To say 2020 was a year like no other is now a cliché. This past year has fundamentally upended so much of what we’ve come to consider “normal,” whether it was the way we work, the way we interact with others or the way we shop at the grocery store.
It’s tempting to write 2020 off as an anomaly and to focus on getting back to “normal” as quickly as possible. But for all the challenges it presented, 2020 held important lessons as well. As often happens in times of crisis, in many ways, these lessons were a back-to-basics clinic on the fundamentals of business and life.
Here are five lessons I learned this year that leaders can take into 2021:
1. Do what’s right, do it boldly and trust that it will work out.
In business, we’re wired to make decisions based on calculated assessments of returns, costs, risks and opportunities. In the past year, however, there often wasn’t time or data to make these calculated, return-on-investment-based decisions.
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Our company was among many that converted overnight to a remote workplace to protect the health of our employees, provided customers with payment relief to help them weather the economic shutdowns, offered employees additional flexibility to support their families and reprioritized our corporate initiatives to advance racial justice and equity.
Making decisions like these requires reflecting on your values, not the typical “business case” process. In the case of my team, it’s safe to say we didn’t have a lot of foresight about exactly where the changes in the business would lead. But through them, we became a smarter and more compassionate company with even better relationships with our customers and employees.
2. The health and safety of your people is your No. 1 priority (and No. 2 and No. 3).
We’ve always been a people-oriented company, but this past year tested that in a way we never expected. It reminded us that the most fundamental priority for our employees is ensuring their health and safety. Most obviously, this meant adopting policies to ensure that we were not putting our employees or their families at risk of Covid-19.
That being said, I believe it’s one thing to avoid harm and another to proactively support health and well-being. Consider hosting workshops, trainings and internal conversations to support your employees’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. At my company, we are continuing to take steps such as these and make them a part of our ongoing programming long after the pandemic is over.
3. Never put culture on hold.
When we closed our office in March, we prioritized adapting our mission-critical business processes and company communications to a virtual-only work environment. In the course of getting our team up and running remotely, we learned — as did many other companies — that the activities that supported and delivered our culture to our employees and customers were predicated on in-person interaction. We had to bring the same focus to these processes and traditions as we did to other parts of our business.
For example, our company has traditionally operated a program called “Common Grounds,” in which groups of six to eight employees meet at coffee shops near our offices. When we transitioned to be fully remote, we reimagined it, set up virtual meeting spaces and sent out Starbucks gift cards to employees so they could bring a drink to the virtual meeting with them.
Many employees have said these simple programs have been as important as any other to keep a sense of community and connection during this challenging year.
4. Show, don’t say. Crises often prompt businesses to make statements about their values and commitment to the greater good. But in 2020, statements were no longer enough. 2020 was the year for action and accountability.
At the start of the pandemic, we announced a $50,000 company-wide “stimulus package,” which provided an extra $250 to employees in their paychecks. We only asked team members to use the money to cover any costs they might incur from working remotely, and then spend the rest supporting small businesses in the community. We created similar programs to support racial justice and employees affected by wildfires.
Through efforts such as these, your company can show, rather than simply state, its commitment to advancing the causes you know are critical to the long-term health and success of your people, families and communities. This requires changes to your corporate priorities and budgets.
5. Being physically present is an opportunity, not an assumption.
The fifth lesson is personal for me. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I, like many people, got up in the morning, got ready for work and went into the office. I interacted with our employees throughout the day, assuming the next day we’d do the same thing. And then, suddenly, the next day didn’t come.
As CEO, whenever I interact with our employees and customers, I draw insight and inspiration from those conversations. After nine months of virtual interactions (on multiple platforms) and even some snail mail, I can say with confidence that though each of these ways of connecting has value, for me, nothing can fully replace being together in person.
I will head into 2021 knowing that being physically present with my team is an opportunity that I will consciously make the most of, not an assumption I will take for granted.
For all the challenges and pain that 2020 has caused, it has also delivered important and valuable lessons, like the five above. Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As you turn the page to 2021, take these lessons into the new year and, now that you know better, do better. I look forward to doing the same.
Nathan Christensen is CEO of the newly formed union between ThinkHR and Mammoth HR, companies that deliver HR services to over 300,000 small and mid-size businesses nationwide.
Originally published in Forbes.