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2020 A Weird Year For Growth: What can we learn from COVID-19?

No one knew what a strange year 2020 would become, but our world has changed massively in less than 6 months. Aside from walking my two dogs, I have barely left my apartment in my home city of Barcelona since the pandemic struck.

My dog in Barcelona illustrates lockdown frustration
My dog Matisse, finally loses it during lockdown in Barcelona.

The biggest change, felt by almost everyone, were the lockdown rules, which have forced a rapid change in the way we work. Prior to spring 2020, most people still commuted daily to their offices. But since then, most of us have been working from home. And for some businesses, it looks like this change may be a permanent one.

How does this all tie into business growth? How will it shape company structure and influence growth teams? Is it possible we’ll see a reversal of the urban migration trend? Could we see an exodus from the cities and the growth of rural communities and remote co-working spaces?

An erie view of Barcelona at night from author's appartment during lockdown
The marking of the COVID era from my Barcelona apartment

Certainly, one big change that COVID has forced companies into making is their attitude towards remote working. Organisations that were already flexible in their working policy have been those able to adapt most quickly.

They have weathered the pandemic better by already being set up technically for remote working - for example employees having laptops rather than desktops, files stored in a cloud, and easy access to video call software - and culturally - the mindset that working remotely is perfectly acceptable, and that time spent behind desk in office does not equal productivity.

The portable nature of the laptop means you can work from almost anywhere. Very handy during the pandemic
Companies which had made the transition from desktops to laptops could adapt more quickly to remote working

Companies that were more rigid and traditional in their thinking were caught out by the lockdown restrictions, and had to rapidly scramble to enable their staff to continue working.

In fact, the shift towards remote working is a potential growth opportunity for some companies as it opens up the talent pool massively, enabling businesses to hire outside of their city, country or even continent. I have personally experienced this change at where I work as a growth advisor, and we opened up recruitment for remote key positions in our growth teams, product and tech, and are now actively recruiting more talented people outside of our Oslo base.

For many companies, growth has been hard to come by this year, and simple survival became the priority. No matter how well you are set up for growth, there’s simply no way to thrive in an industry such as travel, where the product you sell - flights, hotels, holidays - has been effectively banned for almost a year. But conversely, there has been growth in other sectors: online commerce, delivery services, edutech, and software enabling online collaboration.

So what can we learn for COVID-19? Perhaps the biggest learning is that nothing is certain. The pandemic and its global effect was a total surprise to everyone. Therefore, building adaptability, flexibility and resilience into yourself first and then your company and product is vital to survive and thrive. And certainly, COVID-19 has shown how flexible and adaptable we really are in our approach to work and growth. Although for many it also came with a high cost of burnout, with 40% of those who experienced burnout at work citing the pandemic as the direct cause, according to one study. As evolution illustrates, the species most likely to survive is not the one with any specific skill or physical attribute, it’s the one that is able to adapt most quickly to a changing environment.

So the lesson we learn is to build adaptability into your organisation; create a growth structure that is able to continually morph when necessary. Ensure you are flexible and fluid enough in your technical and cultural set up that you are able to continue working and growing, even when the environment changes.

Last but not least, personal focus on self-awareness, reflection, letting go of harmful stress and managing the anxiety of change should become part of our operating system as human beings. This is nothing new, Buddhism is all about that, but never before this year were we given a ‘compulsory opportunity’ to look into ourselves and the challenges that COVID-19 brought to us in all areas of our lives, and grow as individuals, as families, as friends, as co-workers.

Buddhism is all about personal focus on self-awareness and reflection
I learned to focus more on self-awareness and managing the anxiety of change during lockdown. Photo by Jed Adan

I sincerely hope that 2021 is a better year for all; that at some point, mask-wearing, distancing and lockdown becomes a bizarre memory, and that businesses are able to return to some form of normality. I miss being able to meet and speak with people in person. Despite the fact that I have been able to continue working via zoom, email and slack, I miss real, in-person interaction and I would not want social distancing to become the new norm, (although I learnt a great deal out of it).

2020 has taught me that even when the world changes in such a drastic way, we can still operate, we can still get things done, and we can still grow.

As Leo Tolstoy said: Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

I believe that this year the world has definitely asked for a revision of this statement.

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