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2021 Business Leaders Outlook

Our 11th annual Business Leaders Outlook shows executives and their companies have been remarkably resilient during a turbulent year.

Business leaders began 2020 with optimism for continued economic expansion, but growing global complexities were a source of uncertainty. By mid-March, the surging COVID-19 pandemic impacted all sectors of the economy and executives quickly adopted new approaches to maintain business resiliency.

Ten months later, the 2021 Business Leaders Outlook reports that leaders of midsize U.S. businesses are voicing optimism about growth in 2021 even as they plan for continued economic unpredictability. This points to confidence in how they pivoted throughout the year. Executives accelerated technology adoption, launched new e-commerce opportunities, reset supply chains and realized value from digital platforms adapted to remote workforces.

But the road ahead in 2021 is not just about surviving the challenges of the past year. Business leaders adopted a new set of business practices forged in crisis that are likely to change the way they innovate and operate for years to come. Executives also told us they’re thinking about more than just day-to-day operations. They’re focusing more on causes that matter to their communities, employees and other key stakeholders.

Read on to learn how business leaders plan to deal with ongoing challenges and capitalize on new opportunities in 2021.

Big Ideas

Containing the virus

Containing the virus

61% of midsize business leaders named economic uncertainty as their top challenge in 2021. The road ahead will depend on a historic and singular global objective: containing COVID-19.

Resiliency and growth

Resiliency and growth

Executives are more optimistic about the global economy than a year ago, a testament to business resiliency and new approaches to potential disruptions in the future.

Digital acceleration

Digital acceleration

Touchless, electronic processes took a giant leap forward during the pandemic as businesses rushed to eliminate manual office work and leverage new remote capabilities. 

Most companies are optimistic about their own performance, with more than half operating above 80% of their pre-pandemic capacity and 17% exceeding it.


“Businesses were forced to make new and unexpected pivots last year, including accelerating their adoption of new processes, technology and contingency plans. Companies best positioned for success in 2021 will be those that focus on remaining nimble amid continued volatility and evolving consumer demands.” 

—John Simmons, Head of Middle Market Banking & Specialized Industries, Commercial Banking



The sudden and transformative impact of COVID-19 has created a backdrop of uncertainty for the coming year, but it’s also sparked ingenuity, resiliency and, ultimately, optimism across industries.

What leaders see

Nearly 12 months since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, more than three-quarters of midsize U.S. companies are operating near their pre-pandemic capacity—though nearly two-thirds ranked uncertain economic conditions as their top challenge in 2021. Notably, by late November, business leaders had become considerably more confident than at midyear.1, 2

Expectations for their companies

Business leaders anticipate headwinds in 2021, but have improved their outlook significantly since the spring. Capital expenditure forecasts are restrained from a year ago, but most business leaders expect roughly even revenues/sales and profits.


The pandemic defined 2020 for every business.

What leaders see

U.S. businesses were tested throughout 2020, and most thrived by implementing changes quickly. Nearly three-quarters of business leaders shifted to virtual workplaces within weeks; as of late November, 84% said at least some of their employees were still working from home. At the same time, decision-makers leapt on long-considered innovations—from digital finance to readiness planning for future emergencies—to maintain resiliency. For most, there likely will be no going back on these advancements.


Most companies expect to thrive over the next 12 months

How business leaders pivoted in response to COVID-19 in 2020

What leaders plan to do

Business leaders expect most employees will return to the office by July 2021; 41% expect everyone will return to the office on a permanent basis post-pandemic. However, with so much work transferred successfully to remote employees via digital processes, some businesses might consider making their best-performing solutions permanent.


“Businesses have weathered many storms over the past year, displaying impressive levels of creativity and adaptability as they shifted to new operating models, distribution channels and technologies. The challenges aren’t over, but their tenacity has helped sustain economic momentum and offers optimism for recovery in 2021.” 

—Jim Glassman, Head Economist, Commercial Banking




Containing the COVID-19 pandemic could provide more fuel for economic recovery.

What leaders see

The pandemic fundamentally changed the business landscape in 2020, but even the biggest business challenges of the year presented fresh opportunities to consider new technologies and evaluate workplace culture.


Top challenges for 2021 

What business leaders want from government

With a new administration taking office in Washington, business leaders declared containment of COVID-19 the new government’s top priority. Leaders clearly want to see their representatives do more.

With a new administration taking office in Washington, business leaders declared containment of COVID-19 the new government’s top priority.

Corporate responsibility

For the first time, we asked leaders what causes were rising to the top of their priority lists. Three-quarters of business leaders told us they had developed at least one action plan to address the issues that matter most to their employees.


Business leaders are taking a market-driven approach to hiring and retaining talent in the coming year.

