From Dining Room Workstations to Zoom Backgrounds: What Business Leaders Learned in 2020

I have seen the memes floating around social media about how March didn’t behave last year – do we really want it back? That made me think – WOW. It really has been a year since everything hit the fan. Everything being, of course, COVID-19. Remember when we thought everything would be back to normal by Easter? By the Fourth of July? By Labor Day? By—you get the idea. 2020: The lost year…

…and the year of loss. The current COVID data tracker shows that more than 525,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone. The U.S. economy was hit hard as well, with the unemployment rate reaching 14% in May 2020, though February 2021 was strong for hiring and we are now just above 6%. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Many families face evictions now that the moratorium is over, and many are having trouble feeding their families, a disproportionate number of them minorities.

With vaccinations ramping up, we’re on track to put this all behind us. But before we do that, let’s take a look at the year that was. Covid-19 has changed much, some things likely forever. COVID-19 altered the way life looks, how we interact with each other, and the face of businesses across the country.

Take a minute and think about where you were last March 9. That’s our wedding anniversary. We had plans for a staycation at a local resort – canceled. My daughter had a college trip in the works – canceled, as was the prom she had been planning since September. I had in-person events on my calendar – canceled. We had repairs scheduled at the house – postponed. Usually, Structure for Success is swamped with hiring projects in the Spring. But March 2020 – crickets for hiring, but my calendar was still packed. Frantic business owners called me all hours of the day asking me what I knew, what I predicted, what I thought they should do, what they legally had to do. Together, bit-by-bit, we hacked our way through the COVID jungle, unable to see more than a few feet at a time.

We crafted or recrafted telecommuting policies. We worked frantically with IT teams to make sure employees had the equipment and training they needed to work from home. We worked with employees as they struggled to re-engineer personal space for work requirements. (How many dining room and kitchen tables doubled as workstations? Bedrooms? My stepson—an engineer—turned the dresser in his tiny Bay-area bedroom into a standup desk complete with a sliding keyboard.) We discussed closing businesses, even temporarily, and what that would mean for their employees, their clients, and their revenue stream. I wrote article upon article laying out the most recently updated government information, often working late into the night to update the facts and guidelines that changed by the hour—only to find that as soon as I hit Send, the information had changed again. We rewrote sick leave policies to encompass the CARES act, and we had many a discussion about how to support sick employees and keep the business afloat.

Now that much of that chaos is behind us, what have we learned as business owners? Several of my clients learned they don’t need the fancy office suite. Their employees were actually more productive at home, even with the demands of their kids’ remote learning. We learned how to use Zoom, Teams, and Marco Polo to stay in touch with employees and family, and we learned how to structure a functional weekly huddle with no one in the same room. We learned how to look professionally presentable from the waist up and how to use Zoom backgrounds to hide the laundry piling up behind us.

 As a community, we learned how many monthly subscriptions we have automatically coming out of our checking account. Do we really need to pay $10 for this or $10 for that?  (Ok, Netflix may be a necessity but what about the other little channels? Dollar Shave club? The Candy Club?).  Those small monthly expenses add up! We learned how to order groceries online and how to make colorful face masks for when we could no longer avoid leaving the house. (I still can’t sew, but my sister can!)

What did I learn personally? I learned that I am still way more productive at the office, but it’s just me in here, so that’s kind of cheating. For me, it’s important to keep work and home life separate, and I was fortunate to be able to do so. I learned that setting my team up for remote work from the get-go over seven years ago was genius, though at the time I was just being cheap. It gave me an edge when clients asked me to help them set up a remote workplace. I learned what sources to trust and which ones just feed our fears. (Go to the original sources. If you want to know what the CDC says, go to its website; if you want to know what your state’s regulations are, go to its website; don’t let other people filter that information for you, especially in the echo chambers of the internet.) I learned how to set boundaries and still give my clients the support they needed. You’ve got to eat and sleep, even in a pandemic. I learned how to conquer my fears about the future and how to deal with personal and collective grief.

As a group, I’m very proud of my clients and the transitions, transformations, and improvisations they made last year. (Notice I didn’t use the word pivot. I think if we never, ever hear that word again it will be too soon.) I’m impressed with how they all learned to manage remotely, and more importantly, to lead remotely. The face of leadership shifted last year. Leaders had to become both more engaged and more flexible, creating new business models on the fly and finding ways to stay connected with their employees without seeing them in person for weeks if not months at a time. 2020 gave us the chance as business owners to redefine what our non-negotiables are when it comes to employee production and engagement. Impeccable customer service, of course, should be non-negotiable, but what about the work day? If customers’ and clients’ needs are met, does it really matter if work gets done at eight at night – or three in the morning? Leaders learned to give up some hands-on control and trust their workers to get the job done—and most were pleasantly surprised.

What was your powerful lesson from 2020 and how can you carry that knowledge into 2021? How can that new knowledge or experience shape you into a better, more efficient, and more effective business owner and leader?

Do you want to talk it through and figure out what to keep and what to toss away as life returns to a new normal? Reach out to Structure for Success. I care about each of you and want to help you succeed in the transformed business environment of 2021.