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Washington State University
Carson College of Business Business in the Northwest Report 2021

Business in the Northwest 2021

Executive Summary

Businesses are the heartbeat of our Pacific Northwest (PNW) communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed challenges they have never faced before. When the first stay-at-home orders were enacted in March of 2020, we were unsure of the impact upon the business community. Almost one year later, the pandemic has forced some businesses to permanently shutter, while others remain uncertain what the future holds. Because of this, we wanted to hear directly from PNW business leaders and employees to get a better sense of the state of the business climate and how the region’s business community is faring.

The Carson College of Business’ fourth annual Business in the Northwest report—based on a survey of 1,050 PNW business leaders, employees, and Gen Z employees—provides a deeper look at how the perceived trajectory of business in the PNW has been altered by the pandemic. Yet, amid closures, uncertainty, and a year of heightened anxiety, our report finds business leaders and employees remain cautiously optimistic.

Businesses across our region are resilient and have continued to innovate and adapt to new ways of working. Some altered product and service offerings while others found new and creative ways to deliver to their customers. As we turn the page on new year—with the vaccine rollout and a new administration in place—PNW businesses feel they have the skills and resources to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever.


This survey was commissioned by WSU’s Carson College of Business and conducted by Edelman Data & Intelligence, a full-service consumer research firm. Fielded between 12/01/20-1/08/21, the online questionnaire surveyed 1,050 respondents in the PNW (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) including N=300 PNW business leaders, N=500 PNW employees, and N=150 PNW Gen Z employees with an additional oversample of respondents from eastern Washington.

This is the fourth publication of this survey, with previous publications released in 2018, 2019, and a special COVID-19 publication released in August 2020.

(Load times for data visualization dashboards vary depending on local Internet service provider and connection speeds.)

Chip Hunter, Dean

Key Finding 1:

The Impact of the Pandemic
has Significantly Altered the
Perceived Trajectory of the
PNW Business Climate

Prior to COVID-19, our reporting showed the business outlook was great: over half of business leaders and employees felt the PNW business climate had been strengthening in recent years. However, accounting for COVID-19, this year’s report finds only 35% of business leaders and 17% of employees say the business climate is on a positive trajectory.

Across the PNW, 3 in 4 business leaders and employees say COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their company. Among business leaders, this is an increase of 10 percentage points [pp]since June 2020. The continued effects of COVID-19 (44%) and the lack of a widely available vaccine (31%) were the top-reported barriers to success among business leaders, along with macro issues such as global uncertainty (28%) and political and/or social polarization (27%).

Business leaders are also worried about the costs associated with doing business and finding skilled employees; by contrast, employees are concerned about turnover and attrition affecting their company’s ability to succeed in the next year. Additionally, business leaders in eastern Washington are experiencing the pandemic’s negative impacts more acutely compared to their western Washington counterparts. In eastern Washington, this may be driven by permanent business closures (32% vs. 15% in western WA) and bankruptcy (32% vs. 22% in western WA).

Key Finding 2:

Employers Are Innovating
and Adapting to the Pandemic

Across the PNW, businesses have adapted and changed business operations to better operate amid the unique pandemic climate. Many of these changes—from new delivery options to offering online retail—have paid off. Of the various new changes implemented, business leaders call out the following as the most helpful to their business:

  • Increasing online retail efforts (89%)
  • Implementing mail delivery (87%)
  • Implementing door-to-door delivery service (87%)
  • Introducing new products or services (87%)

Businesses have also put measures in place to support their employees during the pandemic. Top measures include:

  • Changed work schedule (e.g., flexible work hours) (73%, +2 pp from June 2020)
  • New work protocols (61%, +9 pp from June 2020)
  • Increased company-wide communication (61%, +14 pp from June 2020)
  • New work equipment (51%, +12 pp from June 2020)
  • Implemented mental health resources (47%, +6 pp from June 2020)

Moving forward, business leaders wish to continue to do right by their employees, but they must truly understand what changes are working for them—and which are not—in a post-COVID-19 world. Business leaders will need to maintain an open dialogue to make sure they have a clear understanding of employees’ wants, needs, and pain points moving ahead.

Key Finding 3:

Working from Home Presents
Many Challenges, Especially for
Gen Z Employees

Navigating remote work with little experience to fall back on has proved challenging for Gen Z employees, and 47% report working from home has a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

Gen Z employees are also more likely than other employees to be impacted by pain points like at-home distractions (54% vs. 40%), decreased ability to focus (44% vs. 31%), and a disrupted work/life balance (36% vs. 23%).

Although Gen Z fares worse with certain challenges—all groups are itching to return to the office. After a year of working from home, most of the region’s business leaders (66%), employees (65%), and Gen Z employees (63%) feel ready to return to the office at least part-time.

Key Finding 4:

Despite Continuous Challenges,
Optimism Remains in the PNW

The start of the new year brings new changes, including the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and a new administration. Both business leaders and employees feel there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

It also helps that business leaders have high confidence in their local and state governments’ pandemic response, with 73% reporting positive feelings about the response (+17 pp since June 2020). Business leaders have less confidence in the federal government’s response, with only 55% reporting positive feelings about the response (+1 pp since June 2020).

Enthusiasm for the direction of the region’s business climate is up among business leaders since June of 2020 with 75% (+7 pp) agreeing that the business climate is changing in a good way, compared to just 49% of employees. However, it is clear employees feel more skeptical about the future of business— likely due to having less control of their own job security and less insight into the financial situation of the companies they work for.

Despite unprecedented challenges, most business leaders (91%) and employees (83%) feel their company is prepared to withstand changes in the next three years. Employees and business leaders alike feel they have the necessary tools for success—with 82% and 91% reporting they have what they need to help their companies succeed, respectively.

* All dashboards created by Nathan Roberts, Office of Technology, Carson College of Business