Looking Forward at 2021

2021: An Opportunity to Build a Better and Healthier World

January 25, 2021

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, I think the world breathed a sigh of relief that 2020 was finally over. It was the year that was. We all learned a lot about ourselves, our values and what is important in our lives. And for those of us who run companies, aside from all the personal introspection, we learned a lot about leadership, social equity, purpose and the enhanced role of business in solving societal problems.

Companies stepped up, made new products where there were shortages, created a new vaccine in record time. Videoconferencing brought us in to each other’s homes, introduced us to our colleague’s kids and pets, and created a new sense of intimacy, albeit socially distanced.

At the same time, we saw the best and worst of humanity around us. People going out of their way to help others. Front line workers keeping us safe at their own peril. We also saw unbelievable hurt, from racial injustices to our fellow citizens going hungry to losing friends, relatives and neighbors to COVID-19.

I think we all saw and experienced enough change for a lifetime and when we thought we had seen it all, we saw an assault on democracy that made it seem like we were living through some Tom Clancy novel. But it was real. And frightening.

In the many conversations I had during the past year with a variety of CEOs, there was a lot of discussion about the need to rethink their own business in terms of a broader purpose, the new “social contract” between business and society and how they could come back better. For some this was a new revelation. For others, it was a better understanding of the importance of recent discussions about “stakeholder” capitalism or corporate purpose. But the imperative was unmistakable. The world had changed, consumer expectations rose, employees were asking hard questions and leaders were genuinely impacted by the events around them.

In these conversations, the focus on “coming back stronger” had different interpretations and solutions. Some focus on climate; for others it was serious attention to having difficult conversations on race and equity, and paying more attention to real inclusion. There were lots of discussions about the future of work and the importance of refocusing away from resume-based employment to attracting more skills-based talent. There was, and is, much discussion about the need and purpose of having an office and whether there would be more flexibility in work situations going forward. And the speed with which technology has been infused in everyone’s workplace was on everyone’s mind. The one common element was that the future will be totally different from the past and we will face many unknowns as we navigate these unchartered waters.

So how do we process all of this and lay out our plans, hopes, expectations and fears for 2021? How can we look ahead with some sense of optimism? How do we make this optimism infectious for our people? How to we take forward our enhanced commitments to our communities.? How do we ensure they are equitable and just? What have we learned from living though such uncertainty? Here are some thoughts:

1. Revisit your north star. Why are you in business? What stakeholders are important to you? How will you leave the world better for having been part of it?

2. Revalue your employees. People powered through 2020. We were all more purposeful in our communications and interactions with our employees. Build on the lessons of 2020, including creating a more flexible work environment.

3. Take climate issues seriously. Wherever you are on the transformation journey, commit to being more aggressive in working toward doing your part for a more sustainable future.

4. We now have a chance to reset and properly address the challenges that are preventing us from building a more equitable future. Let’s examine our commitments and practices to a more just and equitable society, starting with our workplace.

5. Think through the future of work. In 2020 businesses faced questions about operability in a virtual workplace—economically, logistically and socially. In 2021, among the businesses that were able to stay afloat, some even did better than expected after adapting to their new environment and are now faced with three major questions:

  • What is the true role of their physical office?
  • What rules and regulations will need to be put in place to ensure the safety of everyone who returns?
  • What is the social impact on employees working in physical isolation and how will they handle a return to the physical space, and should it be mandated?

6. Build on what you have done to advance the use of technology.

7. Do what you can to address the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on women.

  • Women have lost 5.4 million jobs since February 2020, 1 million more than men. Let’s do what we can to redress the situation.

As 2021 kicks off, let’s think about the kind of society we want, because we have an opportunity to rebuild society better, healthier and more supportive. While change won’t happen overnight, we can make the choice to do better not just for ourselves and our businesses, but also for the people who lost their lives, livelihoods and loved ones over the past year. We need to elevate our actions to address these challenges, as it is the only way we will be able to truly reset, transition and move forward to a better world.

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