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CEOs have been given ‘a licence to change’

CEO Panel Survey 2020 - UK findings

COVID-19 has presented UK CEOs with a mandate to rethink, refine or even reinvent their business models. Responses to PwC’s CEO Panel Survey show business leaders believe COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated trends such as digital collaboration and transformation. With a licence to reevaluate their priorities and bring forward changes within their business, the question is 'where next?'.

As UK CEOs start to embed changes adopted in response to COVID-19, such as increased remote working, reduced business travel and accelerated digital transformation they are also looking to join the dots. A broader more strategic decision will ensure these changes don’t just improve workforce efficiency, but also deliver long term benefits such as cost savings, greater employee wellbeing and improved environmental impact.

Explore the key findings below Hear from our leaders


COVID-19 response has created lasting change

Remote working is here to stay

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted organisations to change their operations almost overnight, fast-tracking digital collaboration and new systems and services as millions of people were forced to work remotely.

Many of the changes adopted through necessity now look set to stick, with UK CEOs particularly committed to embedding them in their organisations, compared to their global peers.

The vast majority of UK CEOs believe COVID-19 has accelerated an enduring shift towards remote collaboration, increased automation and fewer people in workplaces.

  • 86% of UK CEOs believe the shift towards remote collaboration will endure (compared to 78% globally)
  • 77% believe there will be an enduring shift towards increased automation (76% globally)
  • 68% believe the shift towards lower-density workplaces, with fewer people working together in person, will endure (61% globally)

Digital transformation is accelerating

The response to COVID-19 has accelerated trends towards more digital ways of working and doing business. For CEOs, the changes made and the speed at which they have shown they can adapt presents a clear argument and opportunity to now continue transforming at pace. UK CEOs are closely in step with global trends in this regard.

  • 59% of UK CEOs have the digital transformation of core business operations and processes as a top three priority (61% globally)
  • 15% are increasing their share of remote workers / contingent workers (15% globally) 
  • 15% are looking to add digital products / services (17% globally)
  • 13% plan to decrease employee headcount (9% globally)

As a result, Marco Amitrano, Head of Clients and Markets at PwC UK, says businesses may find themselves a decade or more ahead of where they may otherwise have been in key areas of business transformation. Read more of Marco’s thoughts on the unexpected ‘licence to drive change’ that CEOs have been handed.

“The crisis has given CEOs the mandate to rethink and reinvent how they work. The dramatic acceleration of trends around digital transformation and remote and flexible working means CEOs can now embed changes that otherwise may have taken a decade or more to happen.”

Marco Amitrano, Head of Clients and Markets, PwC UK

Making purposeful changes is high on the agenda

Reputation is more vital than ever

Responding effectively to manage your reputation in a crisis is a fundamental part of any business plan. But few organisations could have been prepared for the scenario that has played out under COVID-19.

UK CEOs rose to the challenge, surpassing their global counterparts. Almost half (49%) contributed resources - financial, volunteers or essential goods - to response efforts against 42% of CEOs globally. Elsewhere a quarter of UK CEOs sourced or manufactured medical supplies compared to 13% of their global peers. This shows the broader role businesses are taking on in society.

Looking ahead, UK CEOs believe maximising employee retention and protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of their people is key to safeguarding their organisation’s long-term reputation.

“Alongside the devastating humanitarian impact, COVID-19 has created some of the greatest challenges faced by business for generations. Against this backdrop, our survey suggests that UK businesses are ahead of the pack in recognising the toll the pandemic is having on their workforce. While there are many difficult decisions for business to make in the short and medium term, it’s critical we continue to invest in health and wellbeing to protect the workforce of the future.”

Kevin Ellis, Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC UK

UK CEOs are putting their people first

Across the globe, business leaders are almost all investing in new health and safety to help employees navigate the new work environment. But it is striking that in their response to the pandemic, UK CEOs have placed a far greater emphasis on wellbeing and retention of their employees than their global counterparts. UK CEOs are also more likely to have ensured leadership takes an economic hit, in order to potentially soften the blow across the organisation.

