We usually talk about time as elapsed time. In that sense, every year consists of 12 months, 52 weeks and 365 days. Well, 2020 was also a leap year, and that meant it had 366 days. While there are many superstitions around leap years around the world connecting them with bad luck, it was a sad coincidence that 2020 stood up to this expectation. But, this is not the point of this article.
For sure, no matter the number of days, 2020 is a year we will always remember. The pandemic outburst has disrupted the global economy and impacted severely our social connections. It also brought a lot of uncertainty, anxiety and stress. With such a legacy, humanity just embarked on 2021 with high expectations for a brighter future. Over the past days, we shared and received warm messages full of optimism and confidence for better days ahead.
But is a simple calendar change the only reason to be optimistic? Now that the calendar marks 2021, are things different?
In the next lines, I will try to share some grounded optimism for the new year as I feel that the dark hours of 2020 have given us a great gift. The gift of experiencing the power of opposites. The gift of getting to feel comfortable with managing these opposites in business and in life. What do I mean?
On one end, time stopped. Actually, the whole world stopped. The pandemic put an abrupt halt in travel and commuting. Country and city lockdowns kept people at home in the coziness and safety of their households. Whether meant for business or leisure, people postponed their travel plans and this had a big impact in all related businesses (travel, airlines, hotels, etc.). On top, big conferences, concerts, theatre plays, sports events were also cancelled or switched into digital format. Our social fabric was also impacted; with dining or going out together becoming a major threat, birthdays were celebrated remotely, friends connected via online collaboration platforms and social media, grandparents were kept away from their children and grandchildren, parties were postponed.
On the other hand, time accelerated. While this may sound as a paradox, it is true that certain facets of our economy had to move fast to respond to this unpredicted crisis. Healthcare and Government organizations were the first responders and had to manage huge loads of incoming requests for treatment and guidance. Not only Governments, but companies also moved fast to develop resilience powered by technology. Office workers switched to remote work, school classes switched to remote learning, conferences moved to digital formats, small shops developed e-commerce platforms. In few months only, we experienced Digital Transformation of 2 years! On top, the scientific community summoned to accelerate research. In only few months, science, technology, and top pharma companies have broken new records in vaccine research and production; today we have the first vaccines authorized and available to support the fight against the disease.
All the above fuels our courage and strengthens our optimism that there is light ahead of us at the end of the dark tunnel we have been in over the past months. As I am more and more reflecting on the above, three words come to mind that represent best the gifts of 2020 for 2021.
Less is More
“Less is more” may sound like a cliché. Actually, it was initially presented as the minimalist design trend. As a design movement, or better a school of thought, minimalism is still relatively new, and focuses on the most essential and necessary elements of a product or subject by getting rid of any excessive and, therefore, unnecessary components and features. It actually helps our eyes, and our minds concentrate on what really matters. And to my view, 2020 triggered the need to focus on that. On what matters most to us.
Less is More in the business front
Less procrastination – More action
Across education, government, healthcare, and business, organizations had to take decisions and act fast. Digital transformation projects stalled for months or years, became a priority to support business continuity and to offer digital resilience. New forms of collaboration for organizations of all sizes emerged – supported by the highest standards of security and privacy. Remote work has kept many businesses alive during the pandemic and offered a new feeling of flexibility to office employees across different sectors. Educational institutions, schools and universities utilized modern technologies, such as Teams, to offer remote learning opportunities for millions of students. And not only that. Over the past months, we saw several innovations in schools around the region that give us the confidence that our education systems are shifting from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning. Healthcare organizations utilized technologies such as predictive analytics to model virus spread trends and chatbots to handle emergency inquiries and limit unnecessary access to health care facilities. New Government e-services emerged to offer new digital experiences to citizens and to allow for remote interactions and safe transactions with Government authorities. Across different sectors, companies moved fast to digitize and automate several of their business critical processes, and to utilize tools such as electronic signatures to become more agile and more resilient.
Less stagnation – More disruption
The pandemic has not only impacted tremendously various sectors of the economy globally, but it was also changed expectations from products and services. The ability to deliver high quality services and products remotely, to offer contactless – safer – transactions, to provide digitalized experiences (e.g., virtual tours of cities or museums) is expected to drive new disruptive business models across supply chain and logistics industries, culture and recreation, retail and finance industry. As recovery from the pandemic is expected to start any time now with the help of the vaccines, the disruptive trends will become more and more visible as we expect people will still be interested into digital experiences that are also safer from health perspective. And these trends will eventually give birth to more transformative services and to new, disruptive business models.
