Global Crisis Survey 2021

Building resilience for the future

PwC’s Global Crisis Survey 2021 examines the worldwide business community’s response to unprecedented social, economic and geopolitical disruption.

From altering corporate strategy to swiftly reshaping production capabilities, how did organisations react? How are businesses integrating what they’ve learned into a strategy for long-term resilience?


Global crisis survey video image

More than 70 percent of respondents said their business was negatively impacted by the crisis, and 20 percent said the crisis had a positive impact. What common threads are there among companies that are emerging stronger and those that are struggling to tread water?

Explore the tactics, tools and processes organisations put in place — and find out what’s worked, what hasn’t and why.

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Charting a resilience roadmap for 2021

Between 20 August 2020 and 25 January 2021, organisations representing 73 countries and 29 industries shared their observations. This year’s Global Crisis Survey is our second collection of corporate crisis data and analysis.

'Effective communication and collaboration cannot be emphasised enough. Breaking down silos has been very difficult but worthwhile.' - Healthcare chief information officer, US

The first, published in 2019, revealed that 95 percent of respondents believed a crisis was imminent within the next two years. But our list of potential crises didn’t include pandemic, which had dropped altogether from the threats business leaders said they feared. Until last year, the notion of a deadly virus igniting disruption worldwide wasn’t showing up on many radar screens, underscoring the very nature of crisis.

20% said the crisis had a positive overall impact on their organisation

But the challenge of crisis management is not to predict or measure every specific incident that could impact your business.

Rather, as 2020 dims in the rearview mirror, the inevitability and unpredictability of disruption have never been more clear. Businesses that prioritise and invest in building a foundation of resilience to address any type of crisis will be better positioned to weather what comes next.

Three takeaways

Business leaders recognise that a foundation of resilience can make the difference between faltering or flourishing — during a disruption or in good times. As the post-pandemic period begins to take shape in the coming months, organisations have an opportunity to reimagine opportunities for the future.

95% of business leaders report that their crisis management capabilities need improvement

Organisations with a strategic crisis response plan can mobilise more swiftly, stabilise business operations and respond effectively to the shockwaves of disruption.

Two years ago, 95 percent of respondents to the first PwC Global Crisis Survey said they expected a crisis to hit within the next two years. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, more than 30 percent of respondents to this year’s survey did not have a designated core crisis response team in place.

After living through the past year, organisations are getting the message: Thorough, thoughtful, strategic planning matters. 

Organisations need an agile crisis response program that can flex to address various contingencies and types of crises. Only 35 percent of respondents had a crisis response plan that was ‘very relevant,’ which means the majority didn’t design their plans to be ‘crisis-agnostic’ — a hallmark of a resilient organisation.

What should businesses do to prepare for the next inevitable disruption?

  • Designate a crisis response team. When a crisis hits, your team can mobilise and adapt quickly, execute a plan you’ve tested and refined, and keep your critical operations moving. 
  • Design a crisis response plan aligned to your strategy, goals and purpose. A clearly delineated crisis strategy signals the importance of moving beyond a check-the-box plan. And your team will understand the why of your plan as integral to your organisational vision and purpose.

  • Build an integrated resilience program. Review and refine your response in real-time and in after-action assessments. Incorporate what you’re learning so that you emerge stronger from this crisis — and ready for what comes next.

7/10 organisations reported planning to increase their investment in building resilience

Break down silos. An integrated response is essential to executing a successful crisis management program and to building resilience.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life worldwide, many organisations addressed resilience planning as somewhat of a spreadsheet exercise: ‘Crisis plan. Business continuity plan. Check, check.’ 

That approach exposed many businesses to unnecessary risk when faced with the ravages of 2020. Structured in silos, resilience competencies and teams were disjointed, vulnerable and unequipped to coordinate the tactics, tools and technologies needed for an effective response.

Today, seven out of 10 organisations are planning to increase their investment in building resilience. Among risk officers, we’re seeing that number trend as high as nine in 10. And there’s plenty of room to run: Only 23 percent of our respondents felt their various crisis management functions are very well integrated.

Where to start? Examine your existing resilience landscape. Think holistically about how to build resilience. Begin to break down the silos and integrate your core resilience competencies. And put the spreadsheet back on the shelf.

62% used a crisis response plan during the pandemic

Organisational resilience is critical — not just to succeed, but to survive.

What does resilience mean, exactly? It’s the ability to bounce back from disruption. To persevere. But it’s also about being prepared to enable and secure new possibilities. As the post-pandemic period begins to take shape in the coming months, organisations have an opportunity to rethink opportunities for the future. 

And the outlook is positive: Three out of four companies are confident they can successfully integrate what they’ve learned through the crisis and invigorate their organisational resilience

How to get there? 

First, elevate resilience within your organisation. Establish governance around resilience at the highest level, designating a senior leader to ‘sponsor’ the resilience program and creating a steering committee to oversee funding and resources. 

Second, take a snapshot of your crisis management structure. Is your program thorough and aligned with your strategic priorities? Design an integrated program that clearly defines roles and responsibilities for crisis management. 

Third, begin to foster a culture of resilience. Position organisational resilience as an umbrella over your core competencies and across your technology and operations, data, workforce and financial domains.

And finally: Examine your crisis response strategy. When you understand your risks and build in the correct plans, protocols and trainings, you’re better equipped to launch a coordinated response to disruption.