What leaders see

After four years of increases, executives expect 2021 employment and compensation to decline modestly in the coming year.


Reasons for restraining hiring

Reasons to increase hiring


Leaders hold global expansion plans at 2020 levels as they wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to be contained.

What leaders see

After running global businesses remotely and juggling continued strains on their supply chains, 46% of business leaders say they will continue to do business internationally and expect sales increases and country expansion to stay steady from a year ago.


Expected global sales in the next 5 years

Reasons for international activities

Top 6 concerns for international businesses

While perennial worries about tariffs and trade barriers again led the list of business leaders’ global concerns going into a new year, managing global supply chains leapfrogged currency risk for the second spot as recovery from the pandemic is expected to stretch well into 2021.


“It’s been an extraordinary year for the international business environment, but U.S. midsized companies see steady sales outside the U.S. for the coming year. We’ve also seen more supply chain diversification as organizations consider how they want to serve world markets in the future.” 

—Morgan McGrath, Head of International Banking, Commercial Banking




With the pandemic raging, many business leaders doubled down on their resiliency and security plans. Despite the unprecedented events impacting businesses, executives made employee education their top priority to help protect their organizations against cyberattacks.

What leaders see

While fresh online solutions were necessary to keep business moving during 2020, business leaders plan a range of tactics to stay ahead of online vulnerabilities. According to the 2020 Association for Financial Professionals Payments Fraud and Control Survey, 81% of companies were targets of payments fraud last year.3


Cybersecurity preparations planned for 2021

Top cyber concerns


“In 2020, digital adoption moved faster than ever because it had to. It’s presented unprecedented opportunity for companies realigning their operations, products and services around an exceptional digital experience. But it’s also created significant challenges for data security. Business leaders told us they will be focused on cyber risks in the coming year.”

—Melissa Smith, Head of Specialized Industries, Middle Market Banking & Specialized Industries, Commercial Banking




Opportunities abound in 2021 despite slowing economic growth.

What our experts see

The 2021 Business Leaders Outlook survey offers a timely look at top-of-mind issues for companies now and in the year ahead. To help you navigate these fast-changing times, keep these considerations in mind: 

Prepare for some bumps in the road to normalcy


Prepare for some bumps in the road to normalcy

COVID-19 has created a volatile business cycle with sharp downturns and quick but uneven recoveries. As businesses adapt to the new economic landscape, they should have strong contingency plans in place that can be activated quickly. Learn more here

Embrace technology


Embrace technology

While implementing new digital banking tools and processes may seem time-consuming, many can be implemented quickly and easily, providing benefits that include improved data and insights, future-proofed systems and increased operational efficiency. Learn more here

Remain vigilant


Remain vigilant

As companies support greater remote work capabilities and digital processes, they should develop additional business resiliency strategies to maintain controls, counter rising cyber threats and avoid disruptions to their new work environments. Learn more here.


In its 11th year, the 2021 Business Leaders Outlook online survey is a snapshot of the current business environment based on the responses of 1,095 senior executives from U.S. middle market companies with annual revenues from $20 million to $500 million in various industries across the country.

This year’s survey was conducted Nov. 13 to Dec. 1, 2020. For year-over-year trends, 2021 and 2020 data is compared to data collected in the early first quarter of previous years. 

Results are within statistical parameters for validity; the error rate is plus or minus 3% at the 95% confidence interval.


Who took the survey

Company size by number of employees

Our experts

John Simmons, Head of Middle Market Banking & Specialized Industries, Commercial Banking

Melissa Smith, Head of Specialized Industries, Middle Market Banking & Specialized Industries, Commercial Banking

Morgan McGrath, Head of International Banking, Commercial Banking

Jim Glassman, Head Economist, Commercial Banking


Chase, JPMorgan and JPMorgan Chase are marketing names for certain businesses of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and its subsidiaries worldwide (collectively, “JPMC”). The material contained herein is intended as general market/economic commentary. Opinions expressed herein are those of the individuals quoted and may differ from those of other JPMC employees and affiliates. This information in no way constitutes J.P. Morgan research and should not be treated as such. Further, the views expressed herein may differ from that contained in J.P. Morgan research reports. In no event shall JPMC or any of its directors, officers, employees or agents be liable for any use of, for any decision made or action taken in reliance upon, or for any inaccuracies or errors in or omissions from, the information herein.  ©2021 JPMorgan Chase & Co. All rights reserved.


1.The 2020 Business Leaders Outlook Pulse survey, conducted online from June 22-29, 2020.
2.Composition of all answers may not add to 100% due to rounding.
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2021 Business Leaders Outlook Webinar
Recorded January 6, 2021

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