Businesses must walk a geopolitical tightrope and be ready to respond as events occurring elsewhere in the world impact their own operations.
The business climate has been anything but predictable over the past two years.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused upheaval and seen companies scramble to adapt to a rapidly changing environment — the most visible changes have been the rapid uptake of digital technologies and the rise of remote and hybrid working.
That unpredictability looks set to continue, but there are several underlying trends for businesses to keep in mind as they navigate the year ahead.
1. A new era of geopolitics
In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the US and EU have cut selected banks from Swift and closed airspace to Russian planes. Further sanctions have been imposed on Russia's central bank, aimed at preventing it from accessing reserves.
While the crisis might be on the other side of the world, the economic impact will ripple through the global economy and reach NZ shores.
Russia is the world's second-largest exporter of crude oil and refined petrol, and the world's largest exporter of natural gas. Global crude oil prices have already reached their highest levels since 2014, and it is expected that prices will go even higher as the conflict persists. This will impact fuel, supply chains, and the cost of goods in general.
Businesses should also brace for cyberattacks, which many predict Russia will use in response to sanctions. NZ's National Cyber Security Centre (part of the GCSB) recently released an advisory encouraging nationally significant organisations to consider their security, exercise readiness, and monitor for relevant cyber security developments.
Closer to home, the South China Sea and China's increasing influence in the Pacific continues to cause fractures in the relationship between China and the United States.
Just prior to the Beijing Winter Olympics in a joint statement, President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced interference from the United States in their affairs and opposed further enlargement of Nato.
While New Zealand has so far managed to carefully navigate its relationship with China, we will face increased pressure as Australia, the United States and the UK make stronger statements about China's behaviour. At last year's Apec CEO Summit, President Xi warned Asia-Pacific nations to not "relapse into the confrontation and division of the Cold War-era".
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted at last year's China Business Summit that differences between NZ and China were "becoming harder to reconcile" as Beijing's role in the world grows and changes, and that "managing the relationship is not always going to be easy and there can be no guarantees".
With geopolitics entering a new era, businesses must walk a geopolitical tightrope and be ready to respond as events occurring elsewhere in the world impact their own operations, relationships, and people.
2. Increased employee turnover becoming harder to prevent
Since the start of the pandemic, the "Great Resignation" has gained momentum. The pandemic has shifted the mindset of employees, and seen them leave their jobs in search of a better work-life balance, remote work opportunities, increased flexibility or higher pay. In some cases, they are moving to organisations that provide a better sense of purpose and meaning, with values that align with their own.
In order to remain competitive and attract and retain workers, companies have to rethink the benefits they offer and clearly articulate their purpose.
This is particularly true for knowledge sectors — those industries significantly reliant on the use of technology and human capital. The tight labour market around the world has seen those workplaces that don't offer the flexibility and purpose demanded by their employees hindered by increased turnover in a market where good talent is hard to find.
But remote and hybrid have introduced new challenges for business.
The removal of a commute dramatically increases the pool of potential companies for employees. Someone living in Taranaki can now apply for remote working roles in Wellington or Auckland that might have previously been unobtainable to them.
It also limits the social ties that employees make with colleagues.
We have all been to staff farewells where we are told by the departing employee "it is the people here that makes it so hard to leave this job". These connections that might have once encouraged employees to remain in their job have become weaker and will see the great resignation becoming a sustained challenge for businesses to grapple with.
3. Four-day work week gaining momentum
As an alternative to negotiating remuneration with employees and becoming drawn into a bidding war with other workplaces, there has been a rise in companies offering a shorter workweek as a bargaining chip.
One example of reduced hours is the four-day work week, which is gaining momentum around the world.
NZ's Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day week in 2018 — a world-first for a privately held company.
The eight-week experiment measured productivity, motivation and output, with staff paid the same amount for working fewer hours. It discovered productivity improved 20 per cent, and employees were more creative, committed and less stressed. It has since made the move permanent.
Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes says the four-day working week is "not just having a day off a week — it's about delivering products, and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives".
More companies are now beginning to trial shorter workweeks.
A four-day week pilot in the United Kingdom begins in June, with 30 companies signed up so far. The pilot is run by 4 Day Week Global, an organisation that advocates for the shorter week. It says similar programmes are set to start in the US and Ireland, with more planned for Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
4. Wellness on the way up
Covid-19 has put significant strain on the workforce. Uncertainty around job security, lockdowns, social isolation and limited social contact all contributed to the mental health crisis and exacerbated stress, anxiety and depression for both employers and employees.
The challenge of retaining good employees has seen businesses and business leaders prioritise health and build a culture of wellbeing in the workplace that openly supports mental health.
Many organisations have introduced wellbeing programmes, which include partnerships with mental health providers, subscriptions to mental health apps, fitness classes and additional days off. Last year, Westpac New Zealand introduced five days a year of wellbeing leave, and NZX-listed Vista Group introduced half-day Fridays for all its staff.
Research conducted by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research last year on behalf of Xero showed investing in employee wellbeing can help to make a business more profitable.
It estimated that for every dollar a small business invests in company-wide wellbeing initiatives for staff, it can expect to see a return of up to 12 times within a year.
5. The impact of Omicron (and future variants)
Overlaying all these trends, Covid-19 remains present. While the world welcomed the news that the highly transmissible Omicron variant is associated with less severe disease than earlier variants, a pattern of new variants around every six months has emerged.
Since there is a risk of the virus mutating each time it reproduces, the greater transmissibility from Omicron brings with it an even greater chance of new variants emerging.
It was hoped by many that the vaccine rollout would bring an end to the pandemic, but it looks increasingly likely that Covid-19 — in one form or another — is here to stay.
New tools like antivirals, antibody treatments and new vaccines are coming on board this year, which will help us navigate Covid-19 as it becomes an endemic disease.
These will be important as 2022 (hopefully) becomes the year that businesses, employers, employees and government finally reach post-pandemic normality. In a year fraught with challenges of all kinds to navigate, that is something that should bring hope to us all.