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Pacific Northwest business leaders optimistic despite COVID

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Chip Hunter

With no shortage of challenges, 2020 has emerged as perhaps one of the most difficult years of our lifetimes. When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the Pacific Northwest and stay-at-home issues were ordered in response to the pandemic, business closures and unfamiliar operating regulations disrupted the PNW business community.

Since 2018, the Washington State University Carson College of Business has released its annual Business in the Northwest report — focusing on how business leaders in Idaho, Oregon and Washington feel about the PNW business climate. The report surveyed a total of 301 Pacific Northwest business leaders across industries including health care, technology, construction and manufacturing. In response to the global health pandemic, this year’s report specifically focuses on how business leaders are navigating new, unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19.

The report shows that despite facing significant hardships, business leaders remain optimistic about the region’s future, and are confident they have the skills and resources needed to withstand the current crisis.

The impact of COVID-19 on Pacific Northwest businesses

As COVID-19 cases continue to spread throughout the world, it comes as no surprise that PNW businesses are not immune to the harmful impacts of the pandemic, as 64% of business leaders report feeling a negative impact on their business. Unfortunately, 12% of businesses made the tough decision to close permanently, while an additional 24% closed temporarily.

Although stay-at-home orders have been tough on businesses, leaders report feeling that their state governments are taking appropriate measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, with 66% of business leaders saying they feel their state governments have done a good job responding to the pandemic, compared to only 49% who feel the same way about the federal government’s response.

Despite these hardships, business leaders are confident they possess the necessary skills and resources to weather the storm. Leaders are especially confident in their ability to make tough decisions in the midst of chaos, with 65% reporting they are able to maintain emotional control while keeping focused on the situation at hand.

Focusing on the positive

Though the pandemic has brought no shortage of challenges, 19% of business leaders from varying industries and company sizes report that the pandemic has had a positive effect on their business. Among these positive effects, 29% say it has improved their company operations and 28% have seen an increase in sales volume.

Idahoans in particular feel good about the future of business — with 94% reporting that they are optimistic about the business climate in the PNW over the next 3 years compared with 81% of those in Oregon and 76% of business leaders in Washington. Idahoans are also most likely to feel a positive impact on their personal life, including having more time to do things they enjoy (89%), feeling motivated to pursue personal passions (89%), having a better perspective on what is most important in life (83%) and feeling more hopeful and optimistic overall (83%).

Overall, business leaders across industries are confident in their ability to make it through the pandemic, with 88% feeling confident in their personal ability to keep their company successful in the face of adversity.

In this together

PNW business leaders have long felt strong ties to their communities. Naturally, during these tough times, leaders feel an increased sense of responsibility to support their employees and communities.

71% of business leaders have made changes related to their employees’ work hours by allowing flexible hours, setting core work hours, or capping the number of hours employees work. To further meet employee needs, leaders plan to continue providing new work equipment (84%), mental health resources (77%), additional parental resources (79%) and flexible work hours (67%).

While business leaders have faced difficult staffing decisions such as furloughs and downsizings, many continue to prioritize their employees, as 35% of business leaders have taken firm stances against layoffs and have not considered reducing any of their workforce.

Embracing the new normal

Business leaders have proven to be adaptable to the many operational challenges brought by the pandemic. Transitioning to a remote workforce is one of the biggest changes the business community has seen in years. This year’s report shows that remote work will continue in the post-pandemic world, presenting an opportunity for Idaho communities, in that 40% of Idaho business leaders will continue allowing employees to telework once the pandemic is over.

Yet, with all the unexpected twists and turns the pandemic has brought, 80% of PNW business leaders remain optimistic about the region’s business environment, and 92% feel their company is equipped with the necessary tools to withstand changes over the next three years.

The PNW has consistently demonstrated resiliency, and this year’s Business in the Northwest report shows that we can emerge from this crisis with new learnings, new ways of working and a stronger sense of community.

Chip Hunter is dean of the Washington State University Carson College of Business. 

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