The last time we counted down to midnight seems both ten minutes and ten years ago, thanks to the tumultuous time warp of 2020. A strong start (hello, January and February) flipped almost overnight into a bewildering lockdown and, for many of us, a transition to work-from-home that we have yet to see end. Nine months later, offices are still closed, formerly bustling business districts have become ghost towns, and many frequent flyers haven’t stepped foot in an airport since March. Nevertheless, we’ve seen incredible adaptation by organizations, as both leaders and employees merge their home and work lives like never before.

Flexible leadership allowed organizations to leverage – or even create – new best practice policies, as evidenced by our clients. Companies with the infrastructure to go online went fully remote almost overnight. Others that were deemed essential or depended on employees showing up in person implemented rigorous safety procedures amidst changing government policy, stakeholder pushback and even the risk of the business’ success. Vantage Partner Carl Robinson shares: “[Against] the backdrop of incredible political dissent, completely mixed messages and confusion around what’s right and what’s wrong health-wise, leaders have been steadfast in applying safety-first protocol in their organizations – and they’ve really been successful. The effort that I’ve seen, in some ways putting aside personal adversity to be a good role model for their companies and step up, rather than recede into the background, has been extraordinary.”

Reflecting on 2020, our consultants have seen organizations adapt and change like never before. So, on the cusp of yet another new year, we asked them what lessons they hope leaders continue to hold on to as we move forward – and what fumbles that are better left in the wake of the pandemic.

 “Just a Phase”: Like Tiger King, Let’s Leave These Missteps in 2020

The “light at the end of the tunnel” concept has kept employees in a permanent state of wondering whether they should invest in a better work-from-home set-up than their kitchen table. All year, organizations have been making promises they can’t keep. Statements like “We’ll be back in the office next week” turned into “next month” and has lately turned into July 2021, fueled by Google’s announcement postponing their return-to-office date. While organizations have tried to provide their employees with expectations for “going back to normal,” their uncertainty – and by extension, unfulfilled promises – may have done more harm than good.

Alternatively, the suggestion that their employees will never go back into the office is a glimpse into a crystal ball that’s just too foggy to see anything in. While permanently closing offices is a well-intentioned and a highly effective cost-saving measure, many people will still find value in actually being with each other. A UK study found that people are working longer, more irregular hours, are exercising less and feel more isolated, despite feeling valued by their employers. The candid and spontaneous interactions of office life have been replaced with constant rescheduling of over-booked calendars and back-to-back Zoom meetings that make the days seem endless. It’s working for now, and it’s working well, but it’s not a permanent change organizations should lean into. Sure, the office as we know it has permanently evolved, but nothing virtual will replace casually walking past a coworker’s office to discuss the best new Netflix binge, or brainstorming the next big idea over lunch.

Perhaps the biggest fumble the workplace has made throughout the pandemic is exemplified by the losses for female employees. Women are working harder than ever, and many have added titles such as ‘homeschool teacher,’ ‘caregiver’ and ‘homemaker’ to their daily lives. (That is, if they weren’t already juggling these roles on top of professional employment.) According to HBR,  more than four times the number of women left the workforce as compared to men – in the month of September alone. The same article (citing McKinsey & Co.’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study) states that a staggering twenty-five percent of women are downsizing their work hours or quitting entirely. Recognizing the breakdown of the work and life barrier that many employees previously put into place can help managers understand what employees are facing – and adjust company policy accordingly.

Lessons to Take Into 2021 and Beyond

Of course, the silver lining of this barrier breakdown is that we may be establishing a new level of authenticity in the workplace. One of the upsides of this WFH era that we should carry into next year, according to consultant Eileen Linnabery, is the idea of “bringing your whole self to work.” She notes, “The intrusion of babies, pets, and other work-from-home mischief has leaders embracing the human element. We’re having personal discussions [they] never would have broached before.” As organizations move forward, keeping the employee wellness initiatives many companies have created this year, or continuing the flexibility around an employee’s sick child, will be crucial to retaining top talent.

2020 may have also provided the best leadership assessment an organization could have asked for, remarked Vantage Partner Dave Sowinski, as it highlighted the divide between the deft and deficient. Great leaders have had their chance to shine, while those who struggle to collaborate might not have had the successes they were accustomed to in an office setting. “People have been remarkably resilient, empathic, and humble. This is something that will continue, regardless of how quickly we resolve the crisis,” adds Dr. Robinson. Leaders who make decisions in alignment with a vision for their organization’s future will continue to rise, emerging stronger than ever before.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, 2020 brought organizations into long-overdue conversations on race equity, which will remain top-of-mind as we enter the new year. There is no longer an argument that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives can be anything less than a top priority for organizations. Of course, the business case for DEI has long been clear: organizations that are inclusive are twice as likely to meet financial targets and six times more likely to be innovative and agile. But 2020 has seen the “Diversity and Inclusion Revolution” amplify – though there is still a long way to go. Keeping DEI initiatives at the forefront of all organizational goals, refreshing current workplace practices, and even giving back to the local communities will only better employees and the workplace.

As we move into 2021, “Organizations are focusing heavily on retention of top talent,” shares Dr. Linnabery. “Everyone, everywhere, will be trying to ‘win’ the COVID-19 recovery. Leadership and leadership development are at the forefront.” By questioning the organization’s past, doing what’s best to manage the present, and creating a new, innovative future, we won’t return to the pre-pandemic “normal” workplace.

And that’s a good thing.


What leadership lessons have you learned this year? Share with us in the comments below!