In the early spring of 2020, we as a human civilization entered probably the most disruptive period since World War 2. As the pandemic slowly winds down thanks to vaccination programs, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look back at the early days for some interesting lessons, especially before they fade into memory and we forget what we’ve learned.
In the beginning, everyone was winging it. Take a look at this video of Stephen Colbert a couple of days into the United States lockdowns:
What stands out is that a major television network host was using the same technology that everyone else does – a smartphone and earbuds – to get the work done.
Lesson 1: what you have is good enough, at least for now. Talk shows eventually did adapt, shipping more professional gear and lighting to hosts’ houses, but in the early weeks of the pandemic, everyone had to learn the basics of video and audio enough to get the basics done. There’s no excuse for not starting your own thing; if it’s good enough for CBS, it’s good enough for your show.
As the early lockdowns progressed, almost all desk jobs went remote and companies had to do the hastiest, most poorly-planned digital transformation in human history. Conference calls and meetings became Zoom sessions, and paper had to be converted into electrons immediately because there was no way of shipping lots of paper from employee to employee when your employees were everywhere. We won’t have 2020 recycling data on paper products for another few months at least, but it’s not a huge assumption to believe it will be down from the previous year because we used so much less paper in offices around the world.
Lesson 2: Some work changes will be permanent. While offices will eventually open back up, many companies have recognized both the cost savings and employee benefits of having more flexible arrangements for workers. Some companies like Microsoft have announced permanent work from home options for employees, to allow them to commute less. Every company has recognized that desk jobs do not require physical presence in an office, which will allow some consolidation of commercial real estate and substantial cost savings.
As the pandemic wore on, many folks in the arts and entertainment industries needed to be doing something, to create, to stay top of mind with their audiences. Fans got unprecedented access to behind-the-scenes looks at their favorite entertainers’ lives. Entertainers created content, working around the restrictions of being remote, such as the Welsh of the West End project that brought some of the best singers of the West End together remotely to create some musical masterpieces.
Lesson 3: Whatever creative challenge is in front of you, there’s a workaround for it. It may not be exactly what you had in mind, but there is an adaptation, a form that your work can take that still expresses the core and essence of what you do. This applies to all changes, not just global pandemics. Whatever the challenge is, the beating heart of your idea can still be expressed somehow.
Side commentary: science will end the pandemic, but art made it tolerable. Remember to support both.
During the pandemic, nearly every conference and event went virtual, many publishing their content for free to stay in front of their audiences and maintain at least a little mindshare. That content lives on for many events on YouTube and other video hosting sites, and remains free. Even as the pandemic slowly winds down, events remain in a hybrid model for the remainder of 2021, where attendees have the choice to show up in person or remain remote. Almost anything you want to know, to learn, is available to you.
Lesson 4: We are out of excuses when it comes to knowledge acquisition. Just about anything we could want to learn is available in some form, most of it free. We have the means and the opportunity, so if we don’t learn something new, it’s because we lack the motivation.
The biggest lesson of all, the meta-lesson of the pandemic, is that adaptability and nimbleness can save you when fortitude cannot. Many companies went bust during the pandemic because they didn’t have the fortitude – the financial reserves, in many cases – to withstand long periods of lack of revenue. However, fortitude only gets you so far. Changing with the times, changing business models, changing marketing methods are what’s needed to weather periods of intense, sustained crisis.
In a conversation with Jay Baer during the beginning of the pandemic, we asked him what his strategy was to weather the now-trite unprecedented situation. His response encapsulated the agile mindset: “Yeah, I, what I’ve told my team is I don’t care what we’re paid to do, we will do whatever necessary to help on our end.”
As we slowly exit the pandemic (and there’s still some time to go, as of April 2021, probably 2-3 more months in the United States where I am before vaccination is broadly available and in place, 6-12 months in other parts of the world), we need to hold onto these lessons and use them. This crisis may eventually end, but change and disruption will not. If we take our lessons learned and keep doing what we’ve done that’s worked, we’ll be in a much stronger position to weather future crises.
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