2020 will be remembered as the year that brought wrenching social and moral issues to corporate America's doorstep. We saw a deadly global pandemic, racial and civil unrest resulting in protests and riots, and a turbulent election culminating in a violent insurrection inside the U.S. Capitol.

In the wake of that upheaval, 55 percent of C-level executives say social, economic, and moral issues will play an increased role in their decision-making in 2021. That's according to a survey conducted in the fourth quarter of 2020 by business and technology consulting firm West Monroe.

Only 9 percent of the survey respondents say social, economic, and moral issues will play no role at all in business decisions this year -- a signal that American business leaders recognize they can no longer bar such issues at the door. Their hands have been forced in part by a new generation of workers who expect -- sometimes demand -- that their employers will act on clearly articulated principles.  

"Most of the business leaders I know and work with have come to understand how elevated our roles have become in addressing very big societal events and challenges," says West Monroe CEO Kevin McCarty. "The C-suite has an opportunity to fill a significant leadership gap on these topics."

Covid Vaccines

Executives are almost evenly divided over whether to require employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning to the office. According to the survey, 51 percent say they're leaning toward requiring vaccines for returning workers, and 49 percent say they're leaning toward not.

The split could stem in part from basic differences in workplace dynamics. In settings where employees can't remain socially distant (e.g., on certain factory floors or food-production lines), requiring vaccinations could be the only way to ensure workers can safely return -- and getting workers back onsite could be the only way to resume full production. But in many other workplaces, it's possible to protect workers with masks, social distancing, and effective contact tracing.

The preference for requiring vaccines could also relate to executives' broader plans for a return to work. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents say their teams will be either mostly (38 percent) or fully (9 percent) onsite once it's safe to return to work. That might indicate that they intend to wait until vaccines have been administered to enough Americans to make conditions generally safe for most of the population -- at which point requiring vaccinations would be unnecessary.

The Return to the Office

Only 1 percent of C-suite executives say their companies intend to fully shift to remote workforces even after the pandemic subsides. The near-universal determination to get workers back into offices is likely related to another finding: 34 percent of respondents say remote work is the greatest hindrance to their teams' productivity; another 45 percent say social distancing restrictions are the greatest hindrance.

While most businesses have long since adapted to remote workforces, business leaders have also seen the critical role that in-person interaction plays not only in ensuring productivity but also in creating the bonds among team members that underpin corporate culture.

West Monroe's McCarty says culture is what will prevent his company from shifting to an all-remote model. The consultancy will seek a hybrid model, with greater flexibility and a workweek that's less like the prepandemic routine -- wake up, get ready, commute, work, repeat -- and more focused on ensuring that employees can be in the same room to collaborate and build relationships.

"We've seen how remote work can function perfectly well and benefit each of us, but we drive results for clients by working together, and in the past year we've become painfully aware that together sometimes means in-person. That's not going to change," he says. "The key will be balance and finding the right venue for the right activity."

Driving for Diversity

It's not surprising that 87 percent of executives surveyed say they will measure diversity in 2021, and 65 percent say they'll do it by scrutinizing the racial makeup of their workforces.

Workforce metrics will be by far the most common diversity measure, but a third of C-level executives say they'll look at the racial makeup of job candidates, and 27 percent say they'll also measure the diversity of their boards or company leadership.

Relocation? 1 in 4 Are Considering It

The pandemic has caused 25 percent of C-level executives to consider moving their business operations this year. Of those who are considering relocation, 39 percent say cost of talent or living is propelling the move. Another 21 percent cite taxes as the driver, and 16 percent point to regulation.

Not surprisingly, the top five destinations for respondents looking to relocate are Texas, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee, and Colorado. Each of those states has established a reputation for relatively low taxes and less regulation while featuring housing and other costs well below major population centers on the coasts.