2020 has been a year of unforgettable challenge. Even with our country’s above-average management of the crisis, it has still been a tough year for individuals, families, leaders and businesses.
We’ve had to deal with uncertainty, fear, physical and mental health concerns, economic disruption, the inability to travel, separation from loved ones, and a continued lack of clarity about the future.
To date, New Zealand has been fortunate to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic better than many other countries, where the human and economic toll continues to mount, and a definite end point, is still out of sight.
Despite all this, reflecting on the challenges 2020 has posed, I can’t help but think about what it has taught us.
Lesson #1: The health of the population doesn’t have to be sacrificed for the economy
Prioritising the economy over the health of individuals and employees, was not the recipe for successful management of COVID-19.
The United Kingdom muddled its response to the pandemic, see-sawing between economic- and health-focussed outcomes, and has tragically lost more than 62,000 people to the virus, so far. Alongside its human toll, the UK economy declined 10% in the September quarter, after a 22% contraction the quarter prior.
New Zealand on the other hand, conspicuously prioritised physical health in its response to the pandemic. We experienced relatively short lockdowns compared to the rest of the world, and our internal economy feels almost normal again, despite borders remaining closed.
Kiwis have returned to more or less pre-pandemic daily lives, and the economy is expected to be down just 3% for the September quarter, after a 12% decline the quarter before.
2020 has provided us with a well needed lesson about the cost of not putting the health of individuals first, and proven that health and positive economic outcomes are not mutually exclusive.
Lesson #2: In times of chaos and uncertainty, it is better to be safe than sorry
As the pandemic unfolded, business leaders around the world were needing to make decisions relating to the health and safety of their team, on a daily basis.
This included monitoring the government’s communications and guidelines and translating them into measures that our teams could understand and follow in the workplace.
As most of my team commute to work on public transport, I chose to take a more conservative view of the government’s alert levels and kept everyone working from home until we reverted to Level 1, after both lockdowns.
In retrospect, the overall risk of contracting COVID-19 was probably low, but I feel comfortable that as an employer we took proactive steps to mitigate that risk as much as possible, and put the health of our team first.
Lesson #3: Values and principles supersede plans
Early in the pandemic, heading into a new financial year, I thought a lot about the value of creating plans in an environment with so many unknowns and subject to so much change.
I concluded that firm plans weren’t going to be particularly helpful in a pandemic as they could become outdated as soon as they were written.
Instead I chose to lean into our company values and develop a clear set of principles that would help make sense of our evolving environment and guide our decision making and behaviour during the pandemic.
I felt (hoped) that these principles would give Mi9 the greatest chance of emerging from the crisis in the best shape possible.
I’ve reviewed these principles weekly over the course of 2020, using them as a touchstone to develop our business objectives through the pandemic period, and have valued the clarity they provided to help Mi9 navigate an incredibly challenging period, in relatively good shape.
Lesson #4: Expect the unexpected
As we head into the end of the year and well-deserved relaxation with family and friends, I think there is a temptation to believe that 2021 will provide a clean break and fresh start.
I’m not so sure.
There is still a lot about COVID-19 we don’t understand and, as we can see from the northern hemisphere, the risk of additional waves of the virus is very real.
Effective vaccines are beginning to be deployed that provide hope for a return to normality, but the return of the economy to pre-pandemic levels of activity will still be some time away.
While I sincerely hope 2021 will be better than 2020, I’m not counting on things being “normal”, or close to it just yet. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Lesson #5: Find some time for you
2020 has been a tough year and the future remains unclear. In an unpredictable and volatile environment, personal resilience is an important safeguard. Retaining the physical and mental energy to deal with ever changing circumstances and occasional crises becomes critical.
How people achieve this will depend on their individual personalities and preferences.
As my feelings of fatigue peaked in September, I made a conscious decision to be more disciplined about reducing unnecessary evening screen time, replacing it with reading, ensuring I had enough sleep each night and was sufficiently rested, and maintaining a minimum amount of exercise each week, including a daily walk when working from home.
I’m pleased to say I feel less fatigued than I did a few months ago and have a higher reserve of mental energy. This has enabled me to be more positive, future-focussed and happier overall, despite the uncertainties around me.
So, was 2020 the year we really needed? One thing is for certain - we’ve all learned a lot about resilience, control and what really matters over this past year. If we apply the lessons of this undoubtedly tough year, we might just emerge better prepared for the future.