivity will not be known until the data for several more quarters are evaluated. But it’s worth noting that US productivity in the third quarter of 2020 rose 4.6 percent, following a 10.6 percent increase in the second quarter, which is the largest six-month improvement since 1965.13 Productivity is only one number, albeit an important one; the startling figure for the United States in the second quarter was based in large part on the biggest declines in output and hours seen since 1947. That isn’t an enviable precedent.

More positively, in the past, it has taken a decade or longer for game-changing technologies to evolve from cool new things to productivity drivers. The COVID-19 crisis has sped up that transition in areas such as AI and digitization by several years, and even faster in Asia. A McKinsey survey published in October 2020 found that companies are three times likelier than they were before the crisis to conduct at least 80 percent of their customer interactions digitally.

That evolution has not always been a seamless or elegant process: businesses had to scramble to install or adapt new technologies under intense pressure. The result has been that some systems are clunky. The near-term challenge, then, is to move from reacting to the crisis to building and institutionalizing what has been done well so far. For consumer industries, and particularly for retail, that could mean improving digital and omnichannel business models. For healthcare, it’s about establishing virtual options as a norm. For insurance, it’s about personalizing the customer experience. And for semiconductors, it’s about identifying and investing in next-generation products. For everyone, there will be new opportunities in M&A and an urgent need to invest in capability building.

The COVID-19 crisis has created an imperative for companies to reconfigure their operations—and an opportunity to transform them. To the extent that they do so, greater productivity will follow.

Pandemic-induced changes in shopping behavior forever alter consumer businesses

In nine of 13 major countries surveyed by McKinsey, at least two-thirds of consumers say they have tried new kinds of shopping.15 And in all 13, 65 percent or more say they intend to continue to do so. The implication is that brands that haven’t figured out how to reach consumers in new ways had better catch up, or they will be left behind. We expect that, in developing markets—Brazil and India, for example—the pandemic will accelerate digital shopping, albeit from a low base. Consumers in continental Europe have bought more online but aren’t as enthusiastic as those in Britain and the United States to continue doing so.

Specifically, the shift to online retail is real, and much of it will stick. In the United States, the penetration of e-commerce was forecast in 2019 to reach 24 percent by 2024; by July 2020, it had hit 33 percent of total retail sales.16 To put it another way, the first half of 2020 saw an increase in e-commerce equivalent to that of the previous ten years.17 In Latin America, where the payments and delivery infrastructure isn’t as strong, e-commerce use doubled from 5 to 10 percent. In Europe, overall digital adoption is almost universal (95 percent), compared with 81 percent at the start of the pandemic. In normal times, getting to that level would have taken two to three years. Strikingly, the biggest increases came in countries that had previously been relatively cautious about shopping online. Germany, Romania, and Switzerland, for example, had the three lowest online-penetration rates prior to the COVID-19 crisis; since then, usage increased 28, 25, and 18 percentage points, respectively—more than in any other markets.

Dig a little deeper, though, and there are some cautionary notes, such as the conspicuous lack of brand loyalty among online buyers. Perhaps most telling, in a recent McKinsey survey, only 60 percent of consumer-goods companies say they are even moderately prepared to capture e-commerce-growth opportunities.18 As one executive told us, “when it comes to selling directly to consumers, we don’t really know where to start.” That concern is certainly valid. Direct-to-consumer selling requires the development of new skills, capabilities, and business and pricing models. But the trend is clear: many consumers are moving online. To reach them, companies have to go there, too.

Supply chains rebalance and shift

Think of it as “just in time plus.” The “plus” stands for “just in case,” meaning more sophisticated risk management. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed vulnerabilities in the long, complicated supply chains of many companies. When a single country or even a single factory went dark, the lack of critical components shut down production. Never again, executives vowed. So the great rebalancing began. As much as a quarter of global goods exports, or $4.5 trillion, could shift by 2025.

