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December 24, 2020

Commentary: Looking back on a year of uncertainty and upheaval

For businesses, 2020 was a year unlike any other. We navigated new remote working arrangements, acclimated to fast-changing public health best practices, adapted to sweeping changes in local, state and federal policy and often improvised solutions along the way.

Linda Varrell is the president of Broadreach Public Relations, a strategic communications firm in Portland.

But the triage days of March and April — when each day felt like its own, unique crisis — have settled into a new rhythm that looks likely to extend well into the New Year and beyond. The last nine months have yielded many valuable lessons for leaders that will also inform the future. Here are the top takeaways from the year, as well as a look ahead to 2021. 

2020 was all about the Three C’s

With so much seismic change occurring so rapidly, 2020 was all about making sure employees had what they needed to do their best work. For leadership, this meant focusing on the three C’s — caring, comforting and connecting. 

In addition to fears over public health and the economic recession, employees faced stressful situations at home. As a leader, this required patience, flexibility and a willingness to understand the needs of employees — all of which will continue to be essential. But while the three C’s were foundational in navigating 2020, they alone won’t be enough to rely on moving forward. 

A shift from to the Three E’s

To get employees excited about the vision for 2021, leaders need to focus on the three E’s — energy, empathy and engagement.

In 2020, success for many businesses was defined as simply “getting by,” and as a small business owner, making payroll is always my highest priority. But even while the economic recovery remains uneven, leaders need to adjust their mindset towards thriving, not just surviving. With the three E’s, we approach our people, processes and technology with renewed perspective. 

Focus on people

First, we must recognize our team members who have stepped up. They are our superheroes, the ones we have been counting on who we know will continue to be our rocks. Subsequently, we should acknowledge those who have decided to step out — realizing that, as leaders, all we can do is support them in their decision to move on. And finally, we must identify our employees who have neither stepped up nor out, but are simply standing in place. It is our job to utilize the three E’s to encourage them and provide the support needed for a strong year. 

Analyze the process

Second, leaders need to review what has worked and what hasn’t in 2020. Just because the calendar is flipping doesn’t mean things will be immediately different in 2021. Both leaders and employees need to work smarter, maximize time and effort and refocus on collaboration and accountability. Both of which have slipped this year. The shift to remote work has made meaningful collaboration challenging, and people have, understandably, been less assertive in holding others accountable. But that should change next year if organizations want to reach their full potential. 

Leverage technology — and know when to unplug 

Finally, leaders must continue to leverage technology — and know when to unplug. Remote work has led to the blurring of boundaries between work and home; focus time and down time. This means it’s even more crucial to establish a consistent schedule and determine workflow priorities. Just because you have the ability to answer an email at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean you should. Have an honest conversation with yourself about whether or not work can wait until morning, when you can make decisions with clarity. 

Final thoughts 

While 2020 has been difficult, it has also offered opportunities for reflection and growth. As leaders, we have all had to assess our processes and evaluate how we spend our time. But, perhaps most importantly, we have had to rethink the meaning of effective leadership. While 2020 might soon be ending, the challenges of this year — and the lessons learned from them — will have an impact for years to come.

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