Less reservations – More trust on science and technology
In 2020 we learned to rely more on science and technology. While there was an outburst of fake news and conspiracy theories around the disease and the vaccines, people learned to reach out to the experts to hear the truth about the virus, and to receive advice and guidance. It’s the same with modern technologies, like cloud and Artificial Intelligence. Organizations and people across the globe relied on modern collaboration technologies born in the cloud to stay productive and to stay connected. Collaboration platforms such as Teams kept us going in business, in education, in private life. Leaders in many organizations became more and more confident that cloud technologies can be more trusted because they are fast to implement, they are reliable, they are secure. Over the past months, a lot of reservations mainly due to lack of awareness or fear of change, were overcome by necessity. Science and technology proved they work, they save people’s lives, they keep businesses going.
Less “old school” management tactics – More people-centric leadership
During the pandemic, we also experienced a big shift from traditional goal-oriented leadership styles into more focus and attention to people: companies and leaders mobilized to secure employees’ safety and well-being, focused on enabling remote work, and revitalized their purpose. But the crisis is far from over. Now, as companies are preparing for recovery, the habit of caring about their people is going to stay. Companies will continue putting people first to keep them safe, healthy, productive, energized, and engaged. A people-centric transformation agenda will be a key differentiator of success, not just during the recovery but also in the post-COVID reality. Considering the big changes coming up in the post-pandemic norm fueled by innovation and disruptive business models, leaders will need to appeal to people’s deepest motivations in a positive way—to establish the aspiration for new possibilities that the organization can achieve, rooted in a broader purpose—and to galvanize people around that aspiration.
Less distractions – More focus on Purpose
Many organizations have leaned into their purpose during the crisis, going above and beyond to lend their unique capabilities to help customers, communities, and other businesses in need. In Microsoft, we aim to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”. During the past months, these words have given meaning to what everyone of us is doing every day. We have been working relentlessly to protect the health and well-being of the communities in which we operate, and to provide technology, tips and resources to our customers and our partners to help them do their best work while remote. If not already available, leaders need to discover, articulate, and activate a clear purpose. One that applies the organization’s strengths to fulfill a distinct need in the world. Then, mobilizing the company ecosystem around this purpose becomes easier and much more effective.
Less is More in our personal lives
Less face-to-face interactions – More meaningful social connections
With less face-to-face social interactions, people switched to online channels to keep their social connections. Online chat platforms, social media, and video calls have replaced face to face meetings. While this might seem a bit distant and cold, the strength of social connections is still there. I dare say, it was made stronger because of this deep feeling that we are in this together. We are faced with an invisible enemy, but this does not mean we do not care about the people in our lives. We realized we can do without meaningless social interactions. We realized that many parts of our harried, overscheduled lives just weren’t necessary. And then, we realized how much we need to keep our closest relationships stronger.
Less work life balance – More work life integration
Striking a perfect work-life balance has always been a challenge for professionals all across the industries. Amidst this ongoing pandemic, the sudden transition to the remote work environment has made keeping this balance more and more complicated. With kids at home, with care giving activities for elderly or other people in need, with household tasks, our work life balance has been severely impacted. At the same time, work and life became now more and more integrated. And this has certainly opened doors to have different conversations on what it means to be productive. It is only now that companies are starting conversations to really support employees to focus on more critical and important tasks. It is only now that many companies are working on programs to support employees’ mental health. It is only now that employees have become more self-aware about managing their own stress levels and avoiding potential burnout, and most importantly be more vocal about such topics. Recharging, renewal and recovery have, of course, always been at the heart of productivity, but it took the pandemic to increase the awareness of this connection between productivity and well-being.
Less anxiety – More focus on our inner self
In a time of crisis, the impulse is to go into emergency mode, fear, concern and panic. With self-isolation and social distancing, most of us have overcome the fear of being infected. But we should not underestimate the opportunity to go inward and pivot more into self-reflection, meditation and personal growth. The best use of my personal time during lockdown was mostly focused on spending time with my loved ones, reading books, listening to podcasts, sharing my thoughts (as I do here) and reflecting on my personal sense of meaning and purpose. This helped me appreciate the good things in my life, it helped me develop a sense of gratitude, it helped me find inner peace and joy. This fulfillment is long lasting and meaningful and rewarding.
In conclusion, in times of uncertainty, we learn to take action, we learn to trust more, we learn to lean in with purpose, we learn to feel comfortable in holding the tension of opposites, we learn to focus more on people, we learn to appreciate more our own self. This is a great gift from 2020 – a dark year indeed – to 2021 – a year where we already see the first signs of light.
As closing words, I am adding here one of my favorite pieces from Albert Camus’ work, a renown French existentialist novelist and philosopher:
Happy New Year!