Once businesses began to study how their supply chains worked, they realized three things. First, disruptions aren’t unusual. Any given company can expect a shutdown lasting a month or so every 3.7 years. Such shocks, then, are far from shocking: they are predictable features of doing business that need to be managed like any other.

Second, cost differences among developed and many developing countries are narrowing. In manufacturing, companies that adopt Industry 4.0 principles (meaning the application of data, analytics, human–machine interaction, advanced robotics, and 3-D printing) can offset half of the labor-cost differential between China and the United States. The gap narrows further when the cost of rigidity is factored in: end-to-end optimization is more important than the sum of individual transaction costs. That’s one reason why agencies such as the US Department of Defense are diversifying their networks of suppliers for essentials, such as in healthcare manufacturing and microelectronics.

And third, most businesses do not have a good idea of what is going on lower down in their supply chains, where subtiers and sub-subtiers may play small but critical roles. That is also where most disruptions originate, but two-thirds of companies say they can’t confirm the business-continuity arrangements with their non-tier-one suppliers. With the development of AI and data analytics, companies can learn more about, audit, and connect with their entire value chains.

None of those things means that multinationals are going to ship all or most of their production back to their home markets. There are good reasons to take advantage of regional expertise and to be in place to serve fast-growing consumer markets. But questions on security and resiliency mean that those companies are likely to be more thoughtful about the business cases for such decisions.

The future of work arrives ahead of schedule

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the idea of remote working was in the air but not proceeding very far or fast. But the pandemic changed that, with tens of millions of people transitioning to working from home, essentially overnight, in a wide range of industries. For example, according to Michael Fisher, president and CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, there were 2,000 telehealth visits recorded at the organization in all of 2019—and 5,000 a week in July 2020.19 Fisher thinks telehealth could account for 30 percent of all healthcare visits in the future. In Japan, fewer than 1,000 institutions offered remote care in 2018; by July 2020, more than 16,000 did.

The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that more than 20 percent of the global workforce (most of them in high-skilled jobs in sectors such as finance, insurance, and IT) could work the majority of its time away from the office—and be just as effective. Not everyone who can, will; even so, that is a once-in-several-generations change. It’s happening not just because of the COVID-19 crisis but also because advances in automation and digitization made it possible; the use of those technologies has accelerated during the pandemic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted in April 2020 that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.

There are two important challenges related to the transition to working away from the office. One is to decide the role of the office itself, which is the traditional center for creating culture and a sense of belonging. Companies will have to make decisions on everything from real estate (Do we need this building, office, or floor?) to workplace design (How much space between desks? Are pantries safe?) to training and professional development (Is there such a thing as remote mentorship?). Returning to the office shouldn’t be a matter of simply opening the door. Instead, it needs to be part of a systematic reconsideration of what exactly the office brings to the organization.

The other challenge has to do with adapting the workforce to the requirements of automation, digitization, and other technologies. This isn’t just the case for sectors such as banking and telecom; instead it’s a challenge across the board, even in sectors not associated with remote work. For example, major retailers are increasingly automating checkout. If salesclerks want to keep their jobs, they will need to learn new skills. In 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that more than half of employees would need significant reskilling or upskilling by 2022.

Evidence shows that the benefits of reskilling current staff, rather than letting them go and then finding new people, typically costs less and brings benefits that outweigh the costs. Investing in employees can also foster loyalty, customer satisfaction, and positive brand perception.

Workforce development was a priority even before the pandemic. In a McKinsey survey conducted in May 2019, almost 90 percent of the executives and managers surveyed said their companies faced skill gaps or expected to in the next five years.21 But only a third said they were prepared to deal with the issue. Successful reskilling starts with knowing what skills are needed, both right now and in the near future; offering tailored learning opportunities to meet them; and evaluating what does and doesn’t work. Perhaps most important, it requires commitment from the top that inculcates a culture of lifelong learning.

The complete McKinsey investigation here.


About the author(s)

Kevin Sneader is Global Managing Partner, New York; Shubham Singhal is Healthcare Global Leader and Senior Partner, Detroit.