Emerging stronger from disruption

Some organisations are better off now than before the crisis began. How’d they do it?

Given the ongoing economic and political turbulence as the pandemic stretches into 2021, it might be surprising to find that 20 percent of Global Crisis Survey respondents said the crisis had a positive impact on their organisation. The reasons are myriad, including sector and region-specific factors. But a crisis can be a powerful catalyst for positive change.

What are those organisations doing differently? 

Broadening their approach to risk and crisis, and applying a holistic strategy to organisational resilience by:

  • Thoroughly examining their response to the crisis 

  • Incorporating insights and lessons learned into their long-term corporate strategy 

  • Actively building muscle memory to strengthen preparation and response capabilities

At the tactical level, organisations that experienced positive impact share several commonalities. They were significantly more likely to say they’d given substantial attention to discussing organisational resilience. 

Acting on those discussions is the next step. Not surprisingly, the better-off respondents were more likely to have taken action already on gaps or inconsistencies the crisis uncovered. Overall, two out of five respondents had not yet conducted a full after-action review, but 69 percent said they will have one in place for the next crisis.

Top three areas for improvement identified by organisations that conducted an after action review: crisis management, business continuity management, and enterprise risk management.

Another benefit of self-examination? Confidence. Companies that conducted an after-action review were significantly more likely to say they are very confident of their ability to implement lessons learned. On the flip side, only 12 percent of those who did not conduct a review shared that assuredness.

Every crisis presents its own challenges — particularly a once-in-a-generation disruption. But with clear-eyed self-evaluation and a willingness to change, an organisation can build resilience to weather any kind of crisis and emerge stronger on the other side.

Then and now

Beginning in March 2020, PwC asked global business leaders whether they expected the COVID-19 pandemic to have a significant or critical impact on their organisations. The effect hasn’t been quite as severe in this regard as anticipated, but the fallout from the pandemic is historic, nonetheless — and its threats are still very real. Find out what business leaders said then, and what they say now.

‘What is the single most important action your organisation has taken so far in its response to COVID-19?’

A focus on wellness was the leading answer by a landslide to this survey question. From moving to remote work and implementing safety protocols, to assisting workers with personal hardship, organisations put the spotlight on supporting health and safety.

Some industries were hard-hit; others managed to innovate and thrive. Some countries, cities and towns have suffered exponentially more upheaval than others.

Overwhelmingly, though, business leaders across all sectors and territories said their most consequential move was to protect their teams: 80 percent agreed (32 percent strongly) that their response to the crisis took into consideration the physical and emotional needs of their employees.

In Singapore, a technology company endured significant financial losses but retained 100 percent of its employees. ‘The company has invested so much in our workforce,’ said the senior vice president, ‘and they continue to be an integral part of our company's recovery going forward.’

Organisations around the globe echoed that sentiment. In Australia, an industrial products firm launched a mental health program. A German automotive company’s assurances that jobs wouldn’t be cut, along with stronger organisational support, tightened the bonds between management and employees.

‘We have made logistics arrangements, food, and accommodations, and have paid 100% of salaries during the lockdown period for people who have not been able to attend work. We have also paid incentives to our resources. This has kept employee morale high.’

Engineering and construction chief executive officer, India

To be sure, promoting staff health is good business. As a US transportation and logistics company executive put it: ‘Once employees understood they were safe and comfortable, productivity zoomed.’

But with the entire world experiencing the collective trauma of illness and grief, lockdowns and quarantine, companies needed to adapt swiftly to keep business moving. For some organisations, that meant keeping their people safe at home — in some instances a wholly unfamiliar way of working.

A new personal resilience emerged as people dealt with unprecedented challenges: remote work and school, isolation from friends and extended family, and the endless adjustments, minor and monumental, wrought by the pandemic. That ability to adapt, to manage fundamental shifts in the way we live and work, is at the heart of individual and organisational resilience.

80% agree that their organisation has considered the wellness and emotional/physical needs of employees during the pandemic.

At a Canadian financial services firm, business leaders found value in acknowledging employees’ need for the ‘freedom and flexibility to perform their jobs while balancing against the changes in family lives.’ And a banking company leader in the United Kingdom said that ‘looking after staff and ensuring well-being and morale is top priority.’

How we fully emerge from the pandemic has yet to be written. But the common thread of organisations focusing on the wellness of their workers should continue when life — and business — gets back to normal.

How sectors have fared

The crisis has had varying effects on sectors. While few will emerge unscathed, hospitality and leisure and higher education report the highest percentage of negative impacts.

Which sectors have taken the hardest hit?

Hospitality and Leisure

Higher Education

Organisations in these sectors experienced 'negative' and 'significant negative' impact:

Industrial Manufacturing and Automotive
Government and Public Services
Financial Services
Energy, Utilities and Resources
Consumer Markets
Health Industries
Technology, Media and Telecommunications

Is ROI quantifiable in a crisis — even a disruption as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic?

PwC’s Global Crisis Survey 2021 reinforces what we’ve learned over decades of supporting clients across every sector and through all types of disruption. With organisational resilience built into your DNA, you can emerge from a crisis stronger, prepared to secure new possibilities and ready to take on what’s next.

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This research was undertaken by PwC Research, our global centre of excellence for primary research and evidence-based consulting services.

Contact us

Dave Stainback

Dave Stainback

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United States

Tel: +1 678 419 1355

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7483 422701

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