Chief Executive Insights

Your Company’s 2020 Survival Holds the Secrets to a Stellar 2021

Patti Johnson, CEO of PeopleResults

Life during a pandemic has resulted in plenty of frustrations and logistical headaches — but it has also fostered creative problem-solving. And the companies still standing were often able to show they can evolve and thrive in times of rapid change. Now they find themselves at a key crossroads during which they face infinite opportunity. Patti Johnson, CEO of PeopleResults, gives three steps to follow for achieving success in the year ahead.

Life during COVID-19 has included plenty of frustrations and logistical headaches. But in 2020, we demonstrated a capacity for creative problem-solving far greater than we ever imagined. Many businesses went 100% virtual almost overnight. Industries, such as entertainment and restaurants, had to reinvent their delivery models in the blink of an eye.

Successful leaders immediately saw there was no time to waste and adapted to the moment. They learned how to maximize technology to increase participation and collaboration. They found creative ways to stay connected with customers and their teams from a safe distance. They were agile enough to address these unforeseen challenges with new ideas and solutions — and then act on those plans.

It’s natural to reflect on last year’s challenges, which have lingered into early 2021. But a bigger question remains: How can we use our strengthened resilience and creativity in 2021 to continue our forward momentum?

Accept the New Reality

The old normal we experienced in early 2020 is behind us. The past year has altered expectations of how and where we work. The talent market has made an enormous shift. Most employees view work in a new light, with remote work becoming the new standard for many. Good organizations will offer more flexibility and virtual working options because those elements have moved from “nice to haves” to major differentiators. — and getting it right will be an enormous cost-saving opportunity.

I’ve seen leaders in multiple industries take advantage of these new opportunities. One organization realized its real estate footprint was too large and predicted it would need less office space moving forward. It analyzed what it really needed in terms of physical space and determined which roles would need frequent in-person interaction or occasional collaboration, and which could work completely remotely. This analysis of roles and ways of working set the company up to rethink its needs in light of this new way of work.

Another company had planned to shift operations largely virtual for years, and the pandemic pushed it to execute that transformation. It went from almost 80% in-person operations to almost 80% virtual. Not only did the events of 2020 prompt the company to turn this goal into reality, but they also let the company continue to build in a time when many were trying just to stay afloat. It accelerated the organization to a completely new and more modern learning program.

As 2021 begins, we must reset our assumptions about how we work. We faced plenty of challenges in 2020, and we learned valuable lessons along the way. Follow these three steps as you work to seize opportunities in the year ahead.

  1. Identify the surprises of 2020. What did you learn? Identify where you had unexpected progress or success you couldn’t have imagined. How did it happen? There are many examples of “no choice” changes. These quick and dramatic changes indicate that our tolerance for change is much higher than we might have thought.

    The biggest hurdle to implementing creative ideas is believing the change is too big or too hard, but plenty of organizations took this plunge in 2020. For instance, Barre3 took its fitness classes from in-person to a completely virtual format. This change could reflect a permanent transformation in the industry

  2. Define any new opportunities that 2021 offers. Many leaders are asking questions like: How can we expand virtual working? Do we need less office space or reconfigured space? Can we hire talent in locations where we have no physical presence today? How can we better use technology to stay connected? For example, you might consider using videoconference technology like Zoom to collaborate or Bluescape for training and team building.
  3. Prepare for the snapback.There will be a strong motivation to return to the “old normal” once the vaccine is distributed more broadly and cases go down. If you anticipate this push to return to the old ways, act now to make your case for what should remain from this past year. One Gartner poll shows that 48% of people will work remotely part of the time in a post-pandemic world, compared with 30% before the pandemic. Don’t miss your window.

We all learned so much from 2020. One of the most important lessons to carry into 2021? The time is right to find the opportunities in front of us.


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Patti Johnson
Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consultancy that she founded in 2004. She’s also the author of “MakeWaves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life” and the host of the podcast “Be a Wave Maker: Conversations on Change.” Patti is an adjunct professor on Leading Change at SMU. She and her team advise clients, including PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, McKesson, Frito-Lay, and many others, on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Patti Johnson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.