  • 93% of UK CEOs are protecting employee health and safety (92% globally)
  • 90% of UK CEOs are conducting wellbeing initiatives (61% globally)
  • 47% of UK CEOs have cut financial compensation for leadership (32% globally)
  • 41% of UK CEOs have maximised employee retention (36% globally)
  • 24% of UK CEOs provided additional financial support to employees (24% globally)

“COVID-19 has made us rethink how we operate, with the benefit of getting more flexibility, better work life balance, lower cost and lower impact on the environment.”

CEO Panel Survey participant

Climate change remains a priority

CEOs remain focused on the green agenda, despite fears COVID-19 would see companies and governments alike scaling back on climate change priorities to focus on economic needs.

Our survey found UK bosses show a greater commitment to integrating climate action into recovery plans than their global counterparts. 58% of UK CEOs believe the pandemic has accelerated an enduring shift towards reducing or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases (47% globally).

“The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how quickly and effectively organisations can adapt, and it has also created an opportunity to reset and rethink what we do, how we do it and what we must prioritise. As such, organisations must seize this opportunity to put sustainability at the heart of their plans.”

Emma Cox, Head of Purpose and Leader Sustainability & Climate Change, PwC UK

CEO attitudes towards the economy

How CEOs view the year ahead

Looking ahead, UK bosses are more pessimistic about the economy than they were at the end of 2019, when we conducted our 23rd CEO Survey*.

  • 69% of UK CEOs expect the economy to decline over the next 12 months (41% decline greatly, 28% decline moderately)
  • 29% expect it to improve
  • 1% expect it to stay the same

*We cannot draw direct comparisons to the annual CEO Survey due to the different survey sample sizes. But as a general indicator, it is worth noting that 64% of UK CEOs responding expected the economy to decline in the next 12 months.

CEOs confident about their own business

Though most UK CEOs have a pessimistic outlook regarding the economy, the majority are confident in their own company’s growth prospects and are seizing the opportunity to rethink their business models.

  • 63% confident (38% somewhat confident, 25% very confident) about their own company's growth prospects
  • 38% not confident (22% not very confident, 16% not at all confident) about their own company's growth prospects

Confidence has however dipped since we published the 23rd CEO Survey, which reported 70% were confident about the 12 month outlook for their organisation.

“The global economy and many businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. However, there are some early signs of recovery, with businesses reopening and people returning to work, and that’s consistent with the confidence business leaders have in their own company’s prospects. There’s a long way to go, but businesses can play a key role to drive recovery by adapting to the upheaval introduced by the crisis.”

Jing Teow, Senior Economist, PwC UK

Hear from our leaders

A licence for change

PwC\'s Head of Clients and Markets, Marco Amitrano, on how the recent changes to traditional business models are inspiring CEOs to positive lasting benefits for their business and beyond.

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Putting people at the heart of recovery

PwC Senior Partner and Chairman, Kevin Ellis, on how UK CEOs are leading the way in prioritising the health and wellbeing of their employees.

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Survey methodology

PwC surveyed 699 CEOs online in 67 countries/regions (including 96 CEOs in the UK)  in June and July 2020.

The 699 CEOs come from a mix of regions, with an overrepresentation from Western Europe (42% of respondents) and underrepresentation from North America (7%) and the Middle East (3%). No industry sector accounted for more than 10% of respondents. Further details by country, region and industry are available on request.

Of the 699 CEOs whose responses were used for the global figures:

  • 16% of their organisations had revenues of $1bn or more
  • 32% of their organisations had revenues between $101m and $999m
  • 40% of their organisations had revenues of up to $100m
  • 11% declined to provide their organisation’s revenue range
  • 66% of their organisations were privately owned.

Contact us

Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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